Sports metaphors for the unsporty
January 20, 2013 6:42 PM   Subscribe

I came across the phrase "in his/her/my wheelhouse" last year for the first time and was shocked to learn there's an entire genre of writing with its own set of metaphors that I know nothing about. Sportswriting!

I've tried to collect more metaphors or other descriptive phrases used primarily in sports (for example, "in form" or "in the paint") but I don't want ones that have crossed into everyday parlance. So leaving out "knock-out" or "home-run" or any other terms that even unathletic non-ESPN readers would know, what turns of phrases are especially beloved of sportswriters and sports fans?
posted by spamandkimchi to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "He stood on his head"/"She stood on her head" is a hockey phrase used to mean that a goalie played spectacularly.
posted by thisclickableme at 6:53 PM on January 20, 2013

Chin music and high cheese.
posted by vrakatar at 6:57 PM on January 20, 2013

Best answer: "He outkicked his coverage". It's usually used to refer to someone that is dating someone 'out of their league', but I think it can be used in any situation involving a lucky, unlikely break.
posted by Ufez Jones at 6:57 PM on January 20, 2013

"Going yard" means hitting it out of the park. Chin music is a high inside fastball, high cheese a fastball high and outside the strike zone, I think.
posted by vrakatar at 7:00 PM on January 20, 2013

"He gets his uniform dirty" is usually used in baseball to imply a guy who isn't very good, but tries really hard. Usually he's also a short white dude. He may also "play the game the right way".
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:02 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Toe the line"
posted by jimmereeno at 7:02 PM on January 20, 2013

Best answer: can of corn

A high, easy-to-catch, fly ball hit to the outfield. The phrase is said to have originated in the nineteenth-century and relates to an old-time grocer's method of getting canned goods down from a high shelf. Using a stick with a hook on the end, a grocer could tip a can so that it would fall for an easy catch into his apron. One theory for use of corn as the canned good in the phrase is that a can of corn was considered the easiest "catch" as corn was the best selling vegetable in the store and so was heavily stocked on the lowest shelves. Another theory is that the corn refers to the practice in the very early days of baseball of calling the outfield the "corn field," especially in early amateur baseball where the outfield may have been a farm field. Frequently used by Chicago White Sox broadcaster Ken "The Hawk" Harrelson. Bob Prince, Pittsburgh Pirates' announcer, used a variation, 'A #8 CAN OF GOLDEN BANTAM'. Also, a phrase used to refer to something that is not challenging. Informally, can of corn may be used as a phrase to describe mild excitement, personal acknowledgement or recognition of significance
posted by vrakatar at 7:05 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

"He gets his uniform dirty" is usually used in baseball to imply a guy who isn't very good, but tries really hard. Usually he's also a short white dude. He may also "play the game the right way".

See also: Lunch Pail
posted by Ufez Jones at 7:05 PM on January 20, 2013

Bagel: Zero on the scoreboard.

Bread Stick: You finally scored a run point or whatever. Your zero is changed to a one on the board.

Probably originated in beach volleyball.
posted by notreally at 7:15 PM on January 20, 2013

More volleyball. Indoor this time. Defensively you dive for a ball and can only manage to get your hand (flat as a pancake) between the floor and the falling ball. It bounces up off your hand giving a team mate a chance to continue the play. Hence the "pancake" play.
posted by notreally at 7:18 PM on January 20, 2013

Best answer: The late, great Chick Hearn made up many of the basketball phrases you hear today, including slam dunk, air ball, dribble drive and ticky-tack foul. This list has a bunch of his colorful phrases, like "The mustard's come off the hotdog" and "charity stripe" as well as soundbites, too.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:31 PM on January 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Up by the peanut butter" is my favorite hockey term, referring to a goal that is scored in the upper section of the net, or "top shelf", ergo, up where the peanut butter is stored.
posted by platinum at 7:40 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

To punch above your weight class or hit above your average is to overachieve/exceed expectations.

A bagel is a zero on the scoreboard.

