Walk It Off

A negative baseball term becomes positive

The World Series is fast approaching, and many of the teams in the playoffs are hoping for at least one “walkoff” victory. That’s where the home team takes the lead in the bottom of the ninth inning or later, and the game abruptly ends. It’s a good thing, because it means the team has triumphed over a tie or has come from behind at the last minute. A “walkoff” home run is particularly welcome.

But “walkoffs” (also spelled “walk offs” or “walk-offs”) have not always been so joyful. They used to signal failure, particularly by a relief pitcher.

The term may have been coined in 1988 by Dennis Eckersley, then a reliever for the Oakland Athletics. During the season, Eckersley spoke frequently of the times a visiting pitcher lost the game at the last minute. As he put it in one article: “On the road, when you give up a game-winning home run you have to walk off. I’d forgotten how terrible that feels because I haven’t had to do it in a while.”

During the World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers that year, when Eckersley gave up a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning, one sportswriter noted: “Dennis Eckersley has his own description for what Kirk Gibson did to him in Game 1. He calls them ‘walk-off pieces.’ You don’t look back, you walk off the mound and you wait for a new day because the old one has been ripped to pieces.”

Through the early nineties, the term was usually associated with Eckersley, always connoting failure and embarrassment. But in the mid-nineties, the “walkoff homer” appeared, switching the focus from the pitcher to the batter. Though the term was used relatively infrequently, “walkoff” homers begat “walkoff” triples, which begat “walkoff” doubles … even “walkoff” walks. By 2009, the term “walkoff” was being applied to virtually any game that ended in the bottom of an inning—roughly half of them.

So how did an unhappy term become a happy one, and so common?

Sorry, no answers here. It’s a mystery, more so because the winners of a home game are unlikely to be “walking off” anyway – they will run, jump, leap, or gambol from the dugout to greet the victorious runner as he reaches home. It is the pitcher on the mound and his teammates who will “walk off,” heads held low. But no one is looking at them.

If anyone has ideas on how Eckersley’s disgrace became the home team’s triumph, please share them by writing languagecorner@cjr.org.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.