A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Speech Acts and the Problem of Who’s on First --- A Response by Peter Wayne Moe

Peter Wayne Moe, Seattle Pacific University

(Published April 26, 2019)

Figure 1. Video of Harrison caught in the long rundown with Greg Brown’s commentary.  

It’s the bottom of the tenth, and the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Mets are tied 2-2. Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison has just stolen second base. Gregory Polanco comes to the plate, with Jenrry Mejía pitching for the Mets. Calling the game for the Pirates’ television broadcast, Greg Brown:

They’re trying to get Harrison home. And now Harrison will be caught between second and third. And Mejía will run right at him. Harrison will try to stay in a rundown long enough to get Polanco there safe. He’s still in the rundown and he is still safe! Unbelievable! No way! That’s impossible! That is impossible! He could not possibly have done that! He could not possibly have stayed in that rundown long enough! The bench can’t believe it!

Tasked to call the game, Brownie must describe what has happened on the field. But he doesn’t. Brown moves straight from “They’re trying to get Harrison home”—a statement contextualizing the event about to unfold, giving insight into the Pirates’ strategy—to “And now Harrison will be caught between second and third.” Mejía’s pitch, Polanco’s swing, and the ball put into play are missing in Brown’s call. 


I find myself skeptical of the call. It can never be what it presents itself as—full, complete, reliable; one announcer calling the game, the other offering color commentary, the two giving a richer account than one could alone—because the call is necessarily and unavoidably incomplete. Though the call is spoken, I want to think about it here as a kind of selective compositional process similar to the way that John McPhee describes writing: 

Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one word from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. (44)

I’m not convinced all writers write like this, working one word at a time, moving gingerly to the next, mulling over each choice along the way. More often, writers work, I think, from a set of ideas or phrases, thinking through how to piece them together, and not always in the linear process McPhee describes. 

What McPhee does offer, however, is an understanding of writing as winnowing. Putting together a sentence forces the writer to make decisions, decisions that cordon off other possibilities for finishing the sentence at hand, a syntactic drama unfolding word by word, phrase by phrase, clause by clause, sentence by sentence. Mina Shaughnessy explains it this way: “Before a practiced writer begins a sentence, he has—or feels that he has—an infinite number of ways of saying what he has to say. But with each word he writes down, the field of choices narrows. The sentence seems to take its head and move with increasing predictability in the directions that idiom, syntax, and semantics leave open” (44). Stanley Fish says much the same, noting that the “range of possibilities” for completing a sentence “narrows considerably” with each word added (124). McPhee presents composition as a realm of possibility, the writer selecting from millions of words. Fish and Shaughnessy see it differently; they present these same decisions as constraining. The writer writes herself into a box. Syntax blocks off possible words, possible ideas, and possible thoughts as the sentence grows word by word. 


Much happens in the space between Brown’s sentences, and I am tempted to explain away the missing action through the affordances of his medium. He calls the game for television. Images augment his words, and because of the multimodality of the screen, Brown doesn’t have to account for action on the field as thoroughly as he does when he calls the game for radio. Consider Tim Neverett’s call for Pirates’ radio, KDKA 93.7 FM, with color commentator Bob Walk, their call a bit more robust than Brownie’s:

Walk: The Mets are going through their signs. Campbell at third telling everybody what kind of defense they’re going to play on a bunt.

Neverett: So Campbell is playing about even with the bag at third base. He’s angled facing Harrison at second base. Polanco with an 0-1 count. Jenrry Mejía looks back at second. Now comes home. And Polanco hits a ground ball right back to Mejía and Harrison is caught up between second and third. He runs him back. Harrison still on his feet. And Polanco will place him at second base. Harrison is missed. Now Tejada will tag him on the infield—

Walk: (interrupts) He’s going to be safe.

Neverett: —He’s gonna be safe! 

Walk: He’s gonna be safe. Well, this is going to be a big argument. 

Neverett: And now [Met’s manager Terry] Collins has lost his challenge anyway but he’s going to come out and argue that Josh was out of the baseline. He was never tagged and the umpires never ruled him out of the baseline as play was going on. This is unreal! 

