Vocabulary Lesson: Yard Sale

The Phillies have four aces on their starting rotation. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)

A baseball clubhouse has always been a fertile source for additions to the modern American lexicon. Where else could the expression to “dial 8” -- synonymous for calling long distance from a hotel room and for going long distance with a home run – have sprung so cleverly to mind?

It’s partly because baseball players have so much time on their hands to come up with this kind of stuff. They fill the idle hours before games and some of the idle hours on the bench and in the bullpen during games with banter designed to make the other guy laugh. They invent their own language. A female companion invited to meet up on a road trip is an “import.” Fans who buzz around hotel lobbies and congregate at the players’ gate at stadiums are “green flies.” It could fill a dictionary.

Baseball players don’t mind appropriating someone else’s invention, either, and that’s the case with “yard sale.” The term originated in downhill skiing to describe the aftermath of a crash on the slopes, one in which the skier’s goggles, gloves, skis, poles and clothing are scattered all over the terrain like items at a, yes, yard sale. Cyclists have used the term, too, also for crashes and for a similar scattering of gear.

Knowing a good one when they hear it, ballplayers have applied the term to their game. Generally, it means a line drive through the box that spins the pitcher a la Charlie Brown, perhaps dislodging his cap and glove in the process. Charlie also lost shoes, socks and everything but his underwear during his yard sale moments.

The great things about “yard sale” is that it can be either a noun or a verb. “I yard-saled him,” a player might say, or, “Mike really got yard-saled out there.” As well as, “Did you see what happened to Mike? It was a yard sale.” I suppose it’s also useful as an adjective, as in the previous paragraph about Charlie Brown.

Anyway, I have been in Arizona this week to gather some spring training columns from the western outposts of baseball. In Scottsdale the other day, it was notable that the Giants have expanded and improved on “yard sale.” (I was there, by the way, to tell them the race to represent the National League in the World Series is already over and they lost. The Phillies have these Four Horsemen, and that settles that. The Giants were understandably a little down about the news, but they took it pretty well.)

In the Giants’ clubhouse, a favorite pastime is to sneak up behind an unsuspecting teammate as he walks to the bathroom with a newspaper or a magazine under his arm. The perpetrator knocks the reading material to the floor with a quick flick from behind, and as it scatters about the victim’s feet, he announces, “Yard Sale!”

The exception to this hilarious ritual is if the player is carrying his iPad – everyone in baseball simultaneously showed up for spring training with an iPad this year. It is considered bad form to flick the reading material to the ground if there is an iPad tucked in there somewhere. So care must be taken in planning a yard sale, which is the first thing you learn.

Yard sale. That’s today’s vocabulary lesson.

The column on the Giants will appear in Sunday at Philly.com and in the print editions of the Inquirer. If you carry the sports section to the bathroom to read, be sure to look over your shoulder.