Walk-off Home Run

by John Delach

Don’t you sometimes wonder where new expressions originate? Most often they seem to arrive on “winds of change” which I’d wager is exactly one of those expressions. The title of Sebastian Jager’s book, The Perfect Storm, first published in 1997 was co-opted by the media to include political, economic, military, etc. crises. I suspect Mr. Jager found this to be a curious expansion of a phrase he intended to explain what happened to a Grand Banks fishing boat that ventured out at precisely the same time as three separate vicious weather systems joined together to form a monster of a storm.

The expression wasn’t even recognized in 1998 the year after Mr. Jager first published his book and I suspect he lifted it from the maritime / fishing industry where it was used as a term of art. Today it is also defined as: “A particular or critical state of affairs arising from a number of negatives and unpredictable factors.”

Likewise, writers, reporters, columnists and talking heads ran away with the phrase Jager used in his book to describe when a fishing boat became unseaworthy: “tipping point.” Again, these scribes and broadcasters ran wild with tipping point using it to identify the exact moment when the sh*t hit the fan for a political, economic, racial problem, etc. or incident.

The origin of walk-off home run eluded me for a long time. I believe that I first heard this expression on ESPN which may or may not be true. In any event, once it was first adopted, it spread like wildfire. By the time I caught on to it, walk-off had become part of our everyday sports-talk.

Finally, a piece by Victor Mather appeared in The New York Times Sports Section this summer explaining its origin. Curiously, Mr. Mather first wrote this piece October of 2017?

 “Walk-off home run” was originally coined by Dennis Eckersley to describe the pitcher’s reaction to a game-ending home run that the batter hit so hard that the man on the mound knew instantaneously the baseball was going to land deep into the outfield seats. No sense turning around to see where the ball was going, none what-so-ever – just walk off the mound, cross the infield, pass through the dugout and head for the tunnel leading to the locker room.

Eckersley first used the phrase as a broadcaster on NESN, the Red Sox network. Ironically, Eckersley, a Major League Baseball hall of famer was the pitcher who served up the famous pitch to the LA Dodgers Kirk Gibson in the bottom of the ninth inning of the 1988 World Series.

Gibson, who was injured came off the bench to pinch hit, clocked the ball into the stands. Gibson, a semi cripple chugged around the bases on his two damaged legs like an old steam locomotive heading for the barn: “I think I can, I think I can…”

Mr. Mather noted: “More than a decade ago, some were already sick of the term. In 2000 Sports Illustrated wrote, ‘Like crab grass invading someone’s lawn, walk-off has taken root in sports lingo and gotten out-of-control.”

After being universally applied to any game-ending home runs walk-off soon became applied to game-ending base hits as well such as walk-off singles, doubles and triples. Now it has spread to include walk-off double plays, walk-off walks, walk-off errors, walk-off hit by pitches and walk-off balks.

In Japan, the term is the more expressive “Sayonara home run” as sayonara has far more finality than goodbye.

If it were possible to re-wind the clock and limit the expression to Mr. Eckersley definition, walk-off home run would be palatable. Still, let’s rewind the clock back further to 1951 and Bobby Thomson’s dramatic home run that beat the Dodgers in the ninth inning of their final playoff game. I ask, “Would you prefer ‘Walk-off Home Run’ or ‘The Shot Heard Round the World?”