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The Trite Trophy: The worst sports cliches of 1999

Sunday, December 26, 1999

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Live from The Big Public Building Named For A Bank With Clearly More Money Than It Knows What To Do With, it's the 16th annual Trite Trophy presentation dishonoring the worst sports cliche of 1999.

Conceived in a five-alarm deadline panic in December of 1984 and dedicated to the preposterous proposition that it is, in every conceiveable way, always better to say "score" than Put Points On The Scoreboard (and where else would you put 'em?), the Trite simply refuses to Hang 'Em Up despite repeated concussions, the most vicious and ironic arising out of its own triteness.

We're compelled to start the proceedings by poking Joe Theismann of the ESPN Sunday night football telecasts, who admonished the Cleveland Browns during the first real game in their new stadium with, "You gotta score to put points on the board in this league."

Presumably, Joe knows of leagues where this is not necessarily the case, but his jarring observation would ultimately confuse the Steelers, who were scoring 43 points that night but immediately lost the ability to conceptualize further offensive success. Coincidence?

For the rest of the season, Bill Cowher's team lived in the shadow of the great cliche We Made Plays When We Had To, or, in Pittsburgh's Case, They Made Plays And We Didn't. Bill was heard using that second-rate cliche too often in 1999, but probably not so much as he said Execution Is The Bottom Line In This Business, which was also, I think, a common observation of state Department of Corrections officials in the hours leading up to the July lethal injection of Gary Heidnik.

Anyway (you'll notice as the Trite gets older we have difficulty keeping it on task), the doomed purpose of this whole endeavor is an attempt to cleanse from the language any or all of the hundreds upon hundreds of shaggy sports cliches, those constructions that retard the growth of real language, things like Burn A Timeout, Wake-Up Call, 110 Percent, Sheer Athleticism, Everybody Wrote Us Off, On A Roll, On A Mission, On A Mission To Buy Some Rolls and Legitimate Beef.

Only the worst of the ilk, however, can Play At The Next Level, and compete for the uncoveted Trite, monstrous idiocies like Gut Check, Crunch Time, Red Zone, and He Coughs It Up (if he actually coughed it up, would anyone want to recover it?)

We'll wade into the toxic 1999 field in just a moment, but first the presentation of what's become an annual commendation we repeatedly call the Hapless Mixologist Medal. To win this clunker, a person must start one cliche and finish another, mixing the two into brutal stupidity. I see some of our past winners in attendance, Jerome Bettis ("We can see the light at the end of the rainbow"), Terry Bradshaw ("Hold on to the edge of your seats"), and Rod Woodson ("We stepped up to the plate and answered the phone call"). This year, Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams and Dick Vitale of the Irrepressible Screeching Maniacs both made strong bids for the Mixologist Medal with variations on the Monkey Off Our Back cliche. Warner mixed it with the skeleton in the closet ("We got that skeleton off our back."), and Vitale ingeniously invoked the Achilles' Heel when he said that Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun ("Finally got the Achilles' heel off his back"), which instantly made Calhoun a candidate for the Contortionist of the Year trophy.

But the winner is Randy Cross, the CBS football analyst who, in pointing out that the New England Patriots were deteriorating into an AFC East footnote, mixed Folding Their Tents with Going In The Tank and got "They're Folding Up The Tank!" Nobody said they weren't a Very Physical Team.

In almost every linguistic respect, 1999 was depressingly similar to every other sports year, in which some cliches were born and abused into widespread acceptance, others, already established were beaten to near death, and great elder cliches were allowed to thrive despite annoying familiarity.

That Was Huge was an example of an infant sports cliche, used this year 50 million times to describe a play a broadcaster or writer felt turned the direction of a competition somewhat severely. Or not. That Was Huge!, usually with the exclamation point ringing in the announcer's breathless voice, likely served some purpose but always sounded like what the late Madeline Kahn might have said had she only one more line of dialogue in a hot scene at the end of Young Frankenstein.

He Blew Up The Play was another of what Vitale would call a Diaper Dandy were he broadcasting this event (hey, we're willing to entertain all options should it bring the possibility of corporate sponsorship to the Trite Trophy, perhaps by some Bank With Clearly More Money Than It Knows What To Do With). He Blew Up The Play was used and used and used and used and used to describe the effort of a defensive player who causes an offensive strategy to disintegrate by his own initiative. What we need around here is somebody of whom it could be said Blew Up The Cliche.

Basketball, not content with the status of being the only sport in which the entire play-by-play can be accomplished with five cliches, Push It Up, Pound It In, Kick It Out, Put It Up, Knock It Down, somehow birthed He Got Hops, an apparent homage to a player's jumping ability. He Got Hops is the apparent offspring of Spike Lee's He Got Game, and perhaps a precursor to He Got Crabs.

Among the veteran sports cliches, it was another fine year for They Control Their Own Destiny.

No they don't. They can barely control their hair. They cannot control the urge to be body-pierced and tattooed. Some cannot control the urge to batter or shoot their domestic partners. They Control Squat. They Control Their Own Destiny is used to label a team that can get where it's going if it Runs The Table, or a team that doesn't have to Go In The Back Door. It's awful.

