WSJ Contest — Friday, June 23, 2023

Grid: untimed; Meta: slept on it 


Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Playing Dress-Up” — Conrad’s writeup.

This week we’re looking for a four-letter word. There were four long theme entries:

  • [Person who’s fallen off the wagon, say]: BACKSLIDER
  • [Eddie Rickenbacker, e.g.]: FLYINGACE
  • [Doozy]: HUMDINGER
  • [Weather satellite’s path]: POLARORBIT

This meta is fair and Shenkian (meaning precise). I suspect there is a group of solvers who never found step one. For those that did: I suspect there’s another group who submitted an enticing (but incorrect) answer. I’ve been there on both counts. There are two techniques I’ve learned while solving metas that helped me find the answer.

Technique #1: if there are some vaguely related themers (they were all two words in this case) and you can’t find a signal: start Googling. Some crossword solvers are hesitant to use Google to complete a grid, but once the grid is complete: Googling is a fair technique to try to solve a meta. If you refuse to: that’s perfectly fine, but prepare to miss metas on subjects you know little about. We all have them, including me (horse racing and US college football stand out). I’m sure baseball is a common example (my friends from Israel and Australia agree).

I did notice a baseball-ish theme in SLIDER, ACE, and DINGER (ORBIT was a bit weaker, outside of “sending a ball into orbit” when you hit a home run). But I saw nothing consistent. So I Googled “slider ace dinger orbit”:

Three of the five preview images showed baseball mascots (who dress up in costumes). There was a mix of links on the first page of hints, mostly not relevant but a few were, including this list of major league mascots (including those four). I didn’t recognize any of those names as mascots, but Google bailed me out.

I unlocked step one. Here’s what I wrote in  my notes:

  • SLIDER: Cleveland Guardians
  • ACE: Toronto Blue Jays
  • DINGER: Colorado Rockies
  • ORBIT: Houston Astros

The first letter of the team names spelled GBRA, which anagrams to the enticingly thematic GARB. Stop right there.

Technique #2: If you anagram to solve a meta you need to backsolve to find a logical and clear reason for why it’s the answer. One example: mapping letters left-right in a grid (as opposed to the more traditional top-bottom), as Pete Muller sometimes does. Otherwise you’re going to be wrong. Every time. GARB was a siren song (which I am sure was unintentional by Mike): I could find zero justification for anagramming. I abandoned that rabbit hole and went to bed.

WSJ Contest – 06.23.23 – Solution

WSJ Contest – 06.23.23 – Solution

I woke up the next morning and found step two quickly: there are four symmetric grid entries that begin with the first three letters of each team’s city:

  • CLE(W) -> Cleveland
  • TOR(E) -> Toronto
  • COL(A) -> Colorado
  • HOU(R) -> Houston

The last letter of each word (top to bottom) spell our thematic four-letter contest solution WEAR. Solvers: please share your thoughts in the comments.


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33 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, June 23, 2023

  1. Ellen+Nichols says:

    I didn’t even get to step one, but I knew CLEW had to be involved in the solution since it is so obscure. My team’s mascot (KC Royals) is Slugger. Fits right in with the others Shenk highlighted.

  2. Russ says:

    This puzzle was ab-solvable. Could have used another clew or two.

  3. jefe says:

    Stumped here also. I too-briefly considered “what if the words on the same line as the themers are relevant?” but didn’t follow up on it.

  4. Robin says:

    I immediately spotted GARB, so I didn’t look further.

  5. carolynchey says:

    We knew the odd word CLEW had to be involved, but when we looked it up we saw that, in addition to its definitions, it was an archaic spelling of CLUE, and that’s what it seemed to be, since it pointed to BALL. We had already come up with the mascots and their cities/teams and this helped confirm we had found step one. We explored the first letter idea but rejected it since there was no basis for needing to anagram. From there we were stuck – figured there must be another mascot that would point us to another team or city. We even considered MINTY, in the very center of the puzzle, which happens to be a mascot – but for a Charlottesville soccer team. We knew Mike wouldn’t switch sports on us. Since we had already found an excuse for CLEW being in the puzzle, we never looked back at it, and we completely missed step two, even though the words were all on the same lines as the themers! Another brilliant meta from Mike!

  6. Tom says:

    Without a reference to baseball to start me down the right path, I went full Buckner on this one.

  7. Seth Cohen says:

    I didn’t get this. I really think the title needed to point towards baseball somehow, or there needed to be some hint that baseball was involved. The names of baseball team mascots is such an esoteric thing, even people who follow baseball don’t know those names. I guess googling would have unlocked that, but I don’t like metas whose titles are useless until you’ve already solved it. It’s definitely a great meta, I just wish it had a bit more of a nudge at the start.

  8. David Benbow says:

    I didn’t stand a chance. Too many rabbit holes. I also noticed ‘clew’ and figured it must be part of the meta, but couldn’t connect it to anything. The very last clue in the puzzle is ‘Pants problem’, which is also a typical Mike Shenk meta hint. It led me nowhere, but I also saw PA(N)TS, S(A)RI, and (S)HOES and spent a lot of time looking for a fourth word that might spell something. Finally, all the 10-letter answers contain body parts BACKslider, rockBOTTOM, ABSolvable, and polarORBIT. You can’t win ’em all.

    • Eric H says:

      I saw two of those clothing items, too.

