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Patrick Hruby

Taking it One Cliche at a Time

From Gut Check to They Came to Play, the sports world teems with cliches. Who's to blame?

In the film "Bull Durham," there is a telling scene in which veteran catcher Crash Davis tutors young pitcher Nuke LaLoosh on the delicate art of media relations. By the end of the picture, LaLoosh has mastered a number of all-important phrases, including:

1) "I've got to pitch within myself."

2) "We've got to play them one game at a time."

The joke, of course, is that these sentiments are no more profound than a Hallmark card, equally trite and inane. They are the hoariest of sports cliches - those hideous, cockamamie linguistic constructions that seemingly spring eternal from the Dan Dierdorf edition of Bartlett's Quotations.

Impact Player. Wake-Up Call. On A Roll. Exceedingly, excruciatingly familiar, sports cliches crowd the air and clutter the page, dropping like dugout spittle from the mouths of everyone who has had even a passing association with Lacing 'Em Up.

Indeed, it often feels like the very fabric of the sporting universe is stitched together by little more than the coarse thread of Making Plays, Bringing A Lot To The Table and It's A Physical Game.

"You hear all the same stuff: 'Well, I just want to help the team out, God willing, and if I do well along the way, it's great,' " said Jason Caldwell, a former media relations coordinator for the Dallas Mavericks. "Now, the first guy to come up with that was brilliant. The next 10 to use it were pretty smart. After that, who cares?"

Better question: Who's to blame? If cliches are inescapable - and if We're In The Business Of Winning, a business in which Everyone Has To Be Held Accountable - then who's going to Step Up And Take Responsibility for them? Athletes? The media? The rest of us?

Whoever it is, it's time to Make Them Pay - or at least Limp Noticeably. Let's examine the suspects . . .


In 1990, NBA superstar and Nike pitchman Michael Jordan was asked to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt's campaign to unseat Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican. His response? No comment - "Because republicans buy shoes, too."

Is it any wonder that Jordan - who could be one of the league's most articulate voices - was often one of its most cliched? That he could spin Gotta Stay Focused, Keep Playing Hard and Letting the Game Come To Me with the best of them?

Like walking Mark McGwire or running off-tackle on first down, cliches are safe, the verbal equivalent of a Do Not Disturb sign. They offend no one, upset nothing - useful qualities in an era when an athlete's livelihood, like a politician's, depends largely on endorsements and public goodwill.

"In their most calculated sense, cliches are a way of not saying anything - at least anything precise, personal or anything you can really be held accountable for," said Wayne Fields, director of the American Culture Studies program at St. Louis' Washington University and an expert in rhetoric. "Because you're just using words that are hanging in the air, saying things that everyone else says.

"Politicians hide behind them all the time. And unless you pick one that is particularly outrageous, they're only going to be half-heard, anyway."

By contrast, those who dare venture outside of the cliche box can end up Paying The Price. After a humiliating loss to the Tennessee Titans in late December, the Jacksonville Jaguars could have entered last month's rematch in the AFC title game spouting the usual lines of Give Them The Credit, They're Tough Competitors and We'll Be Lucky To Come Up With A Win.

Instead, the Jaguars cut a cocky rap tune and video - "Uh Oh, The Jaguars Super Bowl Song" - that Titans coach Jeff Fisher screened for his team the night before the game. Sufficiently motivated, Tennessee went on to pound Jacksonville 33-14.

Uh Oh. Should've stuck with They're A Class Act.

"Nobody ever got in trouble with a coach or put something on an opponent's bulletin board by saying something that's been said 100 times," said Terry Shepard, vice president for public affairs at Rice University and a former sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times. "Whereas if you get original, sometimes you can get people upset. When you come across an athlete that isn't cliched, it's good for sportswriters. But it makes the management nervous."

Cliches also offer a Tenacious Defense against, well, sounding like an idiot. While throwaways like We Came To Play, I Was Just Doing My Job and It Was A Total Team Effort provide little insight, they're awfully hard to argue with - particularly when everyone else is saying the same thing.

Consider Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner's revealing assessment of St. Louis Rams receiver Isaac Bruce's game-winning touchdown reception: "We knew we needed a Big Play. Isaac is a Big Play Guy, and he Came Up With The Big Play for us."

Obvious? You bet. Cliched? Without doubt. But vastly preferable to Shooting Oneself In The Foot verbally, a la Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker.

"It's human nature to not want people to think you're dumb or laugh at you," Shepard said. "So if you say something everyone else has said, it may not be profound. But at least it's OK."

In fact, the only exception to this rule seems to occur when an athlete clumsily combines the cliches - like Baltimore Ravens safety Rod Woodson, who reportedly once said, "We stepped up to the plate and answered the phone call."