If there's a cliche worse than Destiny out there right now it's Make A Statement. Of the thousands of teams and athletes out there trying to Make A Statement, few are those who actually succeed and fewer are those who, having Made A Statement, ever reveal what the statement was. Make A Statement is so ubiquitous it has Transcended The Game, bolting off into general usage and to highly distasteful results. Rick Kaufman, spokesman for Jefferson County (Colorado) Schools, said in the recent Time Magazine story on the Columbine killers, "They wanted to make a statement." He didn't say what it was, but it was apparently something like, "We're sick, and a lot of people are going to die because of it, though not so many as we'd hoped."

By any measure, that's at least a statement, unlike "We're a Team To Be Watched in the SEC."

In every sport, and in almost every endeavor in American life in 1999, great efforts were expended to get one or more human elements On The Same Page. You can't go through a day in this culture without this effort either boldy stated or it's failure loudly lamented. On The Defensive Side Of The Football (still an elongated spheroid with four actual sides), it often wasn't a matter of failure to get On The Same Page, but of players who chronically Failed To Wrap Up. This is a modern cliche used to describe defenders who banged into offenders, but didn't think it was of any use to actually tackle them or even wrap their arms around them.

We got another hideously omnipresent year from His Natural Position, although not as good a year as '98 when we all waited for significant developments in the Steelers secondary that would allow Carnell Lake to return to His Natural Position, safety. He was a linebacker in college, apparently an unnatural position and Let's Not Go There. As a peevish correspondent pointed out, there are no natural positions after fetal. No doctor ever says, "Congratulations Mrs. Jones, it's a left outside linebacker."

I see the estimable bench coach of the New York Yankees, Don Zimmer, in our audience. Zimm can you repeat for us what you told CBS Radio analyst Rick Sutcliffe when he asked you about shortstops Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra during the American League playoffs?

"I know one thing, that's two heckuva players."

Thanks, Zimm.

Now before we get to our 1999 finalists (no snoring), a special nod of disgusted recognition to Big, Physical Corners (no small, emotional corners), He's Learned To Play In The System (they finally explained it so that even he can understand it), The Big Tight End (aren't they all?), It Depends On The Spot (well it sure does), They Brought Their 'A' Game (nice of them, since I paid an 'A' price), Cap Casualty, Blitz Package, Hot Receiver, and They Came To Play (no, they came to trim the hedges).

And now please welcome -- aren't they lovely? -- our 1999 Trite Trophy finalists.

As ever, our winner will fulfill the three ageless criteria established by the committee (me): it must be excessively used, essentially meaningless, and I have to really, really hate it.

Our third runner-up: Wake-Up Call. Sports teams again got more wake-up calls than even Marriott provided in 1999. The idiocy was, no one wanted a Wake-Up Call, and when they got 'em, it was the middle of the afternoon or even at night. Wake-Up Calls happened when teams that were supposed to win easily didn't, as when Pitt got a Wake-Up call from Kent. Most teams who got Wake-Up Calls went on to Survive A Scare.

Our second runner-up: Pocket Presence. Used relentlessly this football season, it allegedly describes a quarterback who has a feel for where the stable areas of his protection are, and where the pocket is collapsing without having to look around analyzing it. It is meaningless in that quarterbacks with poor protection can have all the Pocket Presence in the universe and still wind up on their backs. Unless, of course, they decide to go into their pockets to Buy Some Time.

Our first runner-up: Unanswered Points. Or unanswered goals, runs, touchdowns, whatever. Since when does every score require an answer by the other team? Is it an essay question or multiple choice? The Pistons ran off 13 Unanswered Points in the fourth quarter on the way to a 98-91 victory over the Lakers. So the Lakers had no answers during that 13-point run. Next time, it should be open book. If a team scores three touchdowns and the other team then kicks a field goal, have those three touchdowns been answered? Unanswered Points has got to be stopped.

And now (please don't rush the stage), the 1999 Trite Trophy is presented to the worst sports cliche of the year, which is . . . Somebody's Gotta Step Up.

The committee (me) can remember few more deserving cliches than Somebody's Gotta Step Up, if for no better reason than for its sheer volume of abuse. In every difficult situation on every team, be it injury, poor performance, superior opponent, etc., the remedy on the lips of almost every analyst and player and coach and fan was simply that Somebody's Gotta Step Up. It's another way of saying "hey, somebody better do somethin'." Yes, that's expert analysis. It's one step up from "I dunno." There are only two redeeming qualities to Somebody's Gotta Step Up. One is that it's rarely reversed. No one talking about the University of Minnesota academic scandal ever said, "Somebody's Gotta Step Down," and secondly, it hasn't crossed over into general use. You'd hope never to see President Clinton, asked what will happen in Chechnya if pro-Moscow Chechen militiamen enter Grozny, say, "Somebody's Gotta Step Up."

We'd Like To Thank The Guys In The Truck.

If we had a truck.

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