      Never got anywhere with that or anything else. Some hint pointing towards baseball would have been nice.

      I feel better about not having gotten this one, now that I know other people struggled with it, too.

  9. Jeff says:

    We googled to see how orbit could be baseball related and found the mascot. While we had never heard of any of them (we live in Phanatic territory), we eventually surmised the others might also be mascots. Didn’t think garb out of order was satisfactory and found wear.

  10. River Sol says:

    Guardians of Quantumania Multiverse X-Men! Find my 4 letter meta…(g rated expletive)

  11. Simon says:

    My immediate guess was DRAG because this appeared on Gay Pride weekend. And all the controversy. I even thought maybe PROM. But that’s earlier in the season.

    But once completing the puzzle, I knew this was a baseball theme because I recognized SLIDER (pitch), ACE (lead pitcher), DINGER (homerun) and ORBIT (mascot). But I didn’t know these were all mascots. I got stuck there. I knew CLEW was a clue because of BALL. But I just didn’t see the city names and didn’t google the names as mascots. If you don’t follow baseball, it seems more like an inside joke. I was out in left field.

    My batting average with these metas is sinking. Time to take a break from these for a while.

  12. Mike says:

    This one is tough as baseball fandom is so localized, there were no hints given in the clues, and it didn’t use any from before almost every team had a mascot. If I wasn’t aware for some reason that Orbit was the Astros’ mascot I never would have gotten this.

    Also, whatever happened to BJ Birdie? I used to see him at Skydome on occasional trips to Toronto….

  13. Neal says:

    You know that scene in The Untouchables where Capone (DeNiro) emphasizes his point with a baseball bat? Yeah. This meta was like that. Ouch.

    No joy in Mudville. The mighty Neal has struck out.

  14. JohnH says:

    Seems like you have to be really, really dedicated to baseball not just to solve this, but even to guess what to Google for. In other words, not solvable.

    Must admit the only mascot I can name is MR MET, and only because he’s in crosswords so often. I’m a lifelong Yankee fan and can’t name its mascot, assuming it has one. But at least there I know what to Google for should I care to find out.

  15. Anjali says:

    As I’d heard there were several possible answers floating around – I was doubtful ‘wear’ was the last step. Given the title with ‘UP’ – I looked at the circled letters ‘CLEW’ and followed a vertical to the very top of the perpendicular answers crossing ‘CLEW’.

    Those letters anagram to CAST which I thought also fits the title. So I submitted nothing w/ too much doubt.

  16. Scott says:

    Swing and a miss for me.

  17. woozy says:

    “I did notice a baseball-ish theme in SLIDER, ACE, and PITCHER”

    PITCHER? Where the heck did you get pitcher from? I’m not familiar with ACE so the only baseball term I knew was SLIDER. I tried pursuing hamburgers and sandwiches but got nowhere. I googled “ace slider dinger orbit” but unfortunately if you google te words in *that* order you get half a page of truck ads and one isolated page about the mascot DINGER.

  18. John Beck says:

    How in the wide wide world of sports am I supposed to suss out that only the horizontal long entries are related to the meta… particularly when the other two 10s go up and down and the puzzle is called “Playing Dress Up”??

    Of course, I never found a dress type reading upwards, but that doesn’t change my frustration!

    • Mike says:

      It may be a meta-experience thing, but step 1 of “the meta answer is X letters long” is always to see if the # of Across long/theme answers matches X. If so, then you can usually presume that’s the path.

      As for why Downs aren’t included…my presumption is that meta-makers prefer using acrosses for easier visibility in solving. Not a rule, just something that has developed as a thing over the years.

    • Daniel says:

      [edit: responding to John, Mike posted while I was typing, lol]
      This. Especially since the two longest vertical entries were 10 letters and two of the horizontal actual theme entries were only 9 letters.

      Without any indication otherwise, is there a “hierarchy” for choosing theme clues when it comes to longest entries vs. using only horizontal ones?

  19. Baroness Thatcher says:

    Conrad, count me among those who never found step one. I highlighted the correct four themers initially. After stewing on them for a day, I wondered if the themers might be four long vertical entries. With that thought, I went down for the count and raised the white flag on Saturday.

    Nice META and I learned something I won’t soon forget, “if there are some vaguely related themers (they were all two words in this case) and you can’t find a signal: start Googling.”

    Thanks for sharing this technique.

    • damefox says:

      I don’t disagree that the themers are vaguely related, but it’s not true that they are all two words. POLAR ORBIT and FLYING ACE are, but HUMDINGER and BACKSLIDER are not. I guess you could say there’s an obvious breaking point in each of those (no one is going to mistakenly parse them as HUMDIN GER or BACKS LIDER or whatever), but if what solvers are looking for is consistency across the themers, this may be a stumbling block.

  20. Seattle DB says:

    I quit trying to solve Mike’s metas months ago b’cuz I don’t have time to waste chasing down rabbit holes. And I think Googling for answers or meta-hints isn’t right. In my opinion, Mike “shanked” this shot out of bounds, lol!

  21. Steve Thurman says:

    I live, eat, and breathe baseball. I never got anywhere. I guess I’ll Google more, but I still think in the best metas, you don’t have to.

  22. Steve in Seattle says:

    Same here on both points. I don’t think the crossword fill should involve Google either.

  23. Pete says:

    24A Can opener = BAIL ???

    Somebody help me out here. Thanks

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