30 Baseball Idioms

By Mark Nichol

The sport nostalgically known as “America’s Pastime” (though football now reigns supreme) is the source of many evocative idioms whose meanings now extend beyond the baseball diamond. Here are thirty of those phrases and their meanings when used past the warning track.

1. ballpark figure: a rough estimate
2. bat a thousand: a reference to a continuing series of successes, alluding to a baseball player who gets on base every time at bat
3. box score: a count or summary (from the chart on which a games statistical details are recorded; applicable to various sports but originating in reference to baseball)
4. bush league: a sports organization subordinate to the major leagues (referring to the usually rural locations of such teams; can apply to any sport but originated in reference to baseball)
5. curve ball: something unexpected (from the unpredictable trajectory of that type of baseball pitch)
6. go to bat for: support (from the notion of a batter contributing to his team)
7–8. hit a home run/hit one out of the park: be successful
9. in the ballpark: close; said of an estimate (compared to being within the confines of a stadium)
10–11. it’s a whole new ball game/different ball game: a reference to a changed situation
12. keep (one’s) eyes on the ball: maintain focus (compared to a batter concentrating on a pitch)
13. major league: significant, as in a reference to a company that is one of the leaders in its industry or line of business (from the fact that the major leagues are the pinnacle of achievement in sports)
14. off base: wrong, or on the wrong track (from the notion of a player not being in contact with one of the bases)
15. on deck: next in line (from the location designated for the next batter to await his turn)
16. out in left field: said of a person with an eccentric or unusual idea (from the idea of left field being a distant location)
17. out of (one’s) league: said of one who is trying to succeed in an area in which he or she faces superior competition or is striving to achieve too much (originally from baseball but applicable to many sports)
18. (hit it) out of the park: succeed (comparing a success to a home run)
19. pinch hitter: substitute (from the designation of a player taking another’s place at bat)
20. play ball: cooperate
21. play hardball: act aggressively (from the density of a baseball as compared to a softball)
22. rain check: a promise to make good on an offer (from tickets offered for rescheduled sporting events postponed by rain; originated in baseball but applicable to any outdoor sport or event)
23. softball: an easy, noncontroversial question
24. step up to the plate: take responsibility (compared to a player taking his turn at bat)
25. strike out: fail, especially repeatedly
26. strikes against (one): said of more than one disadvantage or mistake a person has against him or her
27. swing for the fences: perform with great effort or intensity (as compared to a baseball player trying to hit a home run)
28. three strikes and you’re out: a reference to someone being given three chances to succeed (analogous to the three strikes a hitter is allowed before being called out)
29. throw (one) a curve: surprise someone with something unexpected or not expected as presented (as compared to a curveball)
30. touch base: contact (compared to a player landing a foot on a base)

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9 Responses to “30 Baseball Idioms”

  • Joe Cullin

    Another good one: small ball. It seems to be a popular term in basketball lately, too.

    Here’s a recent article that seems largely to be based on a misunderstanding of that idiom:

    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/how-the-new-york-times-sandbagged-bernie-sanders-20160315

    The author took “small ball” to be an insult (a comment about Bernie Sanders’s anatomy), rather than a non-insulting description of his tactics.

  • Lowell Williams

    I remember explaining some of these to a co-worker who was German. From there we went into “Yogi-isms” aka Yogi Berra quotes, i.e. “No one goes there any more, it’s too crowded.”

  • Roberta B.

    To describe someone’s tactics as “small ball” actually IS kind of an insult. It means someone doesn’t try (or can’t) make big hits or hit home runs (i.e., win big or legitimately). The article referenced seemed to imply that. However, it looked to me like the author was trying include double entendre in the article to sound clever, and it wasn’t necessary to make the point.

    Also, with reference to the idiom to “bat a thousand,” it’s not based on a batter who gets on base every time (sometime due to a mistake or error by the other team), but one who gets a HIT every time – one hit for every time “at bat.” It’s perfection. It’s 100%, but because average percentage is reported with 3 digits after the decimal, 100% becomes 1.000, or a thousand.

  • Jevon Jaconi

    I balk at this; :).

  • Agua Caliente

    A former manager of mine was “sent out to right field”—in other words, he was given fewer responsibilities and actually moved to another location. Also, I could not begin to count the number of times I have heard “ballpark” verbed, as in, “Could you ballpark that for me?” I believe I have heard every one of the 30 idioms used in a business context.

    On a tangential note, I bristle every time someone uses “quarter pole” incorrectly. That is from horse racing and means a quarter-mile to go in the race—never a quarter-mile from the start. It’s used incorrectly more often than not.

  • Gregory Bryce

    Roberta B., you said:
    «To describe someone’s tactics as “small ball” actually IS kind of an insult. It means someone doesn’t try (or can’t) make big hits or hit home runs (i.e., win big or legitimately). »

    Though I agree that the edited article about Mr. Sanders uses “small-ball” in a sneering tone to suggest a minor impact, I have always heard it used by baseball announcers or analysts in an admiring manner.
    “The Mudville Hens don’t get many home runs or doubles, it’s true, but they play ‘small ball’ very effectively. When they’re down 4 to 2 in the seventh, they get a runner to first however they can, on a walk or a shallow hit to the outfield. He steals second, then the next batter advances him to third with a perfect bunt. The runner then scores on a routine fly ball or when any fielder hesitates with his throw.”
    – Toronto Blue Jays’ fan

  • Roberta B.

    Gregory Bryce……..in other words, “small ball ” is something to be admired by finding another way to win without making big hits. Ok, I’ll buy that.

  • Anne-Marie

    I thought “go to bat for” was synonymous with a pinch hitter.

  • Agua Caliente

    Anne-Marie,
    I think in the context of baseball, you’re on the right track. However, in the corporate world “go to bat for” means exactly what the list says it does: to support someone. There can be a further implication that by doing so, one is taking a risk by giving such support. One might hear, for example, “I went to bat for you with senior management about your project.” This means that the “batter” expressed support, usually firmly, not that the person is a substitute. Good catch!

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