“A tentative fungo in a field of surmise …”

“A tentative fungo in a field of surmise …”

I’d like to report that meetings of the faculty in schools such as those in which I worked are universally compelling, but if they are, and they are only rarely, it arrives as a debate about dress code devolves into character assasination, accusations of perfidy, and the sudden extinction of life-long friendships. There have been, however, a few moments in which the level of discourse has risen to memorable heights. I was a young teacher, unaware that it would be decades before another inspired comment would rock me to the core, when a colleague, a somewhat crusty Ivy educated country gentleman, pitched (and I use the word with some satisfaction) the following preface to remarks on grading, or bus etiquette, or trays missing from the dining hall,or a topic of equally grave concern:

“This is just a tentative fungo into a field of surmise …” he began.

Let the word “surmise” linger in your imagination for a bit as I wander into reflection on the purpose of hitting fungos.

I sit on a crisp winter’s day, glistening mounds of snow heaped along the side of the driveway, trees standing naked before me, thinking about baseball, as one does in early February in the week before pitchers and catchers are expected to report to training camp. The configuration of the next season is in question, but spring training will begin, and a coach somewhere will lift a fungo bat and loft a high fly ball to an outfielder straining to follow the arc of the ball in the harsh Arizona (or Florida) sun. Designed solely for the purpose of lofting baseballs, the fungo bat is of little use in any other aspect of the game. It’s longer and lighter than other bats, often made of ash. Here’s where some muddle may intrude; as a verb, fungo is the act of hitting a ball high in the air. Then too, the balls in flight are themselves called fungoes. 

In the early years of our marriage, my wife was puzzled one mid-evening as we drove by illuminated baseball fields in the Illinois heartland watching men and boys practice and play baseball as the long day cooled.

 “I’d like to pull over and shag some fungoes,” I said with conviction.

“Huh,” she advised.

John Toffey, the English teacher whose phrase resounds through the years, found the perfect metaphor in identifying a lightly held opinion tossed into a speculative conversation – a tentative fungo in a field of surmise.

I share the phrase now, in my personal mid-evening as my days cool, in order to remind myself of the elegant language of baseball. It is in the heat of a match that tennis players may shout, Love All, a heartening sentiment but not in this context. Golf has given us, Play it as it lays, a useful shorthand for playing by the rules and a sporty riff on Lao Tsu’s observation “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Football’s gritty aphorism, Winning Isn’t everything; It’s the only thing, attributed to UCLA coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders and occasionally to Packer’s legendary coach Vince Lombardi, is a puzzling construction in that “everything” and “only thing” are not separated by much in terms of intensity, and yet there is a clear escalation by the end of the phrase. Other configurations might raise similar questions, as in “Survival isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Well yes, in that as a state of being it is absolute, and no, because we might hope there is more to life than merely staying alive. 

I remember John Toffey’s locution with gratitude; it is one of the phrases I most enjoy trotting out on the rare occasions in which surmise is at hand. Today’s challenge is in coming up with other baseball related terminology that can be put to use in more general conversation. There are a plethora of genuinely startling terms in the lexicon of baseball, many more than are found in other enterprises. I can’t explain why invention is more pronounced in baseball, but I present but a few of the terms any fan would recognize from the crack of the bat:

Chin music – a pitch that is high and inside also known as High Cheese and High Cheddar

Can of Corn – an easy pop fly

Pop Fly – a high batted ball that does not leave the infield

Rhubarb – a scrap, quarrel, or fight between players teams, coaches and umpires

Texas Leaguer – a ball that drops between the infield and the outfield

Worm Burner – a sharply hit ground ball

The Hot Corner – third base

Pickle – a runner caught between two fielders in a rundown

Banjo Hitter – a hitter that put together a string of blooped hits 

In the Hole – the batter after the batter on deck

Eephus – a lobbed pitch that wobbles

Cricket, the sport that may have spawned baseball, has its arcane observations. Without any knowledge of the game, we’ve seen enough movies and read enough books to know that a bit of a sticky wicket is not a good thing. Don’t go looking for help with the phrase as the word “wicket” has several uses in the terminology of the sport. Let’s agree that in this instance, the wicket is an area of the field (pitch) that with overuse or heavy rain can get gummy just as situations in life can occasionally gum up.

All of that said, metaphors have to eclipse the particular in order to express the otherwise inexpressible, thus the tentative fungo. An obvious description already in use is fielder’s choice, in baseball pithy shorthand for a play in which a fielder makes a play to a base other than first, allowing the batter to arrive at first safely. For one locked in romance, however, such as Archie, the exuberant comic book lothario who plays the field, smitten by both Betty and Veronica, a fielder’s choice means being forced to pick one over the other with clear expectation of loss no matter which play is made.

Coming in with spikes high describes the aggressive and possibly injurious slide of a runner intent on stealing a base. Ty Cobb, perhaps the meanest son-of-a-gun (an oddity of biology?) to play the game, likely sharpened his spikes before each game, perhaps to improve traction, perhaps to intimidate the second baseman waiting to be speared, perhaps to spear a second baseman. Similarly, an aggressive and perhaps preemptive verbal start to a difference of opinion might intend traction, intimidation, or injury. “I may be coming in with my spikes too high,” might be a way to indicate an awareness of the distress a sharpened comment can cause. Suggesting that a solution is obvious, a can of corn, however, can be provocative as we are often in a pickle, caught in a rundown, caught off base, rather than seeing the inescapable solution to an issue.

I’m free of faculty meetings these days, so I won’t have a chance to accuse a colleague of throwing high cheddar, high cheese, playing chin music, no, I’m just offering a tentative fungo in a field of surmise.

Thanks, John.

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