Thrill of Victory

Mining the garbage dump of sports clichés

I am not necessarily against the sports cliché. Sometimes, there is no better, quicker way to express what just happened during a game that using a term like “buzzer-beater,” and with spring upon us, the words “March Madness” communicate about as much in 12 letters as any phrase in sports.

At the same time, March Madness brings with it some of the dumber clichés you’ll find in sports. A great example of this is, “it’s hard for team ‘A’ to beat team ‘B’ three times in the same season,” this comment, of course, being made as team “A” and team “B” are about to meet for the third time with team “A” having won the previous two match-ups. The way commentators talk, you’d think the teams were playing a triple-header that day, and besides, if beating a team for a third time was so difficult, then why did team “A” win the first two times?

This is probably the one cliché in sports that drives me crazy more than any other, but there are plenty more. With the help of, I’ve compiled a list of the more brainless ones, categorized by the level of offense.

“character” — Often used to describe a championship-level team and explain its success, as if it can be explained by a preponderance of Boy Scouts on its roster that practice 19 hours a day that other teams don’t have. Teams and athletes that experienced huge success due to their tremendous character include the 1980s and ‘90s Miami Hurricane football teams, the mid-‘80s New York Mets, Lance Armstrong, and any number of Southeastern Conference football teams.

“intangibles” — Credit is due to baseball writer Bill James for talking about this in The New Bill James Historical Abstract. If I am arguing that my favorite player is better than your favorite player, even though the statistics don’t support my claim, all I have to do is claim my player made so many contributions “you can’t measure,” which, even though I can’t measure them, conclusively eliminate that measurable gap between your guy and mine. Presto, I’ve won the argument!

“mistake” — A mistake is when it’s two weeks into the new year and I’m still writing “2012” on checks, or a quarterback failing to see a linebacker underneath in coverage and throwing the ball right to him. The following are not “mistakes” — committing a dozen NCAA infractions and failing to report them, driving drunk at twice the legal limit, beating the tar out of your wife, or using steroids for two years until you finally get exposed for failing a drug test.

It will be a great day when a coach gets in front of a microphone and says, “Yeah, I cheated and I mean to cheat. In fact, the NCAA doesn’t even know the half of it yet. I did it because… well, you’ve seen how much better we are with Jones and Smith in the lineup, and our school’s in a crap-hole of a town and we haven’t won a conference title since the Eisenhower administration and you guys know I have no clue on how to coach, so how else could I land those guys? Besides, those morons at the NCAA couldn’t find Fort Knox with a GPS or a metal detector, and I figured I’d get away with it.”

“when it counts” — This term particularly applies to baseball in September, when commentators refer to how a team plays in those games “when it counts.” I guess someone forgot to inform MLB that its exhibition season ends in March…

“110 percent” — More proof that America is falling behind other nations in math.

“blue-collar” — Usually refers to football or hockey teams, and usually teams that have good defenses and play in cold weather. Playing in a city known for its industrial activity also helps; the Pittsburgh Steelers are the prototypical blue-collar team because, even though many of its players grew up far from steel mills in places like Florida, or California, or suburban Dallas, the city’s rich history of blue-collar workers must have had a profound influence on how the team’s players approach the game.

Schools with rosters composed of a lot of upper-middle-class white kids (think Duke or Ivy-League basketball, or BYU football) are decidedly not “blue-collar” teams, nor are teams located in warm-weather cities.

“clubhouse chemistry” — Similar to “intangibles,” except it helps explain excellence on a team level even if none of us really know what’s happening behind the scenes. Great dynasties like the early-‘70s Oakland As were built on a foundation of strong clubhouse chemistry.

“the good old days” — Refers to the era in a particular sport (which always occurred at least 20 years ago) when the players were more skilled and fundamentally-sound and played harder (and would have played for free!). During this time, the sport itself was as pure as the driven snow. Also referred to in the Bible as as “the Garden of Eden.”

“I don’t want to point fingers” — This is the sports version of the popular Southern phrase “bless his heart,” which gives the speaker of that phrase carte blanche to say whatever he pleases about a particular individual so long as it’s gently couched at the end, as in, “Bless his heart, he’s dumber than a bag of hammers and uglier than sin and he smells like he bathed in a Port-a-John, but he means well.”

“lunch pail” — The container in which players on all blue-collar teams transport their daily lunch, which their wives undoubtedly packed for them at the crack of dawn. Ray Lewis, despite the fact that he made tens of millions of dollars and could eat anywhere he pleased for any meal, is the prototypical “lunch-pail” player. (Just curious, have any of you ever actually eaten your lunch from a pail?)

“sleeper” — Frequently used to describe the 13-seed in the NCAA Basketball Tournament that nobody has actually seen play. We’re reminded that “everyone is sleeping on this team” even though it got two hours of mention on ESPN the previous day and 68 percent of individuals are picking the team to win two games in their respective tournament brackets.

“sneaking up” — A term used to describe teams that previously had losing seasons, but suddenly one year developed stealth powers that made them impervious to scouting reports, as each opponent it beat the previous showed up on Saturday expecting a bus full of third-grade girls looking for a tickle fight instead of a legitimate football team. As in, “Vanderbilt won nine games last year, but won’t sneak up on anyone this season.”

“stays within himself” — The biggest back-handed compliment one can give an athlete. Did Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan ever “stay within themselves?”

“throw out the records” — Almost always used when discussing a rivalry game to convince us that, hey, that 11-1 team is really no better than its 3-8 opponent.

“choke” — When one team loses a large lead late in the game, it’s the perfect catch-all phrase to sum up what happened without really having to explain it. The difference between a 15-0 run early in the game and a 15-0 run to end the game can be simply be attributed to the team on the wrong end of it “choking.”

“drafting to fill a need” — An important clarification for the uniformed viewer, as if most teams like to stockpile players who’ll never compete for a job.

“manufacturing a run” — Cannot involve an extra-base hit; runs are only “manufactured” if they involve walks, stolen bases or sacrifice hits.

“volume shooter” — A grown-up word for “ball hog.”