In the NBA, a trillion is nine zeros in the box score (preceded of course by a digit--for minutes played, so you might say "Brian Scalabrine rocked a nine trillion!" meaning he played 9 minutes, scored zero points, zero three pointers, zero free throws, zero offensive rebounds, zero defensive rebounds, zero total rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, zero blocks. Double-digit trillions are rare and prized by cognoscenti.

To clean the glass in basketball is to rebound well; that is, to collect many missed shots after they miss.

To flop (in basketball and, of course, soccer, although it is unjustly far less stigmatized in that sport) is to either pretend to be fouled by throwing yourself at the floor or to dramatize minor contact with exaggerated body reaction in order to draw the referee's attention and get a foul called. The NBA instituted penalties for egregious flopping this year.

To break ankles in basketball is to execute a dribble move (usually a crossover) so deceptive that the person defending you is either frozen, helpless as you drive past him/her or falls down completely in utter humiliation at your prowess with your handles (ball control skill).

A granny is an underhand shot in basketball. Nobody's seriously done this since Rick Barry shot his free throws this way, although many lobbied Shaquille O'Neal to give it a try, believing that anything would be better than his atrocious performance at the charity stripe (free throw line).

In rugby, taking a knee means calling for an injury stoppage. You literally kneel.

In baseball, an eephus (sometimes "ephus") is a high, incredibly slow pitch, far slower and more looping than even the junkiest curve (junk in baseball means slow breaking pitches, esp. curveballs). Of current players, the only one I know who occasionally tosses the eephus is Vicente Padilla.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:58 PM on January 20, 2013

My husband says: in football, a "nickel formation" is when you add a fifth defensive back to a defense--a dime is when you have six defensive backs. When you have three safeties out of five defensive backs, you have a big nickel.

(I don't get it either.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:22 PM on January 20, 2013

Not a sports fan, but I worked in an office where everyone talked something being in someone's wheelhouse and needing to run traps on something before moving ahead. So, "running traps." I believe the phrase has a relation to football and also hunting.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:00 PM on January 20, 2013

"In the zone" - can be used in almost any sport, but most often basketball. It refers to someone who just can't miss.

"Bunny" - also used mostly in basketball. Refers to a shot that is almost impossible to miss (and is most often used when a player does manage to miss said shot. "Oh, he shoulda had that bunny."

"Pick six" - in football, an interception (getting intercepted is also called getting picked off) that's returned for a touchdown (worth six points.) Sometimes used in real life to describe a situation that gets suddenly and shockingly reversed. For example, during the presidential debates, my friends and I were calling the moment when Romney was corrected by the moderator as a pick-six for Obama; it turned an attack by Romney into a won point for Obama.

"Hail Mary" - another football term. A Hail Mary is a desperation pass play at the end of the first half or the game where the quarterback throws the ball to the end zone and hopes like hell one of his receivers can catch it. The play seldom succeeds, hence the name. You'll hear that used sometimes in certain situations; "The CEO of Acme Widgets is trying to raise money to avoid bankruptcy by holding a fire sale, which looks like a Hail Mary to me."
posted by azpenguin at 9:12 PM on January 20, 2013

A "hat trick" in hockey means a player made three scores in a game. (It's a reference to juggling, where the juggler ends up tossing three balls in the air at the end of his act, and catches them all in his hat.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:16 PM on January 20, 2013

There seems to several accounts for the origin of "hat trick," but I've never heard the juggling one. Wikipedia says it came from cricket (taking three wickets in three balls, and then being given a hat). There's a few for hockey alone that developed a century later. And fans will literally throw caps onto the ice if a hometeam player gets one.

I guess there's the visual metaphor of the octopus in hockey, each leg representing the eight wins it took in the old days to win the playoffs (two rounds of four-of-seven). It takes sixteen wins now, but once in a while Detroit Red Wings fans will somehow sneak one into the arena to throw on the ice at the right time.