Walk: The fans are going crazy. [Pirates catcher] Russell Martin’s going crazy. Bumping his fist. Do they love J-Hay? J-Hay is just—what does he not do? I mean, originally, he makes a mistake. Ground ball back to the pitcher. He makes a mistake. Now his job is to stay loose, stay out there in that rundown until Polanco can get to second, which is really kind of easy to do with Polanco and the way he runs but then he wasn’t satisfied with that. He just kept moving back and forth going left going right and figured out a way to get to third base.

Neverett and Walk’s call allows listeners to hear Mets third baseman Eric Campbell signing to his teammates what to do should Polanco bunt. We hear that Campbell is playing even with third, his body angled toward Harrison at second. We hear Mejía looking back to second then coming set on the mound. We hear Polanco hit the ball right back to Mejía while Harrison runs to third. We hear Mejía, ball in hand, run toward Harrison, putting him in a pickle. We hear Polanco arrive safe to second, and we hear Harrison darting this way and that, eluding the Mets’ somewhat inept defense until he, too, reaches base safe. After the play, Walk (a retired pitcher) offers an analysis from a player’s perspective. Walk explains that Harrison initially goofed by running to third base; the smarter move, given that Polanco hit the ball right back to the pitcher, would have been to stay put. Once realizing his base-running blunder, Harrison made the best of it, staying in the rundown long enough to get Polanco to second and himself to third. 


Even though Neverett and Walk are not writing with pencil and paper, their spoken sentences undergo this same process of winnowing words. When Neverett starts a sentence with “Polanco,” he’s already decided what to include and what to leave out. He gives listeners Polanco, and the narrative of this particular sentence will revolve around the batter, Polanco, standing at the plate—not Harrison, not Tejada, not Mejía. The field of options narrows. Polanco can hit, he can take a ball, he can get hit, he can swing and miss, he can step out of the box. Neverett announces that “Polanco hits,” and from here, the sentence can only be finished a handful of ways. Polanco can hit the ball (which is what most listeners are expecting) or a few other grammatical possibilities: the umpire, the catcher, home plate, or maybe his own thigh. But “Polanco hits a ground ball,” and Neverett must now say where the ball has gone. The sentence suggests it, the conventions of the radio broadcast require it, and his audience craves it. “Polanco hits a ground ball right back” Neverett calls, and since the ball came from the pitcher, there is only one place it can go “right back” to: “Polanco hits a ground ball right back to Mejía.” 

With Polanco as the subject of the sentence, we cannot hear the infield move in, we cannot hear second base umpire Scott Barry walk toward the action, we cannot hear left fielder Chris Young running up to third, we cannot hear Harrison breaking for third, we cannot hear the fan spill her beer, we cannot hear the Pirates rising to their feet, cheering. No, we hear Polanco hit it right back to Mejía, and all these simultaneous events are elided by a syntax that only allows for words to be placed in relation to each other one at a time, each building upon the previous while constraining how the sentence might end, possibility reigned in with each successive word at the expense of the myriad acts occurring at that same moment, acts unable to be held within a single sentence due to the limits of grammar. All Neverett has to work with is one subject and one verb. 


For Mets’ Radio WOR 710 AM, Howie Rose: 

Winning run at second we’re tied in the 10th at 2. Here’s the pitch. Polanco hits it right back to the mound. Throws between second and third. Mejía scampers, tosses, and they’ve got him in the rundown still. It’s going to be Campbell getting to Harrison. Missed him! The throwback to Tejada. Tejada lunging at him. Missed him! Diving to third. Safe is Harrison! And down to, down to second base goes Polanco. 

