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Playing ball, by the book

This is a blessed time of year for those of us who are sports fans.

The week that began with the NCAA basketball tournaments will climax with the Masters at Augusta, the floral highlight of the season. The hockey and NBA playoffs are only days away.

And best of all, the baseball season has begun. This week, fans of every team, even the woeful Washington Nationals, can imagine them being this year’s Tampa Bay Rays — a perpetual loser transformed into a World Series contender.

By summer, we will know which of those dreams are doomed, but baseball will have no real rivals for our attention. And this year, we have a wonderful companion volume for the nights when there are rainouts or the days when our favorite teams are traveling.

The book is “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Third Edition.” It is the product of Paul Dickson, who lives in the Washington suburbs, but as he readily acknowledges, he has had many collaborators: the fans who loved the earlier editions and kept suggesting more words and phrases to be added.

The first edition, published in 1989, had 5,000 entries; the second, 10 years later, had 7,000. Now another decade has passed, and there are 10,000 in this 974-page doorstop of a volume — enough to last a fan through a 162-game season and the playoffs.

Dickson is a generous editor, supplying as many definitions as each word requires in baseball lingo. There are 15 baseball meanings for hook, 13 for slot, 11 each for break, jump and cut. He also provides examples of original and memorable usage.

The word “donkey,” for example, was used as early as 1903 to refer to a rookie or minor-league player up for a tryout in the majors. The 1903 citation explained, “A rookie was a yannigan, unless he happened to make an ass of himself, in which case he became a ‘donkey.’” Almost 90 years later, the Giants’ Bobby Thomson, writing about his team’s miracle 1951 season, used the same term to describe what happens “if you screw up and you lose, well, no one wants to be the donkey.”

Turn back several hundred pages and you learn that the term “yannigan,” which apparently remains in the baseball vocabulary, has a distinctive history of its own. It came out of the lumber camps — or maybe derived from the ancient Celtic word for something easily beaten, like a rug — and was applied to a team of rookies by their manager when they went into training camp back in 1894. The charm of this book lies in the things you encounter serendipitously. In the middle of a long discussion of the term “Yankee hater,” Dickson reports that according to The Baltimore Sun, a New Jersey lawyer named Mike Moorby created a Yankee hater cap with an interlocking Y and H. “It’s Yankee hating for the more sophisticated palate,” Moorby said.

Back on the same page where “donkey” is explained, I learned that “doghouse fiddle” refers to an attempted double steal and “dog meat” is a synonym for utility player.

On the same page, Dickson reported that inventive sports writers, mainly in Seattle, have used the terms “domeball,” “domestand,” “dome run,” “dome dong,” and “domefield advantage,” since their city acquired a stadium with a retractable roof.

All this on only two pages of a 974-page book. What a treasure to have at hand with a long season ahead.

You can write to David Broder in care of Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; e-mail, davidbroder@ washpost.com.

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