MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

In a word, baseball is always changing

In a word, baseball is always changing

Baseball and its lexicon evolve each season -- thankfully. Decades ago, we moved beyond the preferred tabloid phrasing of my childhood. Eliminated were second sackers, lid lifters, dingers and southpaw moundsmen. Catchers became catchers instead of backstops. And cans of corn now are found only on supermarket shelves.

Some of the phrases created in the past 30 years are clever and fun. In 1985, I asked Mets pitcher Ed Lynch to provide a sentence or two using then-contemporary baseball phrasing. He created this: "The bases were drunk, so I threw my best yakker. It had the dish, but Blue squeezed me. I had to come back with my best heater, but I was gassed. I'd used up all my giddy-up. He took me deep. Salami, four earnies. Skip hooked me right there, and I got the L."

Wonderful.

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If gray hair encroaching on the temple isn't an indication of age, this is: I've been around long enough now that I have witnessed the expansion of the baseball vocabulary on more than a few occasions. No, no, not the adoption of OPS or WAR or those other fancy terms, but phrases that include actual words.

The one that stands out most was when Dennis Eckersley used the term "walk-off home run" for what most us believed was the first time. Eck used it 15-20 times during the postmortems of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series after gimpy Kirk Gibson challenged the beliefs of Jack Buck and prompted a "She is gone!" from Vin Scully.

Eck explained it that night. "You throw a pitch, the guy hits it out. You walk off the field." And since then, sports networks, hundreds of announcers and most baseball types who type for a living have worn out the phrase. We have walk-off home runs, walk-off singles, doubles and triples and even walk-off walks. Ugh!

But it can happen that a pitcher surrenders a critical hit, is replaced and walks off the field, though not necessarily at the end of the game. So I opt for "final-pitch" as the modifier. "Final-pitch base hit" leaves no doubt.

I was there, too, when Jerry Manuel, then the Mets' manager, introduced the term "crossover pitcher." I hadn't heard it elsewhere, nor had my press-box colleagues.

To Manual, a manager not fond of matchup assignments for setup relievers, a "crossover pitcher" could deal successfully with hitters regardless of their handedness. He recalled a time when one pitcher could handle the seventh or eighth inning even if he had to face a left-handed hitter, a right-handed hitter and then another lefty.

But that was before obsessive specialization was brought to the game. Indeed, given that sequence of batters, two mid-inning pitching changes might have been required were Tony La Russa in charge of the bullpen. But La Russa's success can not be disputed, even if he did routinely lengthen games by four or five percent.

Manuel's attempt to add to the baseball glossary failed mostly because the conspicuous limitations of setup relievers negated the need to use "crossover" more than five times a season.

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I wasn't in the home clubhouse in Tiger Stadium on June 4, 1984, when the baseball lexicon expanded by one term, but I did hear Detroit manager Sparky Anderson in a postgame interview on Monday Night Baseball.

Sparky identified the game's final sequence of pitches as a "quality at-bat." And the phrase stuck.

Anderson described a 13-pitch at-bat by Dave Bergman as a quality at-bat mostly because Bergman hit the 13th pitch from Blue Jays reliever Roy Lee Jackson into the right-field stands for a game-winning three-run home run. "A final-pitch home run," if you will.

"Walk-off home run" could have been used, but Eck hadn't created it yet.

Weeks after Bergman's home run, I ran the new phrase by Blue Jays manager Bobby Cox, who still was smarting. "I don't know if it was quality," Cox said. "But I do know damn well it was long."

That 10th-inning scenario came to mind Monday evening after word arrived that Bergman had died earlier in the day. Cancer of the bile duct had taken him at age 61. I recall him being a pleasant man and valuable left-handed bat in a place as cozy as Tiger Stadium.

Because of Bergman's patience, Anderson's influence and a fat pitch thrown by Jackson, baseball had a new term, one that -- naturally and quickly -- became distorted. Once the new phrase gained traction, any at-bat lasting six or more pitches became a "quality at-bat" regardless of the result.

Not until two years later, after Jim Fregosi had replaced La Russa as the White Sox manager, was the world set straight. The Sox were in Yankee Stadium, trying to deal with Joe Niekro's irritating knuckleball. They were leading by a run and had a runner on second with two out in the fourth inning when Harold Baines came to bat. Niekro had walked him intentionally in the second.

Baines was on Niekro's pitches that night. When the count reached 2-2, he fouled off five pitches to increase the one-at-bat pitch count to 10. For sure, this was going to qualify as a quality at-bat. For sure. But Baines swung and missed on the 11th pitch.

After the Yankees had won, 8-4, a reporter seemingly bent in currying favor with Fregosi praised Baines. "Well, Harold had a real quality at-bat in the fourth, didn't he?"

Fregosi's good nature momentarily vanished. "He struck out," the manager said. "Where the hell was the quality in that? All Harold gave us was a quantity at-bat."

Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.