Rose gives us more of the pickle. His verbs—Mejía scampers, he tosses, Tejada lunges, Harrison dives—describe the events between second and third. We can hear the Mets tossing the ball between each other, making multiple attempts to tag Harrison. Precise as these verbs are, in the latter half of the call, as the rundown progresses, Rose turns to noun phrases: “The throwback to Tejada. Tejada lunging at him. … Diving to third.” In the most exciting moment of the pickle, these noun phrases give a snapshot of the action on the field, their truncated syntax mimicking the quickness of the play, listeners brought into the action as we complete the sentences, placing these noun phrases in relation to each other. Moments later in the broadcast, Rose speaks more on the pickle:

… onto the grass was Josh Harrison, shimmying to the left after darting to the right to avoid two tags in that rundown. Mejía couldn’t figure out when to throw it. And Harrison, who avoided contact back near second did it again near third. … Mejia ran right at him but then lobbed it towards second when Harrison was breaking to third. Campbell couldn’t get him. And Harrison danced onto the grass.

Again, those verbs: Harrison shimmies, he darts, he avoids, he breaks to third, he dances. Absent in Rose’s call and commentary, I note, is any mention of the unbelievable, of the impossibility of this play. Whereas Walk praises Harrison—“Do they love J-Hay? J-Hay is just—what does he not do?”—Rose stays grounded. This event, as Rose calls it, is entirely believable, entirely possible. At no point does he find Harrison’s baserunning ineffable or remarkable, perhaps because the play puts the Mets in a tight spot with runners now at second and third, and Rose (calling the game for the Mets) has no reason to celebrate. 


Despite what McPhee says, Rose does not speak within the realm of unlimited possibility; his obligation is to call a game. The game limits what subjects, what verbs, and what events Rose can splice into a sentence. Were Rose to start a sentence with “Polanco” outside the confines of the ballpark, the sentence could go any way it desires. But because Rose is calling a game, his options immediately narrow: Polanco cannot swim, or bake, or garden in a sentence Rose composes from inside his broadcast booth at the ball park. Rose, then, has (at least) three levels of constraint on his sentences (as do Neverett, Walk, and Brownie): first, the simple constraints of each successive word added to a sentence limiting how the sentence can be completed; second, the drama of the baseball diamond making certain actions inevitable and others unimaginable and unintelligible; third, the obligation to the audience at home, an audience depending on the call to be faithful, to be accurate. The call is the only connection fans outside the park have to the home team. 

And there is a fourth constraint as well: the announcer must call the game in real time, his sentences composed as the action before him carries on, the crowd cheering at the completion of the play even as the announcer is still calling it for radio and television, his words lagging behind Harrison’s legs. 


Part of the allure of the call is its simplicity, the simple sentences showing forth an easy relationship between subject, object, and verb, the complexities of the game rendered in sentences rattled off fluently, quickly, sentences in ordinary language. Even when a play is disputed (as was Harrison’s; the Mets argued he ran outside the baseline), the call presents reality as accessible, describable, knowable. The call revels in its own use of language, each sentence proclaiming that language can account for what we see in the world.


After the play, I write this in my scorebook: 

Illustration of a baseball scorebook entry

Figure 2. From the scorebook, another way of writing the rundown.


There is a grammar to scoring. Through its markings, the scorebook narrates an inning, a drama held together by the syntax of the game. The “K” tells readers that the last batter in the previous inning, Jordy Mercer, struck out swinging; the two parallel lines mark the end of that inning; the “1B” signifies that Harrison, the leadoff hitter in the tenth, reached first base on a hit; the “S” at the top of the diamond that he stole second base; and the “25”on the left of the diamond, and the line drawn to its left corner, that he reached third because of something done by #25, Gregory Polanco, who came to bat after Harrison. 

This “25” (and, for that matter, all the markings in my scorebook) tells a story. With each mark, I’ve decided how to record an event. And now—days, months, years removed—the scorebook tells a particular version of that play. The pickle lasts 12.36 seconds. Harrison changes directions six times, touches the ground seven times, and takes 38 steps. All this, subsumed by the “25,” the pickle recorded as a mere advance to third base, the rundown and Harrison’s artistic agility escaping it written over, absent from the scorebook. 