"Beast" has become a popular word for any athlete who's really, really good.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:28 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

"clutch" = can be depended on to make the plays needed to win when the stakes are very high. Like if their team is down one score and they need a touchdown to win, and the quarterback drives them down the field to the end zone. Or makes a brilliant throw in a tight window on fourth down to keep the drive alive. That sort of thing. "That QB is clutch"
posted by citron at 9:29 PM on January 20, 2013

Warning track power. Meaning pretty good, but not great, or not good enough, depending. Referring to someone who can hit the ball to the warning track (almost to the wall) but not quite out of the park.
posted by bongo_x at 9:38 PM on January 20, 2013

In hockey:

soft hands : good puckhandling skills. If you don't have these, you have "hands of stone"

to dangle : to hold out the puck as bait, tempting the opposing goalie commit to moving in one direction before yanking it away at the last moment to shoot in another direction

to deke : to get past an opponent by moving the puck one way, and then quickly changing direction

to dive : pretending to be fouled and falling to the ice in order to draw a penalty

to rob : when a goalie makes an improbable save

looking for a dance : looking for a fight

pylon : a player who is terrible at defence or makes no effort at defence (you can skate past him as easily as you would a pylon)

floater : a player who doesn't put in any effort in skating or defending, and kind of just idly drifts about aimlessly

changing on the fly : making player substitutions while play is active

five-hole : space between the goalie's legs; "going five-hole" is to shoot the puck between the goalie's legs
posted by emeiji at 9:41 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

In golf, taking a mulligan means pretending your last shot never happened and just doing it over. It's a "do-over." Obviously not allowed on the pro circuit.

Also in golf, a dogleg is a fairway that bends in the middle, especially when the result is a green that cannot be seen from the tee box.

In basketball an and one is a made basket in conjunction with a foul, thus giving the shooter a chance to add one point to the two (or three) he or she has just scored.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:42 PM on January 20, 2013

An abbreviated collection of "most useful/most frequently employed" cliches from the fields of my sports expertise/fandom:
  • "(put) on his/her/the back foot" (cricket) - put on the defensive/made uncomfortable/challenged. (as by a difficult cricket delivery.)
  • "styles make fights" (boxing) - a near-universal aphorism describing why the best man/woman may not have won that day; while arguably superior in the long-run, his/her style was a poor match for the opponent.
  • "Like kissing your sister" (hockey/association football) - used to describe a tie game. Useful in describing an outcome that is neither good or bad.
  • "(in) the bullpen" (baseball) - describing a force kept in reserve, but at the ready (as are relief pitchers in the sport of baseball)
  • "pound for pound" (boxing) - employed when comparing boxers of different weight classes. Synonymous with: "Ignoring the obvious differences". Example: "Mike Tyson (heavyweight, 220lbs) was great, but pound-for-pound, Sugar Ray Robinson (welterweight, 147lbs) was a better puncher."
  • "Changeup" (baseball), or "Googly" (cricket) - not similar at all in mechanics or action, but similar in that they are used to describe something that is employed in a tricky way to take someone by surprise and to gain an advantage.
  • "Payoff pitch" (baseball) - describing an action -- after a long series of earlier, anticipatory actions -- that will more likely than not result in some definitive resolution.
  • "(a) can of corn" (baseball) - Something easily dealt with/something of trivial difficulty.
  • "(Marquis of) Queensbury Rules" (boxing) - an agreed-upon/respected set of preconditions. Rules that allow -- as near as possible -- a "fair fight".
  • "speed kills" (many sports) - a play on a popular anti-drug message, now enshrined as a cliche describing the game-changing advantage that a faster opponent brings to the table in an athletic contest.
  • "The man who beat the man who beat the man..."/"To be the man you gotta beat the man" (boxing/professional wrestling) - The person who has demonstrated to everyone's satisfaction that he/she is the best at his/her art, by more-or-less objective methods. Describing the idea of the "lineal champion" / Ric Flair, respectively.
  • "money in the bank" (boxing) - used to describe early-fight concentrated punches to the body, which (conventional wisdom dictates) pays dividends in the form of fatigue and vulnerability in your opponent in the late rounds.
(Interesting question, these are just what I could finagle in a few minutes; if I thnk of more I'll chime in later.)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 9:43 PM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

In baseball, a LOOGY is a left-handed reliever who isn't particularly good but benefits from the advantage of pitching to left-handed hitters only. It stands for "Left-handed One Out Guy."