"You'll get guys that try to modify cliches, and that's the most dangerous," said Keith Olbermann, an anchor and senior correspondent for Fox Sports News. "I remember earlier this past baseball season, Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome said, 'That remains to be unseen.' Then later in the year, it got all the way through the clubhouse, to where shortstop Omar Vizquel said, 'That remains to be Ooon-seeeen.'

"And it's like, don't corrupt this man. English is his second language."


Next to a heavyweight prize fight, it's the most consistently ridiculous moment in sports: A coach attempts to jog off a court or field at halftime, only to be intercepted by an enterprising sideline reporter.

Reporter (panting): Coach, what are you going to do in the second half?

Coach: Make Adjustments.

"What else is he going to say?" Caldwell said. " 'Well, in the second half we're going to run a draw on the first play, go off-tackle on the second, and then go deep?' I don't even know why they bother."

Ask a cliched question, get a cliched answer. When it comes to the proliferation of relentlessly trite constructions like We Refused To Lose and They Just Wanted It More, the media are as much to blame as anyone - maybe even more so.

"If you ask the same old questions, you get the same old answers," Shepard said. "And if you ask 'How do you feel?' you're not going to get 'Well, is feeling real or is it an illusion? Kierkegaard once said ...'

"No, you're going to get 'I feel great' or 'I'm going to Disneyland' or whatever."

In locker rooms and news conferences, on practice fields and team flights, the same shallow inquiries repeat ad nauseam, as stubborn and insistent as a hardy toe fungus.
How Does It Feel? What Were You Thinking? Can You Talk About Your Performance Out There Today?

"I can't tell you how many times I'd be in the locker room and hear players complaining about the bad and redundant questions reporters ask," Caldwell said. "I think it's laziness on the part of reporters. I've seen the glazed looks on these guys' faces as they'd crowd around, hold a microphone in the air and say, 'How does this loss make you feel?' or 'What can you do to improve next week?' I mean, they already know the answer to those questions. Just go print it."

Repetition and fatigue only compound the problem, Caldwell said, adding that over the course of a season, an athlete can hear the same question more than a hundred times. (Quadruple that for Toronto Raptors forward Vince Carter and questions involving the Next Michael Jordan).

"And they can only seriously answer it so many times," Carter said. "Then they get aggravated. So they just formulate a cliched answer that allows them to get out of the locker room as quickly as possible.

" Former Mavericks and L.A. Lakers forward A.C. Green, for example, wouldn't even talk to the media unless he absolutely had to because he didn't want to sound cliched."

Who could blame him? After all, when the media isn't busy flogging cliches out of sports personalities, it's spewing its own affronts to legitimate English.

Take the Super Bowl, which - shockingly - was also This Year's Super Bowl of cliches:

* For a number of print and television observers, You Couldn't Have Written A Better Script than Warner's life story - with the possible exceptions of "The Godfather," "Chinatown" and "Air Bud: Golden Receiver."

* Before the game, ESPN football analyst Sterling Sharpe spoke of Key Players who would Play On The Field and Make Plays In The Game - as opposed to playing in the parking lot and making plays during the halftime show.

* Toward the end of the game, ABC announcer Al Michaels made the astute observation that a number of Rams players Came To Play. Coincidentally, those same players were wearing both uniforms and helmets.

"You do find cliches kind of infectious," Olbermann said. "If we're out in the field somewhere, doing an ad lib format for two hours, you find yourself putting in these cliches. They seemingly seep in from the environment.

"That's why there's those catch phrases developed at ESPN and now here at FOX. The idea was that if you're going to get stuck on cliches, they should be original cliches - as long as they don't become so repetitive that you want to encourage mass suicide."

And what about those catch phrases - such as From Way Downtown - that have taken on a cliched life of their own, permeating the sports world like so many vile Pokemon?
"There are moments where I feel like Robert Oppenheimer," Olbermann said. " 'My God, I didn't know everyone was going to have one.' "


But everyone does. Everyone has an It's A Game Of Inches, a They Dodged A Bullet, a Real Heads-Up Play to toss around In A Pinch. Everyone has a cliched Pokemon reference to fall back on In The Clutch.

Eventually, we're all vectors of cliche transmission. And maybe none of us can help it.

"Sports personalities don't necessarily get to be where they are because they're articulate or deep thinkers," Fields said. "For them, there's a sense that this is the way I've always known how to talk - it's the way my coach talks to me at halftime, the way reporters have written about me.

"So cliches become the idiom, the coin of the realm. And I think there would be a sense of bewilderment without them."

Champions dominate. Underdogs surprise. Athletes in every arena Triumph Over Adversity, Rise To The Top, Fall From Grace - and do it all over again. The particulars change, but the Stories Remain The Same, a compact disc on permanent skip.

