Sun, May 08, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Go to!: A sports adjective's new walk-off hit

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Walk-off

Let us place ourselves ahead of the lexical power curve. We have seen how a sports term -- go-to -- can cross the inside-lingo barrier to the general language. Consider now the potential of the baseball locution walk-off.

"Castillo Hits Walk-Off Homer," headlined the Joplin Globe of Missouri last month. At the same time, the Providence Journal cried, "Ventura's walk-off single caps Islanders' comeback."

"Like crabgrass invading someone's lawn," huffed Sports Illustrated five summers ago, "walk-off! has taken root in sports lingo and gotten out of control." The cliche-averse magazine noted that "without TV's dime-a-dozen talking heads repeating it endlessly and effusively, there would be no `Aaron Boone wins the game with a walk-off!' Instead, we would simply (and gracefully) call a game-ending home run what we've always called it -- a game-ending home run."

The neologism ignored this conservative brushback pitch to earn a place in the baseballese Hall of Fame. I checked with Paul Dickson, editor of The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, whose earliest citation was from the Gannett News Service on July 30, 1988: "In Dennis Eckersley's colorful vocabulary, a walk-off piece is a home run that wins the game and the pitcher walks off the mound."

Disconsolately, of course. "The walk-off is a disaster for the pitcher," says Eckersley today, recalling in rue his pitch to Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who hit a homer that cost the Oakland Athletics Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. The former pitcher and neologist, who now analyzes the Boston Red Sox for the New England Sports Network, says: "That walk off the mound was brutal. I was devastated."

Walk has a history of successful suffixing. A walk-on is a short nonspeaking part for an actor; a walkout is a workers' strike; a walk-in is spookspeak for an unexpected defector or is a decorator's favorite closet; a walk-up is an apartment accessible only by stairs.

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