Also in baseball, a utility man or utility infielder is a player able to play many positions. Usually a bench player.

Again in baseball, turn two means to complete a double-play. To pinch hit means to come in as a replacement for another player only for that player's at-bat. The pinch-hitter is then replaced by a defensive substitution (or, often, in the National League where pitchers still hit, by a relief pitcher).

More baseball, to choke up means to move one's hands up the bat (away from the bottom end, the one with the knob on it), and it's usually done for bat control in situations in which contact is far more important than power hitting.

A drag bunt is a bunt intended as a base hit rather than a sacrifice to advance the runners.

A squeeze play is a sacrifice bunt with a runner on third base. In a suicide squeeze the runner takes off as the pitch is thrown and before the ball is bunted, a very risky but exciting maneuver.

In many sports, the nose bleeds are seats in the highest (and therefore cheapest) sections of the bleachers or stands.

In baseball, a batter is in the hole if he's the second batter after the one who's currently at bat, following the batter on deck. You don't often hear the term for the batter after the in the hole batter, but he's under the waterfall.

The run that will give a team the lead is called the go-ahead run in baseball.

A hit that gives a team the lead and ends the game (bottom of the ninth inning or an extra inning) is called a walk off. A home run that does this is called a walk off home run, unsurprisingly.

In baseball a rubber game is the last game of a series.

In basketball, home-and-homes are sequential games in which the same two teams take turns hosting each other. They rule.

In basketball, the Trent Tucker Rule is the nickname of the rule specifying that there must be at least 3/10 of a second on the clock for a non-tip-in shot to be attempted.

In baseball, Tommy John surgery is reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament.

In baseball, a ground rule double is a ball that bounces in play and then goes over the fence. The term refers to the old days when each baseball field had its own "ground rules."

In golf, a stymie is an obsolete rule wherein a player's ball is blocked from direct route to the hole by an opponent's ball. Nowadays we simply lift the ball and leave a marker or coin so the opponent can putt, but in the old days he'd have to hit twice to get around the ball.

More baseball woohoo an excuse me single is a very weakly- or accidentally-hit ball that somehow eludes the defenders. Also called a seeing-eye single.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:02 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Grand Slam" in Bridge means you bid 7 of something, promising to take every single trick.

"Grand Slam" in baseball means you hit a home run with the bases loaded. By tradition the three men you drove in wait for you at home plate to congratulate you.

"Grand Slam" in military history was a bomb that weighed ten metric tons.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:09 PM on January 20, 2013

Grand Slam in tennis means winning the US, French, and Australian Opens and Wimbledon.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:11 PM on January 20, 2013

"Icing the kicker" = calling time-out juuuuust before a field goal attempt so that the kick doesn't count & a second try is required. Recently failed at by Pete Carroll.

Calling the line of scrimmage the "trenches" is another football thing, don't know if it's in other sports or not.

A "flea flicker" is an entertaining/risky trick play in football.

"Coffin corner" (you don't hear this much) is the spot on the field inside the 5 yard line where, if a punt lands there, forces the other team to start a drive waaaaay back in their own territory.
posted by citron at 10:24 PM on January 20, 2013

To break ankles in basketball...

Oh man it's gotta be when the defender actually falls down, e.g. like so. I've never heard it for when the defender is simply smoked/blown past/burned.
posted by fleacircus at 10:32 PM on January 20, 2013

In baseball a rubber game is the last game of a series.

Technically it's for the last game of a 3-game series where each team has split the first two. Unlike most other sports' regular seasons, baseball teams play each other 3 or 4 games in a row.

Also in baseball, a "cycle" is when a hitter gets a single, double, triple, and homer in the same game, in any order. It seems obligatory for the announcers to mention that the triple is the hardest to get.

Oh, and the "Gordie Howe Hat trick"... A normal hat trick is three goals in a game. A natural hat trick is three in a row (no one else scores in between). The Gordie Howe variety is getting a goal, assist, and a fight.

