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Here’s a public plea: Let’s get our sports clich�s straight. Our society, as we know, is obsessed with sports. We call our successes home runs and our failures strikeouts. But as a fan of both sports and language, I’m bothered by the number of sports expressions that are off base. Way off base. Yes, some of these expressions can be excused as exaggerations, based on cruel, Fellini-esque visions of moving goal posts and unlevel playing fields. In other cases, an ignorant speaker mixes images from different sports. I once heard someone say repeatedly in the course of a meeting, “Let’s tee up that ball and run with it.” While running down the fairway with the golf ball might improve one’s accuracy off the tee, scrupulous playing partners might object. SAY IT AIN’T SO But worst of all are the established sports idioms that just don’t square with sports reality. What we have instead is a strange mix — we love our sports, even if we don’t seem to know what we’re talking about. Here are some examples. That’s par for the course for Jim, someone might say of a hapless colleague. Making par, the number of strokes designated as standard for a given hole in golf, might not thrill Tiger Woods, but it delights regular duffers. And that’s just parring one hole. Making par over the whole course would cause ecstatic delirium in most weekend golfers. So instead of denigrating par, one might say Jim just made another double bogey, or hooked another into the woods, or put another in the water. Golf, after all, provides many pictures of failure. Patty did an end run around us to talk with the boss. Despite Patty’s supposed sneakiness, an end run, or sweep, is a standard football play. A speedy running back tries to run around the defensive line, typically following in the path of a few blocking teammates. What’s wrong with this? Is running off tackle more honorable? If we must refer to some football play as deceptive, let’s consider the double-reverse, flea-flicker, forward pass to a tackle who lined up as an eligible receiver. Now that’s deception. Joe threw me a curve. He’s not as sneaky as Patty, but he did cause lots of confusion. It’s unclear why a curveball, which is one of a pitcher’s most-used pitches, would be so surprising. Saying this is like admitting one was surprised by what was quite likely to happen. Perhaps the expression should be refined to reflect when a curveball truly would be a surprise: “It was a 3-and-0 count, the bases were loaded, and Joe threw me a curve.” I’ve done my part; the ball is in his court. This tends to be uttered with a tone of complacency or even impatience, suggesting the speaker’s finished his task and someone else must act. This cavalier attitude conflicts with the reality for any athlete of having to be alert when the opponent has the ball, lest a careless defense lead to a quick defeat. It just seems unlikely that Roger Federer’s tennis opponents would say, “It’s not my problem — the ball is in his court.” We’re glad we cleared that hurdle. These words are usually spoken with satisfaction, signaling the speaker’s relief at completing a significant accomplishment. But clearing a hurdle in a race is expected, while not clearing one is a disaster. Moreover, each race usually has 10 hurdles that require clearing. Unlike more sedentary folks, athletes can’t stop to congratulate themselves for doing what’s expected. As usual, Harry’s out in left field. Jill’s ideas came out of left field. The left-field portion of the diamond, home of Stan Musial and Ted Williams and the destination of a good number of fly balls by right-handed hitters, is for some reason associated with the odd, the unexpected, and even the ridiculous. It can’t be long until left fielders react to this slight, and to the ranks of racism and sexism we add unjustified positionism. Don’t rely on Bob; he’s a lightweight. This suggests that Bob is unimportant or incapable of performing some significant task. But by definition, the task of a lightweight is to battle another lightweight, not a heavyweight, so it’s hard to see how a lightweight isn’t the right man for the job. Nancy really went to bat for Fred. The implication is Fred should have been grateful for Nancy’s magnanimity. But in baseball a hitter is replaced because the manager concludes the pinch hitter is more likely to succeed. Pinch hitter Nancy may have helped the team, but she didn’t help Fred, who was banished to the bench. Readers now know the score on sports idioms. That expression suggests a deep understanding of the subject matter. But wait — anyone can know the score just by looking at the scoreboard. A deeper understanding of the game requires more than a glance at the scoreboard — or through a column. I’ll take a mulligan on that assertion. Guardians of the language might argue that all sports-based expressions are clich�s and should be avoided. But what else would we use? Formerly, agrarian life shaped language, but today pop culture and sports set the tone, and so we evolve from worrying that someone put all the eggs in one basket to wondering whether someone is swinging for the fences. So if you want to use a sports idiom, just cover all your bases. Don’t jump the gun. Take your aim. Then slam dunk it. But whatever you do, don’t mix metaphors.
Gunnar Birgisson is an associate at Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, D.C.

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