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Patrick Hruby

Sports Talk 101

By Patrick Hruby
OK, pop quiz time. Sports Language 101. You are Mark Grudzielanek of the St. Louis Cardinals, a second baseman for the winningest team in baseball. Your club has just swept the hapless San Diego Padres out of the playoffs, an against-the-odds triumph to rival the United States' punking the uppity, med student-menacing island of Grenada.

Pop a cork. Take a swig. Cheers. Now pay attention. A reporter has a question.

What's your secret?

Two answers come to mind. One will invite scorn and ridicule from all corners of the sports universe. The other will pass with a friendly, lobotomized nod and no additional comment. Which do you choose?

A) "Dude, they're the Padres. Finished a game above .500. Trailed us in every significant statistical category. Win the series? Stan Van Gundy has a better chance of being named Sexiest Man Alive."

B) "I think it shows the character of our team."

Have an answer? Good. Pencils down. If you selected option "A" -- the one with a bit of life, the one that's actually true -- then go stand in the corner. Take this pointy hat. The real-life Grudzielanek picked "B"; you, on the other hand, don't know the first thing about sports talk. Enjoy summer school.

Just kidding. We're actually here to help.

Sports language is a code. Codes need translation. In an ideal world, guys like Grudzielanek would speak their minds and always make perfect sense; in reality, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick drops Rumsfeldian chestnuts like, "I know that he knows that I know he knows," and former Texas quarterback Vince Young claimed his team was "always the underdog or something."

Confused? Don't be. The sports code isn't written in a different alphabet. It's still English. It just isn't literal. There are hidden meanings, tacit understandings, tricky verbal tropes. When sports stars spin like political hacks and television talk sounds like verbal Ultimate Fighting -- sans the ban on eye gouging -- it can baffle the savviest ear.

Still, everything is decipherable. Well, except maybe Yogi Berra.

"All that needs to be said about the games is on the scoreboard," says John Llewellyn, an associate professor of communications at Wake Forest University who has studied sports talk. "Everything else is rhetoric -- trying to explain, make sense of, ameliorate those conditions. To live in this world and not have your pocket picked every minute, you have to have a subtle understanding of communication."

We can't promise subtle. We can promise understanding. All you need is our crash course in the whats and whys of sports language, starting with …

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