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Let It … Eat?

An investigation into the favorite idiom of America’s favorite pastime

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the eve of this year’s All-Star Game, White Sox pitcher Chris Sale, who had been tapped to start for the American League, divulged his game plan.

“I plan on just letting it eat for an inning, just getting after it,” Sale said.

It was an odd thing for someone as skinny as Sale to say, but “let it eat” has a particular place in the baseball lexicon, the same culture that brought us idioms like “wormburner” and “duck snort.” So what does it mean?

“I think you’ll hear it in a lot of sporting events when you’re just going out there and letting your game go, giving it all you’ve got, maybe max effort,” said Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks.

“Letting it eat is just going out there and letting everything go, giving it all you’ve got, not holding anything back,” said Astros catcher Jason Castro.

When I asked Castro about the phrase, he looked at me like I’d just beamed in from outer space. “Let it eat” is a fixture of baseball slang; asking a ballplayer about it is like asking any person off the street to define “OK.”

“I can’t even remember the first time I heard it,” Castro said. “If you’ve been around the game of baseball, you’ve probably heard it for as long as you’ve played.”

Both Hendricks and Castro say the phrase is just something they absorbed during high school ball, or even earlier, but neither knows where it came from.

Longtime baseball broadcaster Mike Ferrin, now the studio host for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ pre- and postgame shows, thinks “let it eat” is a variation on “let the big dog eat,” a phrase popularized in golf by the 1996 movie Tin Cup.

“I would venture to guess that the first person who said it was a hitting coach, somewhere, who also happened to play golf,” Ferrin said.

In fact, “let the big dog eat” goes back even further than Tin Cup, at least to 1993’s Rookie of the Year, and probably even further than that.

“Etymology is always a tricky thing — usually what happens is there are lots of competing versions, some of which are made up and some of which have some sort of credence,” said Michael Furman, a Mellon Fellow and visiting professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio. As a linguist, Furman studies slang, including in the world of sports.

The purpose of slang, Furman says, has to do with a linguistic concept called indexicality, or the use of a word, phrase, or other signal to indicate meaning within a certain context.

“Whenever you use a word or utter a phrase, you’re indexing a particular kind of identity on a few different levels. On the one hand, you’re indexing this cultural discourse of sports knowledge, but at the same time, you’re also indexing this idea of masculinity,” Furman said, noting that “let it eat” is an aggressive phrase, and the sort of unreserved, balls-to-the-wall action it describes has a certain masculine quality to it.

Both Hendricks and his teammate, catcher Miguel Montero, made a point to say that “let it eat” carries the connotation of sacrificing control for brute force.

“A lot of guys let it eat, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw,” Montero said. “You have to make pitches. You can let it eat as much as you want, but that fastball’s going to get hit.”

Phrases like “let it eat” serve two functions. The first is efficiency of communication. Even a one-sentence definition of “let it eat” takes way longer to say than a three-word, eight-letter idiom that is frequently intelligible even to people who are hearing it for the first time.

“Typically, especially when you hear someone use it in context, it’s fairly easy to at least gain some sort of understanding of what they’re talking about,” Castro said.

Consider this 2012 story about Nate McLouth, then of the Baltimore Orioles, who distilled a back and forth with his Triple-A manager to a few words by simply asking, “Let it eat?

The second function is gatekeeping.

“Slang is a way that you can position yourself as being part of the insider club,” Furman said. “In addition to that, not only are you positioning yourself, you’re also positioning your interlocutor, because either they get it or they don’t.”

This is particularly true in the world of baseball.

“If you use the wrong turn of phrase with the wrong in person in baseball, they’re going to look at you askew for a long time,” Ferrin said. “You’re going to have to overcome a lot to prove that you know what you’re talking about.”

As more baseball coverage has appeared on cable TV and the internet, though, the game’s jargon has seeped out for public consumption like never before.

“You start to hear some of these terms pop up on MLB Network and people start copying them,” Ferrin said. “When you have that many former players analyzing the game and having 24-hour-a-day access to it, a lot of those slang terms from the clubhouse start to come out.”

Ferrin also cited the increasing popularity of prospect coverage as a factor. These writers interact mainly with scouts and minor league coaches, both of whom are more likely to use slang than players and managers. The prospect writers pick up sayings that get tossed around on back fields, but might not make it into a TV interview, and then they repeat them to their readers.

“Maybe it’s the modernization of coverage, like maybe we’re just more interested in the lingo of the clubhouse than previous generations were. … [Maybe] someone who’s a little younger would want that, because it captures the identity of the clubhouse,” Ferrin said.

Of course, as baseball slang gets popularized, the language inside the clubhouse changes, because the more people use a phrase, the less useful it is for communicating insider status.

“Because it’s indexing a particular identity, who uses it is very important,” Furman said. “So if it’s the cool people who are using it, it has a cool cachet to it.”

If the right people use a phrase, it can take on a life of its own just as an inside joke, even if it’s not as convenient a communication tool as “let it eat.”

“I was talking to someone with a team who said they have a guy within their organization who adds ‘Johnny’ to everything,” Ferrin said. “Like, ‘He drove in 24 Johnnies,’ or ‘He had a run-scoring Johnny.’ It doesn’t make any sense, but they love it in the organization. … I think it depends on who gets tickled by it and who lets it move from there.”

On the flip side, if uncool people are using it, that cachet can go away quickly. This is the process at work in the comedy classic Mean Girls, where the hapless gossip Gretchen Wieners is told, “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not going to happen.”

“The reason it’s not a thing is nobody cares about Gretchen,” Furman said.

So, enjoy “let it eat” while you can. Just by us outsiders knowing it exists, we’ve devalued its cachet. Like an army of uncool dads, we’ll be left saying “let it eat” long after ballplayers have moved on to something else.

Because of a production error, the final few paragraphs of this piece were originally not included on this page.