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Stepping Up to the Plate

(this entry was originally posted on my personal blog on February 24, 2005)

Every so often, I like to explore idioms. A comedian (I forget which, I'm sorry to say) once observed the United States will never successfully be invaded, because we Americans say things in ways which our formal language doesn't understand. By the time our invaders figure out how to speak as we do, we'll have moved on to another way of speaking. In the process though, we sometimes confuse ourselves.

Corie Schweitzer, at Insane Troll Logic, addressed the idiom, "step up to the plate". Ms. Schweitzer did this in correcting a mis-statement by Miss Alli at Television Without Pity. Corie correctly notes that "In baseball, the question "whose [sic] going to step up the plate" is not about "whose turn is it." The question actually means, "who's going to be our power hitter?" or "who's going to hit one for the team?" . But that answer was not really satisfying enough for me, certainly not enough to explain the popularity of the term.

I love baseball. It's part of why I became an umpire (OK, it's also a cool feeling when Mustang League teams ask for you to work their games, because they think you do a cool Elvis impression when you call strikes) . And part of that love for the game, is seeing what players are made of.

Baseball is a good metaphor for Life, in no small part because the game will screw with you. A pitcher will be working his best stuff for three of four innings, then all of a sudden he can't find the plate. A batter will pound two line drives for loud outs, then end up getting on base because he misjudges the swing and the ball plinks its way past two or three infielders as if it has a mind of its own. Other times, Baseball is relentlessly cruel: If you make a mistake, it will come back and bite you 90% of the time, whether you are a batter, fielder, pitcher, catcher, coach or umpire. You will also see the impossible at least once a week.


Into that strange pocket universe of the ball park, comes the question of stepping up to the plate. If you have never played baseball (no, softball does not count), you've never known the feeling of setting your stance with a bat in your hands, and trying to anticipate the pitch. As a little leaguer, even a slow pitch will seem fast to you. And by the time you reach the PONY league, pitchers will be able to put down a decent 80 mph fastball. I remember a rookie catcher settling into a crouch behind the plate for his first game situation in a high school game, and asking ex-Houston Astro Jose Cruz, who was visiting, the difference between a high school pitcher and a major leaguer. "Simple" shrugged Cruz, "they both throw hard, but the major leaguer can better control where the ball goes." As if on cue, the next pitch was a high fastball, which zinged off the catcher's facemask and my chest protector.

Now, imagine you are standing in the batter's box, waiting for a pitch which could come in at more than ninety miles an hour. You know that if you back off a little, you will be a lot less likely to get hit, especially since you get a fraction more reaction time. And the pitcher likes it, when you give him the whole batter's box for his own territory, forfeiting areas which would be a strike, but you can't reach by backing off. Or, you can crowd the plate a little, forcing the pitcher to be more accurate, pitch slower, or take the chance of hitting you and giving up a base. Trouble is, the pitcher won't like that, and more than a few will throw a 'brush-back' pitch, which are no fun at all. On a bad day, the pitcher will send a lesson and put one into your ribs. So, it's not easy to "step up to the plate"; you may be sorry you did.

THAT's what "step up to the plate" really means. It's taking the chance you'll get hurt for a small reward, doing the hard job because it's necessary. There's a lot of players who'll choose to take the easy way, hoping someone else will do the job, and there's plenty who'll swing wildly and hope they get lucky. But a coach looks for the player willing to take on the tough job, to meet the responsibility when no one else will.

It's rare anywhere, but it's real.


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Comments (12)

Sorry to be a tad off-topic... (Below threshold)

Sorry to be a tad off-topic here, but technically ANYTHING is a "metaphor" for life. To assume baseball is the sole ownership of that is well...naive. Sorry, but those of us who don't live in the Northeast can be a little blase' about baseball.

Just small things like that bug me.
(I'm more a soccer/realfootball aficionado)

(OK, it's also a cool fe... (Below threshold)
Peter F.:

(OK, it's also a cool feeling when Mustang League teams ask for you to work their games, because they think you do a cool Elvis impression when you call strikes).

You, my dear umpire, should know that you should never ever be bigger than what's going on in the game or be a distraction from it!


Relax, I tease! I'd give my left one NOT to have parents ump our games like we do at the Majors level (11-12) where I coach. (Example: "That was awfully close, son. Swing next time.") Ugh.

On the subject now: "Stepping up to the plate" has always meant to me that when, as a batter or even pitcher, you took charge and took responsibility for carrying the team, or became the catalyst that gets the team going. You take the burden of all upon your shoulders. Like "somebody's gotta do this, might as well be me." Be a man (or woman), be a leader.

It's especially telling to tell this to players whose parents are predominantly liberals. They look at you like "What do you mean, be a leader? How can I do that without taking into consideration the diversity of my teammates? Shouldn't everyone lead equally?" You can see it their eyes on the first day of practice.

In the 6 years I've been coaching I've had 4 kids that I can think of who instinctively knew what "stepping up to the plate" meant. And did it.

Great post. And, you're co... (Below threshold)

Great post. And, you're correct about the baseball and life connection. It's real.


3rdWaveDave,Easy. B... (Below threshold)

Easy. Back in the day, when playing poker, they would pass the deck from player to player, each dealing the hand in turn. To reduce the chance of cheating. They used knives as the marker to denote who had the next deal. The knives used buck horn handles more often than not. The markers were thus called bucks. Anyway, after each hand, the buck and the deck were passed to the next player at the table.

Eventually, silver dollars were used as knives were not fit for more polite surroundings. They too became known as bucks.

I would offer a sightly dif... (Below threshold)

I would offer a sightly different notion of this metaphor. To me, it is not necessarily "taking the chance you'll get hurt for a small reward, doing the hard job because it's necessary."

It's knowing what the job to be done is, recognizing the difficulty of it, and taking it on regardless of what the consequences are. There may or may not be a risk of getting hurt, the reward may or may not be large or small -- those are not the considerations that inform the decision to act. The decision to act is simply knowing what has to be done and being willing to do it.

Pulling it of is just a consequence, not a motivation.

As always...DJ, your intell... (Below threshold)

As always...DJ, your intellect is phenomenal.

Thank you.

Back in the days when we ha... (Below threshold)
Spurwing Plover:

Back in the days when we had LOU GERIG,JOE DIMAGIO,TY COBB,WILLIE MAYS,BABE RUTH they were playing baseball for the fun of it and not triple diget salaries

SCSIwuzzy--Good job on the ... (Below threshold)

SCSIwuzzy--Good job on the explanation. Few people know this and often think it has something to do with money--a dollar.

Also, the saying--The Buck Stops Here--denotes "responsibility".

I retired from the gaming industry about 4 yrs ago and, btw, the "buck" of today is called a "dealer button".

,,,the "buck" of today i... (Below threshold)
Peter F.:

,,,the "buck" of today is called a "dealer button"

And bless the donks who don't understand its power. ;-)

It's an even better metapho... (Below threshold)

It's an even better metaphor than that, DJ. Baseball's balance between individual effort and team coordination is a nice fit to American society. Most of any man's life is about individual effort and achievement, but the loose, largely informal coordination among our individual selves, our "little platoons," and our larger social systems and structures forges a "team" whose achievements are incomparably greater than the sum of their parts.

If baseball is a metaphor f... (Below threshold)

If baseball is a metaphor for life, is the designated hitter a metaphor for outsourcing?

Would you please stop delet... (Below threshold)
Spurwing Plover:

Would you please stop deleting the vowels it make me sound like a goverment buricrat and i dont work for the goverment






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