Reading yesterday’s NY Times story “New Generation of Leaders Is Emerging for Al Qaeda,” by David Johnston and David E. Sanger, I was brought up short by the end of the third paragraph:
“They’re a little bit of both,” one official said, describing Al Qaeda’s new midlevel structure. “Some who have been around and some who have stepped up. They’re reaching for their bench.”
Reaching for their bench? I flailed around desperately for possible meanings (benchmark?) before realizing it was a baseball metaphor. And if I, who have been a baseball fan since the days when the Washington Senators played in long-vanished Griffith Stadium with its oddly shaped right field, didn’t get it at first, what hope do non-Americans have? So I thought it behooved me to explain the reference.
Every ballpark has two areas called “dugouts,” one for the home team and one for the visitors, where those players not on the field at the moment congregate and containing benches where they can sit and converse or simply spit tobacco (or rather, in these health-conscious days, often sunflower seeds) when they are not standing at the railing cursing the umpires. By a simple enough process of metonymy, those players who are in the dugout and are available to be substituted for one of the nine in the game at any given time are called “the bench,” leading to expressions such as “their bench is depleted” (the team doesn’t have many players left as possible substitutes) and “he’ll be going to the bench” (the manager will be putting a new player in). I trust the sentence from the news story is now clear.
Incidentally, The Language of Baseball is a good source for all your baseball-term needs.