Uncovering Language from Baseball to Brand

Ahh baseball, where the known and unknown worlds sit together like two children on a dock. The sport where the essential ingredients include a ball, a stick, and a leather glove. Sure, it helps to have a few players, at least three to really make it work: one to throw, one to swing, and one to stand around and wait for something to happen.

On the surface, baseball is the easiest game to follow, assuming you don’t fall asleep. And even if you do fall asleep, so what? You can miss a few “middle innings” and not miss a thing.

Baseball: where phrases like “middle innings” need to be cracked open and explained, unless you’re a fan. If you know the game, then you know that at the organized level, each team sends nine men into “the field,” nine times (during regulation play), with each time being “an inning.” Or, more precisely, each time is a “half inning,” because the other team also sends nine men in the field nine times, and that counts as another half-inning.

Doing the math: 18 half-innings per game = 9 innings. But you knew that already...right?

Baseball: land of math and numbers, sticks and balls. Except baseball is the sport that, more than any other, also makes room for the unknown. It’s as if a game so steeped in numbers couldn’t deal with just being a statistician’s dream. It wanted to appease occultists too.

Baseball: complete with curses (Bambino, goats, William Penn statues) and ghosts, legends and gods, black cats, rally monkeys and “unwritten rules.” When you are inside baseball’s bubble, you simply accept things as they are because “that’s how things are.”

Imagine you’re at a game with your daughter, who’s never seen a baseball game. You find yourself at Fenway Park—“The Hub,” as some still call it. This is where a friend of mine found himself with his daughter a day before she started her freshman year of college. It was a beautiful late summer evening in Boston. The Red Sox were hosting the Philadelphia Phillies—two bad teams—and there were plenty of tickets left. They settled into their seats, then sat through a fairly bland brand of baseball for five innings. Soon a fog rolled in. They were dressed for summer, and now early fall was here.

“We’ll stay until the 7th inning stretch,” the father said. To which his daughter asked, “What’s the 7th inning stretch.” To which he replied, “It’s the moment between the top and bottom of the 7th inning when everyone stands up.”

“Stands up?” she asked.

“And sings.”

“Sings?”

“‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’”

His daughter thought about this for a moment, then looked at him.

“But why?”

How can you answer the question without making the Grand Old Game seem LESS cultish? Look at the language again: “We all stand up and sing.” Other than Catholic mass, baseball is the only place I’ve ever heard this description used as a normal, repetitive, and anticipated course of action.

If anything begs for But why? it’s the moment a father shrugs his shoulders and explains that the 7th inning stretch simply IS the moment when everyone in the ballpark stands up and sings. “Because that’s the way things are.”

How many pieces of language do we brush off every day because we accept things as “true” based on the precept that it’s just “the way things are”? As with so much of baseball lore, the origin of the 7th Inning Stretch is in dispute.

Ask yourself: how often do we delve into our daily language to uncover deeper pieces of truth? Consider the constant parade of brands around us. The Starbucks logo comes to mind. A couple of times a year, I find myself in conversations about it.

“Wait, it’s a mermaid?” someone asks.

“Yes."

“How can you tell?”

“Well, these things that you thought were arms…they're actually the mermaid’s tail split in half.”

“Wait, a split tail? Why?”

“Well….you see…”

Eventually we dig back to the logo’s origin (thank you, Internet). And when you visit its earlier renditions, you see that the Siren inside the circle was (and still is) a mermaid.

“But why a mermaid?” is usually what comes next.

Going from coffee to cars, why were so many people shocked when we heard about Volkswagen fixing the logs to trump EPA regulations? Would we have been less shocked if it was another auto maker, other than our beloved VW with its iconic Bugs and hippie Buses and odd, peculiar Things?

Thanks in part to their whimsical approach to print spots and commercials, it’s safe to say that the VW brand has eked its way into the happy half of our hearts. Yet there they were gaming the system. And the words I heard and read to describe their actions ran the gamut from heinous to destructive to egregious.

Within a few days of the news, I was in two separate conversations where people decided that Volkswagen may never recover—that the brand could very well die. And in both cases, someone uttered, “I can’t imagine a world without Volkswagen.”

“But why?”