As I watch the replay, this is what I see. Mejía pitches the ball. Polanco hits it right back to Mejía. Mejía catches it and runs toward Harrison, who is running to third. Polanco runs to first. Harrison retreats to second. Second base umpire Scott Barry walks toward second. Mejía throws to shortstop Tejada. Harrison ducks under the throw and runs toward third. Tejada chases Harrison toward third, and then throws the ball to third baseman Eric Campbell. Harrison loses his helmet. He turns around to run to second. Campbell chases Harrison toward second. Harrison doubles back toward third, and Campbell runs past him toward second. Tejada runs to third. Campbell throws the ball to Tejada at third. Harrison runs back to second. Harrison falls on the grass. Tejada tries to tag Harrison and misses. Harrison jumps up and dives, safe, to third, where left fielder Chris Young now stands. Third base umpire Jeff Nelson, who has been close to third the whole time, calls Harrison safe. And somehow, amid all this, Polanco reaches second base, rather quietly. Harrison stands and claps. Mets manager Terry Collins storms onto the field and argues with the second and third base umpires. The play over, Harrison walks midway between third and second, retrieves his helmet, puts it back on, and walks back to third, Collins still arguing with the umpires.

My inclination is to revise those sentences, to trouble them, to make them somehow more fully (if that is even possible) capture what happened on the field, to find a syntax that better acknowledges the difficulty of what the call sets out to do. I find myself coming to the call with a mind akin to Eric Hayot: “I am suspicious, and for good reasons, I think, of the impulse against clutter—whether aesthetic or intellectual—when it seems to merge too cleanly with a concept of the work as an unblemished plane of coherence” (176). I, too, am suspicious. The call presents an event within the façade of clean sentences with subjects and verbs and objects, sentences composed and controlled by a speaker seeing the action. And yet I am drawn to them, the call so simple, so driving, beautiful even in its incompleteness. Neverett, Walk, Rose, and Brown move away from clutter; the call must be accessible to radio and television audiences; the call is governed by Clarity and Coherence. I wonder, though, what a call might look like that “[broke] … the reader’s or writer’s attempt to conceive [it] as a perfect whole” (Hayot 176). I want a call that is self-aware, a call that works within the knowledge that it is not, and can never be, a clean, perfect, self-contained representation of the game.

In my paragraph account of the pickle, I wrote: “Campbell throws the ball to Tejada at third. Harrison runs back to second.” Might I put a “while” into those sentences? While Campbell throws to Tejada, Harrison runs back to second. The “while” does allow for a bit of simultaneous action in the sentence, but its driving linearity—Campbell appears first, then the ball, then Tejada, then Harrison at the end of the sentence, even though he is running back to second as the interaction between Tejada and Campbell unfolds—still constructs an insufficient, incomplete, inadequate representation of the rundown. The sentence is singularly linear, saying one thing at a time, a simple relationship between subject, object, and verb. The action is none of these things. 

To get around the problem of linearity, I turn to the parenthesis, a textual manifestation of the sentence’s inability to contain all its words, the sentence rupturing midway through. I lower my voice and speak a bit quicker as I utter the parenthetical aside: Campbell (Harrison running to second) throws to Tejada. Maybe this sentence is better, placing Harrison amid Campbell throwing to Tejada, a sentence which grammatically mirrors Harrison’s physical location between the two Mets infielders. 

This rewrite, too, has issues. The audience must parse one sentence inside the other as both are doled out. Steven Pinker, in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, notes that “every time a writer adds a word to a sentence, his is imposing not one but two cognitive demands on the reader: understanding the word, and fitting it into the [syntactic] tree” (104). The words in “Campbell (Harrison running to second) throws to Tejada” are not the problem; they are easily understood. The trouble is in how the sentence itself asks the audience to hold the subject in abeyance while taking a detour around Harrison before telling what Campbell is doing. In the thrill of the rundown, it is too much to ask the radio listener to fit “Harrison running to second” into the rapidly growing syntactic tree. 

