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Turkey subs, ghost forks and hockey pucks: More Baseball Thesaurus lingo

The Baseball ThesaurusAs a fan, I love the sounds of baseball–spikes echoing down a tunnel, a ball exploding into a mitt, the crack when a batter catches one right. As a broadcaster, I love the words of baseball. That love prompted me to I compile as many words as I could find into a baseball thesaurus, the better to get them all down in one place.

But language is not constrained between covers, it’s ever-growing. Since the release of The Baseball Thesaurus, 3rd Edition, I’ve been delighted to discover more words and phrases, whether born within the last few years or dating back decades.

Take the turkey sub, coined by Athletics minor-league pitcher Brian Howard to describe his 60ish-mph curve ball, a pitch he and Jesús Luzardo honed together while with High-A Stockton in 2018. “[I]t’s not the highest spin rate pitch, but it gets the job done. You’re not going to call your mom and tell her you had the best turkey sub of all time, but if you’re hungry, it’ll work out,” Howard told The Athletic’s Alex Coffey in 2021. The slow curve may be a fun baseball tradition, with the pitch also in Zack Greinke’s and Yu Darvish’s arsenals, but the new name is wonderful.

The best modern name for a pitch may be the turbo sink, used to hype an exceptional sinker. But today’s top pitch nickname overall is the ghost fork of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Kodai Senga, which haunts Nippon Professional League batsmen. The forkball, tossed with a deep grip splitting the index and middle fingers, dates back to Bullet Joe Bush and his contemporaries in the 1910s and 1920s, enjoying renaissances from Roy Face and Lindy McDaniel in the 1950s and 1960s, Dave Stewart and Jack Morris in the 1980s, and Hideo Nomo in the 1990s and 2000s.

An effective fork is likely to produce a sword, coined by the Pitching Ninja, Rob Friedman. It’s gloriously satisfying for any pitcher, watching a fooled hitter wave his bat like a sword rather than a lethal blunt instrument. An ugly checked-swing that misses by a foot and a half? Sword.

Bullet Joe Bush might’ve had a forkball, but he didn’t have PitchCom. The push-button transmitter has been one of the fascinations of this spring, facilitating pitch-calling and easing concerns about sign-stealing: a catcher presses a button on his wristband, and the pitcher 60 feet, six inches away hears a voice say “Curveball” in his ear. (Note that this doesn’t work for everyone: Mets prospect Francisco Álvarez was unable to get the PitchCom wristband around his muscular forearm.) No worries about a runner at second, no more painted fingernails and long squinting stares, just the push of a button and nod of a head (or shake, followed by the push of another button). A catcher calling an excellent game in the future will literally be pressing all the right buttons.

Hitters may soon be answering with the hockey puck, as reported by Derrick Goold in March for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The name describes the counterweight knob on the bat of Cardinals sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado as produced by the Baseball Performance Lab of Baton Rouge, La., the latest search to provide a hitter with increased bat mass while allowing for greater bat speed. Contrast the hockey puck with the knobless bat (wielded then by Roberto Clemente and now by Jeff McNeil), or, to find middle ground, the axe bat, first introduced eight years ago with an angled knob.

In Andy Strasberg’s journal-memoir of the 1961 season, My 1961, the author writes on July 3 of learning Roger Maris’s and Mickey Mantle’s nickname for home runs, tonk. “You know when you hit a ball good, the sound it makes is ‘tonk,’” Mickey Mantle told a reporter. “Damned if I know how to spell it. It’s just ‘tonk.’ ” Add tonk to the long, colorful list of names of home runs, and make space near it for the similarly onomatopoeic plákata, invented by Carlos Peña and his brothers as kids to describe “good, solid contact, usually resulting in a home run.” Peña’s platform working at MLB Network gave him the opportunity to visit a young Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., in Double-A New Hampshire in 2018. Peña introduced “plákata,” Vladdy destroyed a ball off a tee to give it an immediate vivid definition, and the exclamation has tied the two together ever since.

Lastly, sometimes a situation calls for the necessary invention of a term. When Major League Baseball instituted a rule that placed a runner at second base starting extra innings, we need a name for that runner. The rule, first seen in international league play, came to the minor leagues in 2018, giving us a headstart at discussing potential names. I used bonus runner, reasoning that it occurs during bonus baseball. Richmond’s Trey Wilson came up with placed runner, while Lake County’s Andrew Luftglass (among others) opted for free runner. Since then, the top two choices I’ve seen are Fangraphs’ Effectively Wild podcast’s nomination of zombie runner, since the runner often died as a batter the previous inning and was resurrected to run the bases, and, from a few different like-minded geniuses, the Manfred Man. Excellent.

Unfortunately for all of us, the term that has gained the strongest foothold is ghost runner. From the bottom of my heart, I tell you: absolutely not. A true ghost runner is used in a baseball game that does not have enough players for there to be both runners and a batter. As a kid, I used to play my younger brother one-on-one. He pitched, I swatted the ball into the right-field corner, he raced after it, and I dashed around to third base as he retrieved it and hustled it back in. Then I headed back to the plate with an RBI opportunity, a ghost runner taking my place at third base. The way we played, ghost runners were notoriously cautious. A single with the bases loaded, for instance, produced only one run. An actual runner, heart beating, at second base–who didn’t have to double to get there? That’s the exact opposite of everything I know a ghost runner to stand for.

Jesse Goldberg-Strassler is Voice of the Lansing Lugnuts and author of The Baseball Thesaurus and The Football Thesaurus, both from August Publications.