Annals of opaque sports metaphors

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On NBC's "Meet the Press" this morning, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty grasped for a baseball metaphor in this exchange with David Gregory (see the end of this video clip), and came up with the proposal that the Republicans "need to be not just the party of saying, 'We hope President Obama continues to kick it in the dugout'." Here's the context:

MR. GREGORY: You've actually been critical of the Republican Party, and you gave an interview this week to Esquire magazine. Here's a portion of it, I'll put it on the screen. "The Republicans had their shot not long ago to address the real needs and concerns of everyday Americans, and they blew it. … Over the time that they were there and had the leadership opportunity, they blew it. We got fired for a reason." So what makes you think that the Republican Party has turned itself around?

GOV. PAWLENTY: As I travel the country, I talk to Republicans, I talk to conservatives. Everybody acknowledges we've learned our lesson. And if we are given the privilege and the opportunity to govern again and to lead again, I think everyone's committed to learning from those lessons and doing it right. You know, the last eight years when Republicans were in charge, the spending was not where it should have been. We had a number of opportunities to change that and they–it didn't happen. And also, when you look at the real problems of this country, these are serious times with serious challenges. There is a Republican or conservative approach to fixing the healthcare system. It's needed. There is a conservative and Republican message on growing the economy, and it's needed. And down the list. So we need to be not just the party of saying, "We hope President Obama continues to kick it in the dugout." That's not a strategy, that's not a plan, that's not a vision for the future. We also have to offer our own ideas and alternatives to solve and address these needs. (NBC transcript)

The dugout is, of course, one of two areas along the baselines of a baseball diamond where the team benches are located. When I first heard Pawlenty's metaphor, I got an image of Obama as the frustrated slugger who strikes out and, on his return to the dugout, kicks the water-cooler or some other equipment. But on further thought, it seems more likely that Pawlenty is saying that Obama is playing the role of an inept infielder trying to scoop up a ground ball but instead booting it into the dugout.

I was stymied by (what I'm assuming is) Pawlenty's intended image because of two ambiguities: the anaphoric ambiguity of the pronoun it (does it refer to a baseball or some or other object?), and the lexicosemantic ambiguity of the preposition in (does it mean 'into' or 'inside'?). If Pawlenty had been less opaque and had said "We hope President Obama continues to kick the ball into the dugout," (or better yet, "boot the ball into the dugout"), at least we'd have a better handle on what he was going for.

Even when we flesh out the metaphor, it's more than a little peculiar. In my baseball-watching experience, I can't recall any noteworthy examples of a player accidentally kicking the ball into one of the dugouts, and a search online doesn't immediately turn up any occurrences of the phenomenon. Perhaps other fans can help me out here.

Then again, Pawlenty seems to enjoy unusual sports-related metaphorical turns. Later on "Meet the Press," Gregory confronted the governor on his odd invocation of Tiger and Elin Woods in his speech at the CPAC conference last week:

Now, I think we can learn a lot from that situation.  Not from Tiger, but from his wife.  So she said, "I've had enough." She said, "No more." I think we should take a page out of her playbook and take a nine iron and smash the window out of the–big government in this country.  …  We've had enough.

Pawlenty defended this by saying, "Well, I think people still enjoy a little sense of humor, and if we've gotten to the point where you can't make a joke, you know, I think we're in trouble." Inappropriate joking aside, I think he'd be well-advised to start looking for some less problematic sports metaphors.

[Update #1: This isn't the first time that Pawlenty has used the dugout metaphor. Here he is on Fox News last October, being interviewed by Neil Cavuto about how he was supporting the conservative candidate Doug Hoffman in an upstate New York congressional race over the Republican party nominee, Dede Scozzafava:

I think you have here a very just poor decision by the small group of party leaders who made this decision. It wasn't a grassroots decision. They endorsed a candidate who has voted to raise income taxes in New York, who's in favor of card check, who's voted in favor or supported the stimulus bill, has voted in favor of bank bailouts, has voted in favor of all sorts of other issues that just are inconsistent with being a Republican.
There's latitude in the party. We're not going to all agree on all issues. So we got to have some room for that, and I agree with that perspective. But in this case they so kicked it in the dugout it doesn't even pass a minimum standard.

A few commenters below suggest "kick it" could mean 'to relax, hang out,' but in this case Pawlenty clearly intends "kick it in the dugout" to mean 'to flub or mishandle something.']

[Update #2: One more! On CNN last September, Pawlenty said, "I mean, our strategy can't be, we hope the other side kicks it in the dugout."]


  1. Mr. B said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    This is probably a serious stretch, but "kick it" in my mind (although not in my personal lexicon) is the slang usage of "hang out" and has no referent for "it" (e.g. "Let's go kick it in the backyard" = "Let's go relax/hang out in the backyard").Thus, I read Pawlenty's comment as suggesting that the GOP shouldn't be content to see Obama sitting on the proverbial sidelines and watching things happen but not getting anything accomplished from his own efforts (what in other sports might be referred as Obama being "benched"). But I absolutely agree that the statement itself is not very clear and thus mostly useless; if he is in fact making use of the slang term, then that doesn't exactly reflect well on his ability to use expressions and idioms that will be "respectable" to the audience of Meet the Press.