Another problem: the rewrite, while it does capture a bit of the simultaneity of the event, suggests that if a sentence were to record the entire event (the actions of Harrison, Campbell, and Tejada, as well as the other players on the field, the crowd in the stands, the umpires around the park, the viewers at home—I want to hear it all) the sentence would be unfathomably long, with layers upon layers of subordination, layers upon layers of appositives and left- and right- and mid-branching phrases, layers upon layers of embedded parentheticals and bracketed constructions. The sentence would be unwieldy, not one an announcer would want or even attempt to utter, and not one a listener would understand, let alone want to hear. The sentence would perhaps work in academic discourse—Hayot might be pleased—but it would deviate too greatly from its purpose of relaying the events of the game in real time and in ordinary language. And, even then, despite its length and syntactic complexity, the rewrite would still be incomplete. 


Perhaps I misunderstand the purpose of the call. My consternation over the inability of the sentence to offer a complete rendering of an event is only a problem if I expect it to do so. With that desire, I have succumbed to the same thinking that prompts J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. The lectures respond to Austin’s predecessors and contemporaries, who for “too long” thought “the business of a ‘statement’ can only be to ‘describe’ some state of affairs, or to ‘state some fact’, which it must do either truly or falsely” (1). Indeed, the call depends on being—and wants to be—heard in that manner, as true statements describing a state of affairs, as what Austin calls “constative utterances.” That’s the allure of the call; I want it to tell me what Harrison did in the rundown; I want it to be complete; I want it to be true. 

If heard as a constative utterance, the call isn’t up to the task. Might it be a performative utterance instead? Not likely. A performative utterance, Austin says, “is, or is part of, the doing of an action,” and concerning the events of the game, the call is impotent. It has no power, no authority, no ability to perform an action on the field, no more than if I, sitting in the bleachers, call Harrison safe at third. Nothing happens. I am not an umpire—the person “appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked” (15)—and neither is Rose, nor Neverett, nor Walk, nor Brown. Whatever utterances we speak (whether describing—“Polanco hits it right back to the mound”—or passing judgment—“He’s safe”) have no effect on the events on the field. They perform nothing. The call, then, is doing something other than making a constative or performative utterance. 


In a post-game interview, Harrison had this to say, “For me, I knew I was in a rundown, and I was just tryin’ to let Polanco get to second and in between it I just started goin’ stop, drop, and roll and that son of a bitch happened, and I was just tryin’ to get Polanco to second.” Brown, Neverett, Walk, and Rose’s calls focus on the athletes involved, but notice where Harrison—the centerpiece of the action, the whole play revolving around his agility—ascribes agency: “that son of a bitch happened.” For Harrison, caught between second and third, the event develops on its own, around him, and he finds himself in the middle of it, forced to respond to an event that is partly his own making, but so too an event that escalates out of his control even as he turns it in his favor. In Harrison’s remarks, a tension emerges between the individual actor and the event itself, a question of where agency resides. 


Austin, dissatisfied with the performative and constative—as I am in trying to account for the call—turns to the locutionary, the illocutionary, and the perlocutionary. These new terms help him continue to shift focus from what a sentence means to what it does. As Austin discards one set of terms for another, it seems I ought to do the same, now turning to the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary in my reading of the call. I could pick a phrase from one of the calls, work through it using Austin’s new terminology, asking what actions are undertaken by the utterance and considering what the utterance actually accomplishes. To do so would be to depend on Austin’s terms as solid, as definitive, as the main import from How to Do Things with Words. I’m not sure Austin wants to be read like that. 


The day after, Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had this to say in her write-up, “[T]hen came the highlight-reel play of the night. Gregory Polanco hit a ball back to Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejía, who seemingly trapped Harrison in a rundown. But Harrison kept eluding the tag, falling and crawling when necessary to reach third.” The passage hinges on “but.” When Mejía has the ball, we expect an easy out for the Mets. “But,” Menendez writes, “but…” The entire play could be summed up in that word—the Mets try this, but Harrison does that; the Mets try again, but Harrison escapes—baserunning artistry and athleticism carried within a conjunction, the conjunction turning the sentence just as Harrison does the play. 


