(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.