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.


  1. Doug Sundseth says

    I think the problem arises with “reaching for”, which is neither idiomatic nor in keeping with the metaphor. When you “reach for” something, presumably you intend to “grab” it. In context, “reaching for” wants a singular object, not a collective object.
    Similarly, you wouldn’t “reach for the choir” for moral support.
    The phrase you use in your commentary is “going to”, which is both idiomatic and logical in context.
    I suppose the lesson for writers is that if you are going to use an idiomatic metaphor, you’d better get the idiom right.

  2. Found this by way of Google:
    “When the Yankees or the Braves lose an important contributor, they reach for their bench first, their farm system second, and no one notices the difference.” (Google cache link)
    It seems to work well there.
    My pick for the best sports term ever: “tools of ignorance,” meaning the catcher’s protective equipment.

  3. Google, baseball + “go to the bench”: 765
    baseball + “reach for the bench”: 0.
    There must be a rhetorical or other term for grammatical, meaningful and intelligible but unidiomatic phrases which native speakers seldom use because some particular phrase is dominant.

  4. maybe it would have helped if the referent of ‘they’ hadn’t changed?

  5. Richard Hershberger says

    “My pick for the best sports term ever: “tools of ignorance,” meaning the catcher’s protective equipment.”
    This has also been extended to the “tools of arrogance,” i.e. the umpire’s protective equipment.

  6. Never heard the latter, and a Google search turns up three hits, none of them apparently baseball-related. A personal creation?

  7. Don’t other sports have benches?

  8. Benches feature in cliches relating to all American sports. In my search I used baseball to weed out non-sports benches.
    When I was teaching English in Taiwan I experimented with using the sports pages as a way of making reading / writing more interesting. The first problem was that people over there have little interest in sports. (Recipes worked great! Most Chinese are “foodies”, there are even menus in the “Li Chi” “Book of Ceremonies”).
    The second problem was that sports writing is done in an arcane allusive language that normal people can’t read. It’s as bad as Chinese poetry itself. You have to know punchlines from 70-year-old slapstick movies (“Feets, do your stuff!”) and all kinds of arcane basball trivia, often from before you were born. (Bill Wambganss, Harvey Haddix, Al Gionfriddo, Sandy Amaros, The Four Horsemen, etc.)

  9. Not to nitpick, but the Four Horsemen outlined against a blue-gray October sky were football, not baseball, heroes. But you’re absolutely right about the arcane allusions; I can’t imagine how anyone who didn’t grow up with all that stuff could ever assimilate it. Poor Harvey Haddix!

  10. While the usage seemed a little odd, I got the bench reference straight away. I’m Australian never even watched let alone followed baseball. The term is here in all the football codes.

  11. Richard Hershberger says

    “A personal creation?”
    I wish I could claim credit, but I’m not really sure where I picked it up from. I’m surprised it doesn’t come up in Google. I have a friend who was an amateur umpire for years. My guess is that I got it from him.

  12. “tools of arrogance” / personal creation?
    I’ve heard my sabermetrics friends say it more than once. 🙂

  13. Huh. It’s hard to remember sometimes that Google does not in fact represent the entire universe of discourse. In any case, it’s a clever phrase, and I’m glad to know it.

  14. For bloggers, Google is the entire universe of discourse. Once again LH reveals himself to be a rank amateur. Perhaps he should be in some other field.
    NRA Blogging Committee

  15. The Field of Dreams, perhaps. On the bench.

  16. Reaching for the bench seems a term you’d be more likely to hear during a basketball game than a baseball game. There’s very little substitution in baseball aside from the pitchers, and pitchers are found in the bullpen, not on the pine.
    In any case, the allusion to non-stars being “the bench” doesn’t seem that obscure of a reference to me. If the Times had mentioned that Usama threw us a yorker or that HomSec threw the red flag and reviewed the latest intelligence once more, then you might have something.

  17. Well, here my baseball parochialism shows — I don’t follow basketball, so I didn’t realize they use the term there as well. And since basketball is a much more international sport than baseball, I probably didn’t need to explain the allusion. Oh well.

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