Throughout How to Do Things with Words, Austin dismantles his carefully built argument. He proposes an idea early in a lecture, interrogates it, and refines it, offering numerous examples and taxonomies along the way. The next lecture begins with a summation of the previous lecture(s) and inevitably finds a problem from the content already covered, providing the fodder for the current lecture. "But," Austin writes, "but ..." 

Austin signals that this will be his method. A footnote from the first lecture: “Everything said in these sections is provisional, and subject to revision in the light of later sections” (4). Yet, against that caveat, Austin declares his subject matter “obvious,” starting with the second sentence of the book: “The phenomenon to be discussed is very widespread and obvious, and it cannot fail to have been already noticed” (1). He hopes what he has to say will “will strike you as obvious” (14). Later: “The answer to this is obvious” (23). This sense that all Austin’s observations and claims are obvious, self-evident, is accented by his taxonomies, the taxonomies giving the appearance of confidence, of control, of verifiable truth. 

Austin’s seeming confidence in the system he is creating is dismantled by his own admission that everything he says is provisional and subject to revision. Amid an argument of obvious statements, Austin unravels his lectures. The obvious is not so obvious. When Austin searches for a grammatical criterion to distinguish between the performative and the constative, he admits, in a parenthetical, “(I must explain again that we are floundering here. To feel the firm ground of prejudice slipping away is exhilarating, but brings its revenges)” (61). After offering a few examples of the illocutionary, again in a parenthetical: “(I am not suggesting that this is a clearly defined class by any means)” (99). These asides have Austin speaking under his breath, and their frequency suggests this continual second-guessing is vital to his method. After offering some preliminary criteria to distinguish the perlocutionary and the illocutionary: “The general conclusion must be, however, that these formulas are at best very slippery tests” (131). As Austin concludes his lectures, preparing to outline five classes of illocutionary force: “Well, here we go. I shall only give you a run around, or rather a flounder around” (151). Of those five classes: “I am far from equally happy about all of them” (151). Following that list of illocutionary forces: “I am not putting any of this forward as in the very least definitive” (152).


My scorebook, my paragraph write-up of the play, Harrison’s description of it, Menendez’s story for the local paper—these are all composed after the event, each writer and speaker having the luxury of looking back on the play. I would think that, given time and space from the play, a writer might be able to choose words to describe it, to account for it on the page or in speech, and yet, even with that distance from the event, we are still unable, despite our best efforts. 


Through a show of confidence and its subsequent undoing, Austin models things he would like his students to do with their own words. It is a method carried out in his own syntax, “For clearly any, or almost any, perlocutionary act is liable to be brought off, in sufficiently special circumstances, by the issuing, with or without calculation, of any utterance whatsoever, and in particular by a straightforward constative utterance (if there is such an animal)” (110). Austin begins with a claim of certainty—“For clearly”—and that certainty is strengthened by “any” and then emphasized by its italics. He immediately hedges: “or almost any.” Austin moves from subject to verb—“perlocutionary act is liable to be brought off”—his use of “is liable to” questioning whether it will or will not be “brought off.” Austin then qualifies that already qualified claim: “in sufficiently special circumstances.” (I note that any special circumstances will not do—they must be “sufficiently” special—and so even Austin’s qualification of another qualified statement is, itself, qualified.) Austin tries to tell what can bring off this perlocutionary act in these sufficiently special circumstances (“by the issuing”) but he before he can finish, he again interrupts himself with a qualification: “with or without calculation.” He finally completes the phrase: “of any utterance whatsoever,” the “any” and “whatsoever” echoing the assurance of the sentence’s opening, an assurance that has been called into question. Austin then adds yet another qualification to the sentence: “and in particular by a straightforward constative utterance.” But Austin, as his project has been working to ferret out the difference between performative and constative utterances, immediately recoils from such a firm statement with another parenthetical: “(if there is such an animal).” 

Its opening claim now in doubt, the sentence itself enacts the same method as Austin’s lectures, dismantling itself. Austin challenges readers to revise their understanding of the constative and the performative, to think in terms other than true and false, to see the performativity of all language. Consequently, he must take apart his text, for in its self-consumption, Austin models the way of thinking he wants to teach his students. Austin is not content to merely build a system, an interpretative framework; he wants to know its limits. From its failings, Austin then crafts a better system, a system he necessarily must dismantle once he builds it.