Like that one and Tommy John surgery, there's a lot of interesting phrases based on actual people. The "Mendoza Line" is named after '70s Major Leaguer Mario Mendoza, whose batting average often hovered around .200. So while anything under .250 is pretty bad, being around the Mendoza Line is particularly embarrassing.

Another mark of embarrassment is the "golden sombrero," striking out 4 times in a game. Supposedly this is an extension of the hat trick (4 being bigger than 3).
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:02 PM on January 20, 2013

A flea flicker isn't just any old exciting trick play - it's actually a very specific trick play where the offense fakes out the defense into believing they're running the ball when actually they plan to pass it, involving a lateral pass from the running back back to the QB (generally). (in other words, don't start waxing poetic about a flea flicker any time anything wacky happens in a football game - they are not very common.)
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:04 AM on January 21, 2013

Best answer: This page explains some common terms in UK football, scroll down just a little and click on the boxes. Sick as a parrot? Smash and Grab? Give it 110%.
posted by biffa at 1:53 AM on January 21, 2013

To kick into touch: (from rugby).

Bowl a googly: (from cricket)

BTW - there is a whole wikipedia page devoted to sports idioms. Eat your heart out.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:24 AM on January 21, 2013

Best answer: Also, sorta related: you might be interested in Colemanballs, named after commentator David Coleman - a long and rich history of the magazine Private Eye detailing where sports coaches and commentators (largely UK) mangle their metaphors.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:32 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh man it's gotta be when the defender actually falls down, e.g. like so. I've never heard it for when the defender is simply smoked/blown past/burned.

Heard it constantly on the playground, fwiw.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:48 AM on January 21, 2013

Best answer: A couple more from basketball:

A player's cooking soup when he's shooting very well. Usage: "Melo's cooking soup tonight." Similarly, a player might be described as wet.

(I have no idea where cooking soup comes from, and would be interested if anybody knows. It's a hard term to search for.)

A brick is a terrible shot, usually one that clunks off the hoop. If it misses the hoop entirely, it's an airball. If it bounces off the backboard, it's off the glass.

A buzzer-beater is a shot that goes in just before the buzzer that ends a quarter, half or game.

Got hops? That's the ability to jump.

The downtown is the area behind the three-point line.

To posterize is to dunk on. The unfortunate term facial is also used.

Also, let me mention my favourite basketball saying, ball don't lie. Populated by Rasheed Wallace, though apparently it predates him, it's used when somebody is wrongly awarded a free-throw, then misses the shot. The ball chooses not to go in because the free throw was undeserved, i.e. the ball tells the truth.
posted by Georgina at 3:55 AM on January 21, 2013

(Slightly off-topic, but...) my friend pointed out that the metaphors that people use in North American business conversation tend to be the metaphors of male-dominated activities, specifically warfare and team sports. This puts another subtle obstacle in the way of women who want to advance in the business world if they don't understand the language.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 3:59 AM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

In baseball, a ground rule double is a ball that bounces in play and then goes over the fence. The term refers to the old days when each baseball field had its own "ground rules."


This is a horrible misuse propagated by announcers. A ball that bounces over the fence is a double by rule; smart announces properly call it an automatic or rulebook double. Each field still has its own ground rules. For example, a ball stuck in the ivy at Wrigley Field; that is properly a ground rule double.

However, this incorrect usage is entrenched and we'll likely never get rid of it.

Personally, I've always been fond of Mike Lange's "He beat him like a rented mule!" to describe a shooter getting one past a goalie. (hockey).
posted by stevis23 at 4:36 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are fantastic. Thank you all. I especially love learning the ones that can be/are used in non-sports contexts, per Multicellular Exothermic's observation. Since learning "in my wheelhouse," I've used it several times in slightly incorrect ways, like a foreign language learner's interpretation of a new vocabulary word. I think Georgina's term "cooking soup" is up next for my hamfisted usage.

It's amazing how many of the sports idioms in the list that MuffinMan linked I'm actually familiar with, given that I steadfastly avoided the sports section of the newspaper my entire life. biffa's linked UK football references are the least familiar. I just read an article at ESPN Soccer that was completely indecipherable.
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:04 PM on January 21, 2013

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