  2. Laura Heymann said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    I came up with the same interpretation as Mr. B, and I don't think it's all that much of a stretch. I think Pawlenty meant to convey, as Mr. B suggested, that Republicans can't simply rely on the fact (in their view) that Obama doesn't seem to be getting in the game — they have to execute some plays themselves.

  3. Don Sample said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    There's another meaning for "kicking it" that I think might be closer to what Pawlenty intended: Being laid back, and relaxed, and not doing anything.

  4. mollymooly said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    Similar to preceding commenters, I would have interpreted "kick it in the dugout" as "twiddle one's thumbs on the sidelines". I can't say how this image of Obama as a roi fainéant tallies with the usual Republican view of him as an interfering busybody. But then, as a European, I can misunderstand a baseball analogy at the best of times.

  5. Evan said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    The "kick it" ~= "hang out" interpretation makes sense for the first cited usage, but not the latter ("… they so kicked it in the dugout…").

  6. Bobbie said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

    A quick search for "kick(ed) it in the dugout" yields NO hits except for Pawlenty's recent remarks and this article….. So is this a Minnesotan cliche that the rest of us don't use?

  7. Don Monroe said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

    The Tiger reference isn't really a sports metaphor.
    Check out this odd video, at about 1:00 in:

  8. John said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    What? Fumble is no good now that the Super Bowl is over and pitchers and catchers have reported?

    What about bobble or drop the third strike or throw away, if you have to do baseball.

    Missed the mark, if you ask me.

  9. Bob H said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    I doubt someone of Governor Pawlenty's age would use the phrase "kick it" to mean "hang out", though I don't actually know how old that expression is.
    Dickson's Baseball Dictionary lists "kick" meaning "to mishandle a ground ball; to commit an error" dating to 1906. I think "boot" is a more common term for it today. Under "boot", Dickson writes "Originally, a booted ball was (and still is on occasion) one that had actually been kicked in error, but the term has long since been generalized to any fielding error." I've certainly seen incidents of fielders accidentally throwing into a dugout, so that image would make more sense.
    I think what's most confusing about Pawlenty's quote is the choice of the preposition "in". If he had said "kicked it into the dugout", it would be less ambiguous.

    [(bgz) Indeed. At least one commentator even heard it this way, quoting Pawlenty as saying, "The GOP must do more than hope that 'President Obama keeps kicking it into the dugout.'" But the video clip agrees with NBC's transcription.]

  10. Steve said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    Could this be a soccer rather than baseball reference? Kicking the ball is never good in baseball, but in soccer there is good kicking (into the net/goal) and bad kicking (into the dugout?).

  11. JP Villanueva said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    I was also going to suggest the same (to kick it = to chill, do nothing), but I'm not sure why it would have to be in the dugout, rather than 'kickin it in the White House or any other place.

    I was talking once to a British friend about what I perceived as West Coast (USA) slang (things like "to kick it, hella, tight, bomb," etc. He told me he perceived that same language as 1990s slang…

  12. Laura Heymann said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

    Maybe this is actually a more nuanced metaphor than I initially thought, since a ball kicked into the dugout is not simply an error in play but also one that can allow the opposing team's baserunners to advance (

  13. Karen said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

    Except that soccer doesn't have dugouts – that's another one of baseball's idiosyncratic terms

  14. Dan Bloom said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    You know, the red state blue state divide in the USA is literally killing America in plain sight, and a pox on all those who are strangling pax americana this way. I left the USA in 1991, never to return to that sick sick sick country, and to hear Pawlenty continue to kick the Democratic ball this way just shows how sad and pathetic the once great nation of America has become. America, I cry for thee! As an overseas Rip Van Winkle, I see the decline of the USA so clearly, and it's very sad. And it seems to be irreversible, soccer metaphors or no. When will Americans wake up? I fear it is too late already! Sigh.

  15. T-Rex said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    "Soccer" does have dug-outs, but you'd have to be insanely bad to kick the ball into them, particularly instead of into the goal!

  16. Josh said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 1:46 am

    With a little googling, I found this article with "kicked into the dugout" used in context.
    "Johnson let Miller's short-hop throw up the third-base line get by and the ball kicked into the dugout, allowing Zeringue to score."
    This would agree with Bob H's analysis. Though, there's an interesting twist here as the ball is what kicked, instead of what was being kicked.

  17. Josh said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 2:02 am

    I was also going to add that, as others have mentioned, the biggest ambiguity is using "in" instead of "into". Is it possible there is a regional thing going on here? I'm Minnesotan, and I can't think of any place where you would use "into" that "in" wouldn't sound just as acceptable, if not better, relying on the verb to clear up any ambiguity.