To cling to Austin’s terms, then, is to read Austin for his constative statements alone—that is, attending to what his text says rather than what it does—and it is a mistake. Because he constantly doubts his claims, the performance of Austin’s text moves to the fore, his method, in effect, saying, “Disregard my conclusions; look at what I’m doing.” Just as he argues, in his first lecture, that language does more than merely constate facts, so too, Austin’s lectures are a performative argument that a lecture can do more than merely constate facts. This is evident how he titles his lectures: not Things Done with Words, which would emphasize their content, but How to Do Things with Words, a title that calls attention to the performativity of words as well as Austin as teacher, writer, thinker, scholar, and student of language. The book is a lesson in, and an argument for, a way of thinking about language not bound to meaning alone. It is a book on method, a how-to book.


Winnowing their words, writers work within the constraints of their medium and their moment. The field of options narrows. This, we know. Yet so often we hear, we speak, we read, we write, day after day, sentences that present themselves as clean, self-contained, complete. If we take Austin’s invitation to think about language in ways other than those concerned with how accurately it speaks of the world, and if we enact his method and so revisit sentences multiple times over, we can see these sentences as having another function: the call, its various iterations, and this cyclical practice of reading and re-reading—all these are formative. The routines and rhythms of the game (and writing and reading) repeat again and again and again. They become familiar, expected, habitual, and through their repetition, they teach how to be a fan (or a writer or a reader). 

Consider this: Following the play, even as he is still speaking, Brownie finds himself (for lack of a better term) speechless. Unable to generate his own original sentences, he turns to the broadcaster’s storehouse of pre-fabricated phrases: “Unbelievable! No way! That’s impossible! That is impossible! He could not possibly have done that!” Having seen the impossible, Brown cannot find something to say. He resorts to stock responses his audience expects in this moment. I hear echoes of Russ Hodges’s iconic call, the way each repeats his sentences, breaks apart a contraction: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! … I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it!” The irony, of course, is that despite proclamations to the contrary, it is believable. It is possible. The Giants won the pennant, and Harrison made it to third. 

These statements could be uttered at any sporting event, in response to any play, and here, overcome by the Pirates in the middle of a standout season, Harrison making a dramatic play in extra innings, Brown reverts to exclamations of the unbelievable, the ineffable. He doesn’t know what to say, how to handle himself, or how to communicate the joy on the field. So the shared language of Sport takes over, providing him the words his audience needs to hear, broadcaster that he is. Such utterances come in moments of ecstasy—“Unbelievable!”—so too they come with the mundane—“Winning run at second we’re tied in the tenth at two.” In both moments the announcer speaks a language that is, as David Bartholomae says, not his own (15).The announcer is enmeshed in a particular world, its particular ways of thinking, its particular ways of speaking, its particular ways of making sense of events. With this inherited language, the announcer no longer calls the game. The Game calls him. 



I thank Betsey Moe for pointing me to McPhee, Grant Martsolf for teaching me to score, and Dan Barlow, Dave Bartholomae, Matt Benton, Paul Kameen, Traynor Hansen, and Eric Hayot for reading drafts of this piece.

Works Cited

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. 1962. Edited by J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà, 2nd edition, Harvard UP, 1975.

Bartholomae, David. Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2005.

Brown, Greg. “Harrison safe after rundown.” MLB.com, 27 June 2014, m.mlb.com/video/v34094561/nympit-harrison-advances-to-third-on-long-rundown.

Fish, Stanley. “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics.” New Literary History, vol. 2, no. 1, Autumn 1970, pp. 123-62.

Harrison, Josh. “MLB Tonight: Josh Harrison.” MLB.com, 27 June 2014. mlb.com/video/mlb-tonight-josh-harrison/c-34098047

Hayot, Eric. The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities. Columbia UP, 2014.

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