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A few years ago, after Pitcher Mike Marshall was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, he found himself rooming with Andy Messersmith when the team traveled. The effect on Messersmith was profound. "I'm a better student of hitters since Mike joined us," said Messersmith. "My studiology of baseball is better." Marshall is a Ph.D. candidate who worries more about facing variables during a game than about facing batters, and probably the "studiology" he elicited from Messersmith was to be expected.
Though this be madness, there's methodology in it. It is only part of a larger movement in which the language of sports grows more pretentious. Sports are being overcome by the all-American urge to complicate. Much of the news on the sports pages these days has less to do with the games played than with the circumstances in which they are played, and under whose auspices, and with what guarantees, and with what ancillary income arrangements, and whether they will be played at all.
When contests do take place, they are less an end in themselves than a means by which the players go on to other things. Mark Spitz' gold medals in swimming in the 1972 Olympics were worth a fortune to him, though Spitz as an entertainer—or, a more nebulous category, a personality—could barely stay afloat. Cogito ergo I swim. In the spring of 1976 Larry Csonka, who had jumped from the National Football to the World Football League, jumped back, the World etc. having globally failed. He signed with the New York Giants, and one reason he chose them, Csonka explained, was that the promotional possibilities—outside income—were greater in New York than anywhere else. In that same spring the Oakland A's traded Outfielder Reggie Jackson to Baltimore. Jackson did not want to go because his outside interests were on the West Coast. So was a 1975 batting average of .253. How can a player with a .253 average have outside interests?
The language of sports more and more resembles the language of politics and diplomacy, a new reciprocity, since politicians and political writers have traditionally borrowed from sports to show that they are not stuffy and that they have the common touch. An election year can hardly begin before somebody is designated the front-runner and there is talk of staying up in the pack; this candidate makes a grandstand play and that candidate picks his spots, and so-and-so has momentum but has only faced the second team and it may be different when he goes one on one with such-and-such on his home ground.
After Ronald Reagan beat President Ford in the Indiana primary, the Republican chairman in Michigan, William McLaughlin, pronounced the contest for the nomination "a real ball game." That made it a doubleheader, because Representative Morris Udall was at that same time pronouncing the Democratic contest a whole new ball game, and even predicting that he would be in the playoffs. It wasn't and he wasn't. Before the Pennsylvania primary, Senator Henry Jackson said that it would be well to come in first in the preferential voting there, "but the name of the game is delegates." Soon thereafter, the name eluded the Senator, going through to Jimmy Carter, who gathered it in on one hop, and Jackson was relegated to the bench (sometimes referred to as regulated to the bench).
When the U.S. lent Britain several billion in 1946, a reporter at Secretary of the Treasury Fred Vinson's news conference told Vinson that he had been sitting in left field and had not heard Vinson's answers. "Well," said Vinson, a right-handed Secretary, "I'm a pull hitter." The military, too, borrows from sports. During the North African campaign in World War II, the British commander, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, assured his men that they would hit the German commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, for sixes. That is the cricket equivalent of a home run. The temptation to borrow from sports also overcomes judges. In Santa Fe, N. Mex., the Attorney General and the D.A. each claimed the right to work with a county grand jury in an investigation of the state penitentiary. Judge Edwin Felter said the jury would have to choose between them. "Neither of the two players," said Judge Felter, "shall decide which thereof shall carry the ball."
Now the traffic is flowing in the other direction. When Csonka—who, like all other players, is some kind of player—signed with the Giants, no details were announced except that he had signed a "multiyear" contract. That was instead of a "uniyear" contract for players in less demand. When Joe Frazier and George Foreman signed for their June 1976 multirounder, sportswriters were proud to attribute their information about the contract to "a highly placed boxing source." A boxing source bobs and weaves, feints with a left, and then throws a right that delivers the goods. A boxing judge, Harold Lederman, replying to a letter to a newspaper from Referee Barney Felix, wrote that Felix' words in reprehension of the sport were an unexpected animadversion that shocked him deeply. He felt strongly compelled to express his complete and utter incredulity. When I look at the language of sports, I often do myself.
Lederman's letter may have been ghostwritten by Howard Cosell, who speaks of teams in "a poor field position situation" and of a back who will run unmolestedly down the field, thereby enabling his team to perpetrate a major upset, which may revivify the fans' interest or, if they are on the other side, lead them to give vent to their vocal discontent, rather as Muhammad Ali did before the George Foreman fight in Za�re when he rendered himself, so Cosell told us, into a hoarse frenzy. During the Ali- Jimmy Young fight in April, Cosell noted that Ali attemptedly delivered a number of punches. Young attemptedly blocked them. On another night, during halftime of a football game, Cosell announced, "I am variously bounded and circumscribed by Senator Edward Kennedy and John Denver." Kennedy was, geographically, on one side of him and Denver on the other.
Unfortunately, Cosell is not alone. Early in the 1975 professional football season, during a game between the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs, Charlie Jones of NBC noticed Joe Namath raging about a call of offensive pass interference and announced that Namath was holding a d�tente with the officials. Actually, it was a d�marche accompanied by an aide-m�moire, ending in a tour d'horizon. Luckily for the Jets, the officials did not declare Namath persona non grata and ask for his recall.
On NBC, Jim Simpson described David Knight, a wide receiver for the New York Jets, as "a young man not of any specific speed or any specific size who makes a living by knowing how to run the patterns." It is because Knight is of no specific size that, after he catches the ball, he is so hard to tackle. Simpson also told us, before a Miami-Baltimore game, that Miami was driving for its sixth consecutive playoff in a row. Many sports broadcasters now believe that consecutive is shorthand for consecutive in a row, just as eight straight wins seems incomplete to them alongside eight straight wins without a loss, and they would rather not take the easy way.