I’ve noticed a lot athletes, particularly members of the San Francisco Giants, because I watch their games more than others, are using “surreal” these days as a go-to adjective to describe what older players may have called “amazing,” “fantastic,” or “unreal.”
Those words are all acceptable synonyms for the non-art-world meaning of surreal, though they give no hint of the other-worldly, hallucinatory sense at the core of things properly called surreal.
While it’s no reason to send a player back to the minors for more practice on interview phrases, I wish ball players would excise surreal from their bat rack of handy cliches. It makes them sound as if they had spent the previous four hours at a Phish concert rather than on a baseball diamond.
Just the other day, grinning Giants rookie Kelby Tomlinson said the experience of hitting a grand slam as his first home run in the Major Leagues was, you got it, surreal.
I’m the first to give the kid a break since he’s probably heard plenty of other ball players this season describing other key hits, outstanding plays, dugout pranks or standing ovations as surreal. But an intervention is needed.
It’s become so widespread a usage that even players who speak through translators are using surreal in their native tongue like so many dazed Phish heads or art history minors. I fear by next season, players will be describing their emotional highs as “definitely post-impressionistic” or “downright Dadaesque.”
To clear the air, I offer a few baseball scenarios that would truly warrant being described as surreal:
— If Hunter Pence, the free-spirited Giants outfielder, walks his pet lobster on a leash — Salvador Dali-style — to the batting cage in advance of taking his pre-game rips.
— If hundreds of black-suited umpires wearing bowler hats descend slowly through the stadium air with rolled up umbrellas, jewel-studded chest protectors and featureless faces.
— If Los Angeles Dodgers players run forever toward first base with heavy bags of money encumbering their legs, but never reach base, while packs of vicious gulls befoul their tidy white uniforms with gallons of guano. (This is a hallucinatory dream enjoyed, perhaps, by many Giants fans.)
— If Giants manager Bruce Bochy speaks ancient Etruscan during his post game press conference and all the media people understand perfectly as he explains how shortstop Brandon Crawford “ground out a good at-bat” despite how his long hair was transformed into a tangle of hissing serpents.
Don’t get me wrong. Many unusual things can happen during a baseball game. It’s true one can go to the park or tune in a game on any given day and stand a very good chance of witnessing something never seen before.
Still, nothing truly surreal happens, unless you mistakenly count the August 1951 game when the St. Louis Browns used 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedel as a first-inning pinch hitter. Gaedel, who wore the number 1/8, drew a four-pitch walk.
There was nothing surreal about this episode, which was cooked up by Bill Veeck, the Browns’ shameless publicity hound of an owner. Veeck reportedly threatened to shoot Gaedel if the wee man dared swing at a pitch.
Now had Gaedel blasted the first pitch over the center-field wall, causing all the time pieces in the stadium to slowly melt while the fielders’ mitts overflowed with milk and radishes, there would have been only one way to accurately call the play: definitely surreal.