(Baseball has always been about euphemism. Failing players are never fired. They are “designated for assignment.” If they are sent back to the boonies to relearn the game they have evidently forgotten how to play, they are “optioned,” though there is nothing optional about it. Their vote on the matter is not considered.)
But player feelings are particularly valued these days! Aaron Hicks, the Yankees’ $10 million-a-year center fielder, recently asked to sit out a game because he’d been rendered melancholy by the national news of the day. The national news of the day was indeed tragic, and infuriating, but the other 779 major leaguers somehow managed to tough it out. The Yankees granted Hicks’s request without complaint. Morale! (In 2003 Brett Favre played a game the day after his dad died suddenly; he threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns, but I am not making comparisons inasmuch as any implied criticism might affect the Yankees’ morale and stall their momentum, and I love the Yankees.)
My point is that in this baseball season, predictably, we have returned to the arena of “scuffling just a little bit.” I’ve written about this phrase before. Managers and coaches don’t want to say their players are “sucking like a Schwarzschild black hole.” Morale! So, “scuffling a little bit” is back in force and as always is absolutely beautiful and bewildering in its understatement.
“Scuffling” is a word without contextual meaning — technically, it means fighting or walking in a shambling manner — but coaches and managers, seeking the balm of euphemism, apply it to players who are playing dreadfully. Consider:
“We’ve been scuffling a little bit,” Cubs manager David Ross recently said of his team. He was referring to six games played against their archrivals, the Milwaukee Brewers, during which they’d hit .129 as a team. That is roughly what my batting average would have been, or yours. How badly had they been playing?
A reporter who covers the team — these guys are not known for being harsh on the men they must rely on for access — wrote,
“The Cubs might be last in hitting, but they’re first in pained expressions while trudging back to the dugout after strikeouts.”
Meanwhile, beyond the understatements, a whole new and opposite and proactive category of baseball mealy-mouthing has arisen of late: overstatements not designed to forestall depression but to advance elation. All over, you find people being declared by their coaches, or teammates, or even fawning journos, as “the most underrated” in the sport. You would think that logically there would be one such person, or two at the most, but there are dozens, players whose self-esteem their managers are trying to boost, whether they deserve it or not. The following players are among them: the melancholy Aaron Hicks, Royals outfielder Andrew Benintendi and Mariners lefty Marco Gonzales. As of this writing, Aaron is batting .179, Andrew is batting .227 and Marco’s earned run average is eight. “Eight” is not actually a term generally associated with professional earned run averages. It would be as though you reported, straight faced, that you had “seven-putted” a green.
There are even more “most underrated” if you qualified it with “probably,” the quintessential mealy-mouthed touch.
My worry is that there is evidence this trend is spreading beyond the sports world — even beyond our continent, over the pond. I am reading a story right now from the Telegraph of London. It quotes a German newspaper that described the late Prince Philip as “probably the most underrated royal of his generation.”
Fortunately, Prince Philip no longer has to worry about being underrated. He has been designated for assignment.
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