- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 16, 2010

MEXICO CITY | The picturesque language of baseball lured Jim O’Neill to the game. Not English, mind you. What got to him was the jargon that fills parks around Latin America.

Take a strikeout. Sure, English has some colorful expressions: the batter “fanned” or “whiffed” or was “punched out.”

But Spanish might be more vivid, which is documented in a 344-page bilingual dictionary published by Mr. O’Neill, a retired professor of Spanish at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

A batter striking out in Mexico is “served chocolates, or chocolatized.” Far less tasty is another Mexican idiom for going down on strikes — “being served a bowl of pigeon soup.”

Americans talk about “a can of corn” for an easy catch. That’s far too bland for Venezuela’s taste, where one expression for a routine play, or a “1-2-3 inning,” is a three-course offering of “french fries, peanuts and fried bananas.”

In Cuba’s biting slang, a weak hitter is “an out, dressed up like a player.”

An “unearned run” has a technical ring in English. But in Mexican baseball prose, it’s “una carrera manchada por el pecado” — “a run stained by sin.”

“As you go from country to country, you hear that particular culture reflected in the language, in the language of baseball,” Mr. O’Neill said. “It’s close to the culture. I have no idea where some of these come from, but I love them.”

In 20 years of traveling and compiling, Mr. O’Neill has come up with about 9,000 entries of baseball speech from radio and TV broadcasts, newspapers and words sent to him by other collectors. Some are single words, most are descriptive phrases. Many simply put a Spanish spin on borrowings from English — “seif” for “safe” or “estraic” for “strike.”

But most of the lingo is local and has little to do with English, reflections of daily life that wriggled their way into the baseball jargon.

“If I were doing this reference book in English, I’d have Dizzy Dean in there, and ‘slud’ in there,” he said, referring to the Hall of Fame pitcher’s famous mangled grammar. “It’s that sort of thing that makes the game sing for the fans.”

One expression that seems to defy explanation comes from Nicaragua, where a “double steal” takes on a musical ring — “the violin’s play.” Mr. O’Neill conceded it might be from the harmony of both runners breaking at the same time — like bows in an orchestra moving in perfect synchronization.

Mr. O’Neill began using baseball’s lexicon to draw college students to the language of Cervantes.

“They were interested in sports, but not terribly interested in Spanish,” he said. “So I was trying to get them to do a little bit of both. I taught it. It clicked.”

The words kept piling up until one day his cardiologist, Dr. John Mahowald, whom he also tutors in Spanish, suggested he publish the dictionary-reference book.

“He told me: ‘You’re going to be the man with the biggest ball of baseball twine in the world if you don’t do something with this thing.’”

Mr. O’Neill, who turns 74 later this month, had a pacemaker put in almost 40 years ago and has had several implanted since, including one by Dr. Mahowald.

“Never say no to a guy who puts in the pacemaker,” he joked.

Mr. O’Neill grew up on baseball in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, going with his father, Tom — a hard-core White Sox fan.

“But I never got into the game, never, never, never,” Mr. O’Neill said. “But the language fascinated me. I could listen to baseball games all day rather than sit and watch one. I’m a collector of words, no question.”

He and his partner, Judy Scott, have also compiled a bilingual medical dictionary for doctors working in Guatemala, where two dozen indigenous languages are spoken alongside Spanish.

The baseball dictionary contains four pages of Spanish words or phrases for home run. Strikeout merits about three. There are about a half-dozen Spanish words for outfielder — gardener, patrolman, hunter, guardian of the woods or fence guard.

There’s an unusual entry at every turn.

If a pitcher in Nicaragua is getting hit hard, he’s “getting hit more than a pinata.”

Everyone knows the home umpire works “behind the plate.” But in Mexico, he’s working “behind the pentagon.”

“You go to different places and hear people saying the same thing but with different words,” said Homar Rojas, a Mexican who managed Naranjeros de Hermosillo earlier this month in the Caribbean Series.

“I hear some things in Venezuela, and they make me laugh, but at the same time, the Venezuelans hear the Mexicans, and they laugh.”

Native Spanish speakers in Spain or Argentina or Chile can also be baffled, since baseball has virtually no following there and no language to describe it.

This is similar to Americans who are puzzled when Australians or Englishmen talk about cricket with expressions like “googly” or “LBW” or “silly mid-on.”

Spain’s national baseball team, which played last year in the world championship, consisted of only three native Spaniards out of 24. The rest were born in Venezuela, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The manager was an Italian.

Latin Americans and Spaniards have always been separated by the same language. One example is the word “taco,” which in Spain means “swear word” — as in, he swears a lot, or uses many “tacos.” In Mexico, it’s a famous food export.

“Everybody knows how to adapt and be understood,” said Juan Carlos Cerda, technical director of the Spanish Baseball Federation. He said many baseball terms were made to fit “our Spanish” and acknowledged some Latin baseball talk “sounds very strange to us.”

“If a Latin American player uses a word that’s not understood, they change it,” Mr. Cerda said. “No big deal.”

Heath Phillips, an American who pitched for the Dominican Republic team Leones del Escogido in the Caribbean Series, suggested he could have used the reference book.

“There are 20 words for the same thing,” Mr. Phillips said.

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