The game of baseball has many great moments—the suicide squeeze, a do-it-yourself triple play, and a successful “daylight” pickoff move represent just a few of the best.
Not only do these plays result in gleeful grins from fans, but baseball writers of years of yore scrounged for nicknames to describe them. From “basket catches” to “worm-burners,” all were cleverly coined, yet all were easy to picture.
But one play, an event whose origins had eluded my grasp, goes beyond a merely imagistic nomenclature: the Baltimore Chop.
Cleaving the air downwards with the bat, a batter aims to sky the ball off of the plate and into the air while the impatient fielders squirm underneath. Rarely is this play utilized; rarer still is its success, because those who unleash the Chop must be quicker than a chameleon’s tongue on smack (i.e. Ichiro or Jose Reyes).
In fact, this play is so rare that I didn’t even know it existed until I perused my “Wide World of Baseball Words” novella a couple months ago. Turns out that the Baltimore Chop did not originate with crack deals gone wrong on the mean streets of Monument City.
Instead, it originated with the Baltimore Orioles during the dead-ball era. The only reason I could surmise the phrase had lost favor with the voices of baseball was its resemblance to a Great Depression steelworker—both were effective, but no one would employ either.
No one in baseball, that is.
Softball, on the other hand, is a wholly different story. In softball, the Chop is drawn on by some of the most successful athletes in the game. The small dimensions of the softball field allow the batter to bound the ball over the heads of the drawn-in infielders, putting fans on the edge of their seats and sometimes requiring the coach to bring in an outfielder for certain batters.
Had my brother not had the hots for an All-State softball player last summer, I would’ve known none of this. After he turned on that infamous family charm, I found myself finally attending my first softball game, and my family and I soon witnessed the trials and tribulations the state softball tournament had in store.
Before the first game, my exposure to softball was about as limited as the rights of a Gitmo detainee. To me, softball was little more than a poor (or at least overweight 40-year-old) man’s baseball.
Therefore, with a dash of adolescent chauvinism, I went into the opening playoff game with a smarmy attitude and a dour outlook. Entering the warm, breezy stands, I saw the girls tossing the cantaloupe-sized ball around the 60-foot base-paths and taking their hacks with the tiny-barreled bats. “Simpletons,” I thought. “Where’s the difficulty? Where’s the intrigue? Where’s the danger?”
To paraphrase someone from some movie, boy, was I ever glad I was wrong.
Not only is softball as strategic and technical as America’s pastime, but it succeeds where baseball leaves off. The occasional molasses-like pall that baseball’s critics harp on is forgone in softball, with rapidity between plays encouraged by both umpires and coaches alike.
And with fewer innings than baseball, you can get in and get out in time to catch that evening’s newest episode of Lost. But the ramped-up speed doesn’t stop there: Because the field is so small, plays often happen quicker than you can say, “Marry me, Kat Osterman.”
The girlfriend’s team won that game handily, mercy-ruling their unfortunate opponents and eventually finding themselves hosting the state final in Corvallis, OR. The aluminum seats were blistering under the bottoms of the thousands of fans, and the all-dirt infield looked no different, singeing the ball as it skidded along the scorched earth. Extra innings proved the girls’ downfall, but the excitement, determination, and grit these girls displayed was in no way lessened.
Softball has been oft maligned as a niche sport, lacking the necessary exposure to take off like the International Lacrosse League or Funny Car racing. The Olympic boost the sport received last decade catapulted the sport toward the legitimacy it desired, and a Dream Team of Lisa Fernandez and Jennie Finch helped the U.S. gain three-straight golds from 1996-2004.
But like Bryan Singer with X-Men, the Olympics abandoned softball just as the sport was prepared to make that final leap into the stratosphere. While baseball got the ax in similar fashion, there’s no doubt that the game will thrive under the reign of Bud Selig (please, try to stifle that laugh).
Softball, on the other hand, needs the Olympics almost as badly as Skip Bayless needs to contract laryngitis. Without this national stage, softball could end up the way of the passenger pigeon or the Cleveland Spiders. And if softball’s extinction came to pass, the Baltimore Chop, one of the most electrifying plays a diamond has ever seen, would be no more.