Hot dogs, sandwiches, and having a catch: The role of nonsense debates in baseball Twitter

On Thursday, Marc Normandin, baseball editor at SB Nation, tweeted something that might have seemed a bit cryptic to some readers:

To the uninitiated, it sounds like an unpublished Frank O’Hara poem, but it was actually a condensed manifesto, laying out positions on a number of mini-debates popular among the group of writers, analysts, and fans known as “baseball Twitter.” Specifically, the debates are:

  1. When you throw a baseball back and forth with somebody, do you call that “to play catch” or “to have a catch”? (This seems to be the latest hot-button debate in sports Twitter.)
  2. Is “gif,” the abbreviation of “graphical interchange format,” pronounced with a hard g or a j?
  3. In baseball, when a team is said to have “batted around,” does this mean 9 batters or 10 have come to the plate? (Devoted readers may remember I covered this topic almost exactly two years ago, and reached the same conclusion Normandin does.)
  4. Are olives good?

Only two of these questions, obviously, are at all related to baseball, and both of them are about inconsequential matters of terminology. Then you have one pronunciation question and one question of pure taste (about a food as far from ballpark fare as you can get). Yet anyone who follows enough of baseball Twitter knows that these debates are a core component of the culture, even during the baseball season when, like, games are being played and everything:

Please understand, I’m not disapproving of any of this. On the contrary, I love it (as the following 1000+ words will bear witness). But why do I love it? And why are these debates such a feature of baseball Twitter in particular?

Continue reading

On “Batting Around”: Which Usage Makes Sense?

So, to get serious for once. The Wall Street Journal, later picked up by Deadspin, found a funny dispute in baseball terminology that I was totally unaware of: people can’t agree on what the term “batted around” means. For the uninitiated: in rare cases, the entire lineup bats in an inning before the defense can record three outs, and so the lineup turns over within one inning; we say that the team has “batted around.” But the question is: is “batting around” defined by sending nine batters up to the plate, even if the ninth makes the last out of the inning? Or is it only when the tenth batter—the one who led off the inning—comes up that the team has batted around? The debate between Team 9 and Team 10 has raged, or at least simmered, over the last couple of days, as we’ve come to realize how little consensus there is on this.

This one seems easy to me—I’m Team 10—but I guess that’s the point, and I know that it’s determined by what I learned from the broadcasters I listen to, rather than indisputably correct logic. But that doesn’t mean I can’t argue about it. What’s funny about this discussion is, like the “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” debate—also dominated by baseball folks, which I don’t think is a coincidence at all—people put all of their energy into hashing out the precise technical definitions, and none at all on which answer best matches the usage. For instance, here’s Jay Jaffe—a baseball writer I like a great deal—trying to settle the issue by analogy with other, similar terms:

The thing about this logic is, there’s no stable ground on either side. Is the 10th man coming up (which is to say, the first man coming up again) equivalent to the clock striking 12 (24 hours) or 1 (25)? Well, it depends on whether you’re measuring from the end of the at-bat or the beginning. But of course the correct answer to that question isn’t written anywhere. So you just end up at loggerheads:

So the thing to do is to figure out which usage best fits the situation. In other words, what are we trying to note when we say that the team has batted around? A good example of the kind of usage-based discussion I mean, in a different field, is this argument that Fahrenheit makes a better unit than Celsius for everyday use. The author doesn’t try to use deductive reasoning to find out which temperature scale is objectively correct; that would be as futile as it is in this case. Instead, he looks at what matters to the everyday user of a temperature scale—knowing at a glance how warm it is in human terms—and which scale provides that information in the most efficient way possible. Of course, this doesn’t convince anybody either (check out the comments, or rather don’t), but at least it’s a conversation with the potential to produce new ideas, rather than just circling endlessly.

Here’s my case. We use “batted around” to mark a remarkable circumstance, one dependent on baseball’s element of turn-taking, unique among our team sports (except for penalty shoot-outs, I guess): the lineup turning over within an inning. On that we can all agree, so the question is, when has it turned over? I would argue the point from the question of when this remarkable circumstance is evident. Seeing the ninth batter in the inning is not so different from seeing the eighth or the seventh: a batter takes an at-bat and a new one comes up. It’s only when the batter who led off the inning comes up again that something truly different has happened, worthy of note: the snake eats its tail. That moment, I’d argue, is when the lineup has turned over, and thus when the team has “batted around.”

Of course you could say, “No, seeing everyone on the lineup in the same inning is the remarkable circumstance, and seeing a batter for the second time simply reiterates what has already happened.” That’s why this, like Fahrenheit-Celsius, is ultimately an irresolvable debate. But I would say there’s another advantage to the Team 10 definition, which is that it is manifest. You don’t need a lineup card to know when it’s happened: once Shlabotnik’s name is announced for the second time in the inning, you know how out of hand things have gotten. It’s the immediate incredulity associated with this moment, I feel, that makes the expression worthwhile in the first place.

I doubt if I’ve convinced many Niners, but I hope that this is at least an angle on the discussion that can bring us some progress. Of course, some people like arguments where progress is impossible, and I can respect that—have at it! At any rate, here is Belle & Sebastian’s “Sleep the Clock Around.”

Image credit: StlAtl 032701 lineupcard by Jleybov is licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons