New Chorus Lines

Centennial High School's baseball team
"Other teams try to get loud, but I dont think anybody is as creative as us," said Centennial Coach Denis Ahearn, whose No. 5 team is 20-0. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

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By Jeff Ermann
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 11, 2006

Pat Seh's Centennial High School baseball hat sits cockeyed, one side of the bill yanked to his temple, the other side sitting precariously atop a bed of untamed curls. Somehow, the thing never falls off, which is no small wonder considering it stays on the head of a maestro -- of new-school dugout chatter.

Should anyone need proof the days of "Sah-wing battah!" died with the Betamax, here is Seh, a junior utility player, leading his teammates through a rousing chorus of "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" -- a catchy little ditty that has become an Internet phenomenon featuring a singing, dancing, hip-hop inflected banana:

Seh: "Like a book"

Teammates: "Turn the page!"

Seh: "Mash-po-tatoes"

Teammates: " And gravy!"

Seh: "Mac-a-ronay"

Teammates: " And cheese!"

Seh: "Pea-nut Butta!"

Teammates: " And Jel-lay!"

All together: "It's peanut butter jelly time! Peanut butter jelly time! Peanut butter jelly time! Peanut butter jelly time!"

They sing "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" when the opposing pitcher makes a pickoff throw, a ploy to annoy him into ignoring their base runners. When one of their hitters draws a walk, they lower their voices and morph into a bunch of scraggly haired Sinatra impressionists. And they don't sound too bad:

"Jee-pers, cree-pers, where'd you get those peepers? Jee-pers, cree-pers, where'd you get those eyes?"

Dugout chatter has existed in some form since the game's birth. While many phrases, such as "Hit 'em where they ain't," have disappeared from the sport's lexicon, the dialect's most common expression -- "Whaddya say, kid?" -- can still be heard on area diamonds.

But these days, fewer and fewer high school players talk it up from the dugout, and chatter has all but disappeared from the major leagues. All of which makes a game featuring Howard County's Centennial High something unique.

"They're pretty smart kids and they do some clever cheers," says Centennial Coach Denis Ahearn, whose team is 20-0 and ranked fifth in the area. "Other teams try to get loud, but I don't think anybody is as creative as us. It's something that we feed off."

Whenever their opponents hold a conference on the mound, the Eagles clap and hoot incessantly. They stop abruptly when the meeting breaks up.

Brian Hesson shouts from Centennial's bench.
Brian Hesson shouts from Centennial's bench. "I grew up in New York and where I came from, what these guys do is tame," Coach Denis Ahearn said.
"Someone [might] actually throw at the next batter, so Ahearn told us to cool down on that just to protect our batters a little bit," Seh says.

The chatter from Centennial's dugout has its roots in classic baseball dugout jargon, much of which is unintelligible and throated in an intonation similar to the voices of newspaper hawkers in old movies.

"It's almost a rabbinical or monk chanting," says Paul Dickson, author of "The Dickson Baseball Dictionary," a glossary of more than 10,000 of the sport's slang terms. "It's a rhythm. It's a sort of way of communicating that transcends the words."

There are two forms of dugout talk, according to Dickson: chatter and bench-jockeying. Regular chatter consists of hundreds of motivational phrases -- such as "Hum now, kid" (Come on), or "Let's roll two" (Let's turn a double play).

Despite its name, however, chatter serves a purpose.

"Baseball, like any other endeavor, is run by energy. You actually gain energy by spending it, so there's a lot of energy gained by chattering," says Thomas Hanson, a Tampa sports psychology coach who has worked as a consultant for the New York Yankees, among other pro teams and athletes.

"When energy is flowing," he says, "people play well."

Bench-jockeying, meanwhile, is jawing at or mocking the other team, often directed at the pitcher.

"Oh man," says Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, 70, whose career in the majors has spanned 50 years. "You used to get on the other players out there on the field, and they'd want to come over and fight you."

According to Arundel Coach Bernie Walter, the National Federation of High Schools enacted a rule against bench-jockeying in the early 1990s. The verbal sparring had become a free-for-all.

"Before that, it was no holds barred. A lot of angry things were being said," Walter says.

Chesapeake catcher Zach Moore is known as being somewhere between a chatterer and a jockey. He doesn't speak directly to the opponent's pitcher, but he does have a cache of one-liners he employs liberally.

"If he's throwing high," Moore says, "I'll say, 'Get 'em a bucket!' " The jab, of course, being that the pitcher is throwing up.

When the pitches are missing low, Moore's go-to quip is, to put it delicately, the opposite of saying, "He can't keep it down."

"Talking just gets you going and gives you that mental advantage, and if you have the mental advantage you're going to be successful 95 percent of the time," says Moore, who is batting .430.

Such quips are harmless, Chesapeake Coach Jim Simms says.

"I have never gotten upset about anything another team was saying. If you've got rabbit ears, you can't be out here. If you're concentrating on what the other team is saying, you're not concentrating on the game," he says. "I don't think you can play the thing like you're in church."

St. John's has earned a reputation not only as a perennial winner, but an often boisterous bunch. Cadets Coach Ed Gibbs admits he's had some mouthy teams in the past, players who liked to talk to their opponents throughout the game.

"It started to get out of hand, so we pretty much clamped down on it two or three years ago," Gibbs said. Still, he acknowledged it's difficult to monitor every word that comes out of all 18 players' mouths. "When you're in a close game between rivals," he said, "the dugouts are loud."

According to Wilson Coach Eddie Saah, a nasty phrase was directed at Tigers pitcher Ian Horkley when the Tigers and Cadets played April 20.

"They talked all game," Saah said.

Gibbs said much of the chatter may sound inflammatory, but often it's just jabs between friends. "There are all these traveling teams nowadays," he said. "The thing you have to keep in mind is a lot of these kids know each other."

Westfield Coach Chuck Welch says: "Old-school dugout talk was nasty. It was about riding the other team and picking up flaws -- they might be heavy, or they might be skinny or something like that -- and riding them."

Centennial's antics, meanwhile, haven't gone unnoticed.

"I discourage that. I don't think its part of the game. It's a baseball game, it's not a circus," Glenelg Coach Tom Thrasher says.

"It's one thing to energize your guys, but a lot of that stuff seems like it's designed to go against the opponent," he says.

Ahearn defends his team's chatter, saying it's all part of the game.

"I grew up in New York and where I came from, what these guys do is tame," he says. "There were very few umpires who would stop you from heckling the opposing pitcher. You could totally deflate him. But I don't want my kids doing that."

When opponents hold a conference on the mound, Trevor Reinhard and his teammates clap and hoot, abruptly stopping when the meeting breaks up.
When opponents hold a conference on the mound, Trevor Reinhard and his teammates clap and hoot, abruptly stopping when the meeting breaks up.
Walter, who has guided Arundel to a Maryland-record nine state titles, is a reformed chatterer. He now prefers relative quiet and less "false emotion." Welch shares his sentiment.

"I want it when the game dictates it -- when it's the bottom of the seventh and we're down one run with a runner on first, or something like that. I don't want it to be constant," he says. "I want you to be a student of the game. If you're constantly running your mouth, your brain is using most of its capacity to talk."

Robinson says chatter is a dying art in the major leagues.

"It's just a thing that has happened with this generation of players. It just has disappeared. What happened to, when you're out on the field defensively, the talk? 'Hey, come on, come on, let's go, hey, baby.' Players look at you like, 'What?' It's almost silent out there now," he said. "The thing to me is that it kept you alert, a little bit more alert by chattering a little bit."

Gaithersburg Coach Jason Woodward encourages chatter by requiring everyone but his pitcher and catcher to stand while the Trojans are batting. For Northwest Coach Matt Noble, though, trying to get players to "talk it up" is like pulling teeth.

"I've got to really get after my guys," he says. "I don't know if chatter is really even considered cool anymore."

He obviously hasn't seen a Centennial game.

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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