Commentary: Language of Baseball

By Louis A. Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – If you want to know the truth, I never could rake. Actually, I was pretty good with a garden rake but darned poor when it came to “raking” on the baseball field. Players who can rake can hit a baseball with authority to all fields.

I’ve always found baseball terminology interesting, especially new terms that reflect the times. With professional teams using metrics in a variety of ways, both in offense and defense, terms such as “launch angle” appear.

Players trying to hit home runs or wanting to “go yard” try to hit the ball with a sufficiently high angle to clear far away fences. When I played ball, there was no way to determine the launch angle since the technology did not exist.

All I know from the old neighborhood is that a fellow named Red could hit a ball so far and so hard that his launch angle had to have been amazing. To use a nontechnical term to describe Red’s baseball prowess, he could certainly launch a “tater” or two. Had Red been born at a different time and in a different place, he just might have made it to “The Show.”

While it’s nothing to sneeze at, I am proud of the fact that when I played baseball I rarely struck out. In baseball terms, I never experienced a “golden sombrero” or even a “hat trick,” meaning striking out four times or striking out three times in a single game. It’s no fun to whiff in the minors or in the “Bigs.”

Joe DiMaggio was known for his “hard 90,” meaning that he could run to first base as fast as his legs could carry him, even during a routine ground ball out. When asked about his “hard 90” wherever he hit the ball, he responded, “There might be one fan in the seats who has never seen me play. I would never want to give less than 100% for that fan.”

Already legendary is the former Cleveland infielder Omar Vizquel, who could really “flash the leather.” He was like a ballet dancer the way he moved around the bags, making remarkable defensive plays, especially starting “twin killings” (double plays) at the most opportune moments.

When he visited and exhibited at The Butler a few years back, he also showed grace in the way he applied paint to canvas. Even artistically speaking, he was never “bush” (league).

As for the “tools of ignorance,” the greatest catcher to wear them was former Cincinnati Reds backstop Johnny Bench.

Probably the toughest job on the field, catching is also the most important position except for pitcher. The catcher is the leader who directs much of the action on the field. He is also the recipient of most injuries despite wearing those tools of ignorance.

Whoever mans the “hot corner” (third base) must be as tough as the catcher. So many hard-hit ground balls are right at the third baseman. So whoever’s there has to be slick fielding and fearless.

I once played third base on a team that did not have the best pitching staff – which meant that many balls were “barreled up,” meaning that the ball was struck on the meatiest part of the bat and came at third base like a bullet.

If you were to check out my brother’s wedding photos, you would see that his best man, me, was photographed in the church with a nice big shiner.

That beauty was caused by a ball hit hard right at me while I was playing third base the night before. That’s right, I will wear that baseball shiner for all time, thanks to those wedding photos.

When it comes to pitching, one of the most effective was Kent Tekulve, a “submarine” pitcher who side-armed his pitches, which made them look like they were coming out of the ground at the batter.

Tekulve, who had difficulty making his high school team, eventually became an all-star, pitching in the World Series in 1979 (Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore). Because pitching side armed put less pressure on his elbow, he had an extra-long career.

Pitchers who have even longer careers because of the nature of their throws are knuckleball pitchers with next to no elbow injuries. In fact, some knuckleball pitchers are so durable as to be able to pitch in “twin bills.”

Imagine throwing in 18 straight innings without a sore arm. The only problem with that delivery is that a knuckleball is very hard to control. The catcher must sport an extra-large mitt to handle the pitch.

Former manager Jim Leyland once said that the only way to control a knuckleball is for the catcher to let it roll past him, wait for it to stop, then pick it up.

I love music but am not that crazy about “chin music.” Get my drift? Such a pitch has never hit me but the occasional “high hard one” keeps one from daydreaming “in the box.”

Funny but true, I remember it as if it were yesterday. When I played in a high school league, I hit a “Texas leaguer” and smoked a “frozen rope in the same game. To this day, I remember the sound and feel of the bat hitting the ball.

What is it they say? The toughest part of baseball is hitting a round ball with a round bat and hitting it squarely on the “sweet spot of the bat.”

Good players have no trouble hitting a fastball, a heater, especially when they’re waiting for it “dead red.”