I heard it on House of Cards, the American TV series. The Congressman says it during a political discussion:
I hate this small-ball crap!
What is its meaning and etymology?
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It's not small ball-crap but small-ball crap.
A bit more context from the subtitles:
74 00:02:31,153 --> 00:02:32,904 I don't want to interrupt you, sir,
75 00:02:32,905 --> 00:02:34,196 but this is not just about Orrin.
76 00:02:34,197 --> 00:02:35,991 It's about the parents.
77 00:02:38,200 --> 00:02:39,619 Now, you think about the lawsuit.
78 00:02:41,245 --> 00:02:43,081 What happens if you have to testify?
79 00:02:43,082 --> 00:02:45,374 Subpoenas, depositions.
80 00:02:45,375 --> 00:02:47,167 You get dragged into a court battle,
81 00:02:47,168 --> 00:02:49,253 there is no education bill.
82 00:02:51,006 --> 00:02:52,632 We can't ignore this.
83 00:02:54,926 --> 00:02:57,095 I just hate this small-ball crap.
84 00:02:57,096 --> 00:03:00,807 ♪ ♪ [Theme]
From A Hand to Play with a House of Cards: On Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ by Nathan Pinkoski:
The strangeness of American democracy (as de Tocqueville would tell us) is how it really rests in the small, local communities that are far from the high life of Washington. As a result, an American politician finds himself pulled between the complex world of national security, economy or social debates on the one hand and mundane local political squabbles on the other. One of the most effective episodes of House of Cards captures this divide brilliantly. Underwood, in the middle of his machinations to win the President’s support by becoming the leader on a controversial education bill and pushing it through despite the oppositions of the teachers’ unions, suddenly finds that an old opponent in his home district is trying to slander him. The issue? A young girl is killed in a car accident because rather than watching the road, she was looking at a water tower built to resemble a peach. But this water tower was something built through Underwood’s support, and the death of the girl allows his opponent to attempt to rally the community against Underwood. Thus Underwood has to leave his high-stakes negotiation for the sake of protecting his seat back home. “I hate this small-ball crap,” he says. But of course this is what makes or breaks a congressman, and the episode captures that divide between the great-ball and the small-ball politics magnificently.
I think small ball comes from baseball via poker. From Wikipedia:
In the sport of baseball, small ball is an informal term for an offensive strategy in which the batting team emphasizes placing runners on base and then advancing them into scoring position for a run in a deliberate, methodical way. This strategy places a high value on individual runs and attempts to score them without requiring extra base hits, or sometimes without base hits at all, instead using bases on balls, stolen bases, sacrifice bunt or sacrifice fly balls, the hit-and-run play, and aggressive baserunning with such plays as the contact play. A commonly used term for a run produced playing small ball is a "manufactured run". This style of play is more often found in National League game situations than in the American League due in large part to the absence of the designated hitter in the National League.
And in poker:
The term is also used in tournament poker. It means playing a wide range of hands and betting small amounts with them. The goal is to try to take a stab at small pots while keeping the money risked to a minimum, only building big pots with a very powerful hand. Most of the live tournament professionals use this style, and it is frequently linked to high stakes player Daniel Negreanu. Recently, the 'loose aggressive longball' style, inspired from Gus Hansen and Patrik Antonius, has been gaining popularity among the young "internet school" players. It involves playing the same range of hands as in the small-ball strategy and accumulating a high chip count in a similarly gradual manner but occasionally using the resulting leverage to build significant pots and force the opponents (mainly small ball practitioners) into tough decisions.
I think the congressman is referring to having to deal with many, lesser issues, when he'd rather be dealing with the big, interesting things.
Hugo has a good explanation but the term has been used in baseball for almost 100 years. The origins are shady but it was coined during the "dead ball" era.
It is a tactic where a team is looking to set up one run at a time, chipping away for runs, instead of looking for a big hit (home run or extra base hits). In small ball you would see teams emphasizing hitting for average, bunting, stealing, other forms of aggressive base running, hit and run, and so on.
In every day speech when you say let's play "small ball" it would mean to take small steps (or even baby steps) to achieve a goal. "Going for the gusto", "Go big", "Putt in all your chips" would be the opposite of "small ball".