  18. Ken Grabach said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    The metaphor of kicking in a baseball context is to suggest the height of inept and clumsy play, as the feet are not used to move the ball in play. I have heard a few phrases such as this, such as 'kick it all over the park'. Kicking it into the dugout seems even worse, because at that point the ball is dead, not even possible to pick it up to try a throw to get a runner out. These suggest a much lower level of baseball than the major leagues (although television shows that major leaguers are capbable of play equally inept). This kind of phrase is often used by people who have played ball themselves, at Little League and other youth levels. It's a player's metaphor rather than a spectator's.

    I am struck, however by the mix of metaphors in the Tiger Woods comment. I've never heard of a playbook that called for using a nine-iron (or any other iron, or even a wood).

  19. Ginger Yellow said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    My first thought was that it was an analogue of the rugby derived phrase "kick it into touch", ie to delay action. But the second citation seems to preclude that interpretation.

  20. LHC said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    If Pawlenty is using "kicking it" in the "hanging out" sense, what is most interesting is how this phrase entered the speech of a 50-year old white man from St. Paul, Minnesota.

    Re: JP Villaneuva's comments above:
    In the early 1990s, "kicking it" and "hella" etc. were not generic West Coast slang, but specific to particular demographics in particular parts of California; as these expressions spread across the West, they also spread across the country, which is why your British friend might associate them with the 1990s. For example, "hella" (as in the expression of appreciation for male beauty, "He's he….lla fine!") was a distinctively San Francisco Bay Area Chicano idiom, which people from Los Angeles found annoying until they started saying it; "kicking it" was (I think?) a Black idiom that achieved popularity through LA-area rap.

    Both expressions were associated with youth speech; but of course the people who originally used those phrases did get older in the last twenty-five years. Pawlenty grew up in the wrong place and time to have used this expression when young, and seems even to have been a little too old to have absorbed it unconsciously when it diffused across the nation, and yet the usage doesn't sound too scripted… Perhaps he's betraying a secret love of old school gangster rap?

  21. JimG said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    Baseball rulebook, Rule 7.05, paragraph (h), says
    If, however, the pitched or thrown ball goes through or by the catcher or through the fielder, and remains on the playing field, and is subsequently kicked or deflected into the dugout, stands or other area where the ball is dead, the awarding of bases shall be two bases from position of runners at the time of the pitch or throw.

    This leads to a prescription, "Don't kick it in the dugout."

  22. Karl Weber said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    Ken Grabach's point about "kicking the ball" being a general baseball image of ineptitude is borne out by the fact that "booting it" is a common expression meaning "to commit a fielding error," often used even when the feet are not literally involved (for example when an infielder simply drops a ball while preparing to throw it).

  23. MIchael C. Dunn said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

    As an Editor I've often had to deal with authors who tried to use sports metaphors without, well, knowing much about the sport. Bad poker metaphors are particularly common, but I suspect this one is a conflation of something else with baseball.

    As an aside, perhaps the funniest mistake using a poker image was a display I saw at a major defense show some 20 years back (long enough I can't recall the company responsible, no doubt to their relief), which was promoting some sort of new airborne defense interactive system they were promoting as a "full house." Indeed, they showed a poker hand that was a full house, but it was the black aces, the black eights, and one red ace.

    Black aces and eights, whatever the historical truth, will always be in folklore the "Dead Man's Hand" Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot in Deadwood. Not an image you value in selling a defense system.

    The military attendees at the show obviously knew more about poker (or Western lore) than the PR folks who designed the display. The next day the cards had been (fairly obviously) painted to change an ace and and eight to red suits.

  24. Roger Lustig said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 1:50 am

    "Kick it" seems to have been generalized to mean "do it" at some point. In _Juno_ the title character asks to "kick it old school," i.e., do the adoption without modern things like visitation rights, etc.

    I've also seen a t-shirt that directed one to "kick it old school" above a picture of a tricycle complete with the tassels hanging from the handlebar grips.

  25. T-Rex said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    Possibly the most excellent example ever of the phrase "kicking it old school" can be found in this video at 48 seconds:

  26. Anna Phor said,

    February 24, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    I don't think this is"kick it" meaning "relax," but with regard to speech patterns not expected from a person of this age/race/class, is anyone else struck by the intensifier "so" in th Fox quote? ("He so kicked it in the dugout.")

  27. Gary said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    Baseball? Please…

    Provenance matters. Pawlenty is from Minnesota, where lots of people enjoy canoeing. So perhaps he was referring to a dugout canoe.

    Along with other remarks here, we can then translate Pawlenty's utterance as, "We hope that our esteemed President Obama continues to enjoy canoeing."

    Perhaps he meant that he'd rather have Obama so fixated on canoeing that he forgets to govern and hands the republicans the election, but without further evidence this is little more than libelous speculation.

  28. Sue said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    Pawlenty never played much baseball, as far as I know, but he did play ice hockey in high school and still gets out on the ice on occasion. Of course, hockey doesn't have dugouts, unless it's played on a flooded baseball field.

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