By their very nature, sports are cliched. Why should talking and writing about them be any different?

"Sports are interesting because every game is different," Shepard said. "But in those games you have the same elements, just mixed in different ways. It's a rare game where something completely new happens.

"So you end up talking about a lot of the same things - scoring the winning touchdown, hitting the winning shot, coming back from injuries and so on. There are recurring themes, and everyone gets to know their lines. There's an element of liturgy here. We all know the words. If a group of people are watching a game in a bar, they all have something to say. It's like a responsive reading in church."

Yet even if we want cliches, even if we need cliches - and even if they're Hitting On All Cylinders - they haven't Built An Insurmountable Lead. We're still Within Striking Distance. And with a Great Individual Effort, it may be possible to Turn The Tide - by identifying, scorning and ultimately purging cliches from the language.

It's Gut-Check Time. Are we up to it?

"Exposure is the key," Olbermann said. "When you point out to someone that they're speaking in cliches and you're not exactly supportive, that gets the message across. I always like to come back and say, 'He used every cliche or platitude there except for 'Employees must wash hands.' "

"Of course, that's an old line of Winston Churchill's and by itself a cliche."


(in a conveniently cliched top 10 format)

1) Playing Within Himself

Typically used to complement a player who makes the most of limited abilities (or is particularly adept at limiting his liabilities), this curious phrase raises a host of odd metaphysical possibilities. With enough meditation and/or psychedelic drug intake, could an athlete play outside himself? Could he even play without himself altogether?
Note: not to be confused with the grabbing, tugging and adjusting so common to Major League Baseball.

2) What A Beautiful Golf Shot

As opposed to what? A skeet shot? A tequila shot? Used to describe, well, a beautiful golf shot, What A Beautiful Golf Shot belabors the obvious the way hammers belabor nails. Closely related to Limping Noticeably, Upright Runner, Good Call By The Official and This Is A Football Game.

3) Good Pitching Beats Good Hitting

Gene Collier, a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and an avid cliche-spotter, puts it best: "It was somehow never pointed out that good pitching beats good hitting by its very definition. Beating good hitting, in fact, is what makes it good pitching. If it didn't, it would be bad pitching." See also: The Ground Can't Cause A Fumble.

4) Knockout Punch

Entirely proper when employed in a boxing context, but seldom limited to pugilism. The Knockout Punch is usually applied after a team spends some time Up Against The Ropes, although some opponents will Try To Land One Early. A bastard stepbrother of golf-to-football crossovers Chip Shot and Teeing Off.

5) We Didn't Focus

A favorite of the Washington Wizards and a new addition to the ever-growing family of euphemisms for "we played like a warm pile of feces." Maybe a team optometrist could correct the problem. Owns a time-share with We Came Out Flat (bending the laws of a three-dimensional universe), We Weren't Mentally Prepared, We Didn't Come Ready To Play, We Didn't Maintain Our Intensity For 48 Minutes/4 Quarters and They Just Wanted It More (no, really?).

6) He Knows What It Takes To Win

Um, scoring more points than the opposition? Often paired with the Intangibles of A Proven Winner, Knowing What It Takes To Win feebly attempts to endow a kind of mystical inner wisdom to championship athletes, as if this wisdom alone - and not talent or performance - is what sets them apart. Athletes that Know What It Takes To Win can usually Take Over A Game At Any Time but understand When To Let The Game Come To Them.

7) Giving 110 Percent

If it's indeed possible, then giving a mere 110 percent seems somewhat halfhearted. Why not 210 percent? In its free time, 110 percent hangs out with Coming Out Of Nowhere (a black hole, perhaps?), Playing Bigger Than Your Size and Being A North-South Runner (pick a direction, for God's sake - you can't run in two simultaneously).

8) Putting On A Clinic

The next time the Washington Redskins offer free influenza shots, they'll be Putting On A Clinic. The next time the Georgetown Hoyas screen fans for the hunta virus, they'll be Putting On A Clinic. And the next time Andre Agassi asks you to turn your head and cough, he'll be Putting On A Clinic. Until then, all three are simply playing well. Unless, of course, they're Hitting On All Cylinders (which is actually legitimate if you're talking about NASCAR.

9) Making Plays

The verbal teddy bear of all football coaches, Playmakers can be counted on to Step Up and Make Plays with the Game Hanging In The Balance. Never mind the 21 other helmeted hulks making poor, capable or just nondescript tackles, blocks, catches, runs, throws or Pick Ups, only the Great Ones can Make Plays. NBA players, on the other hand, are known for making babies - a patrimonial play so common it's approaching cliched status.

10) Put Points On The Scoreboard

Collier has the last word: "Where else would you put them?"

Original article published in The Washington Times