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02/10/09 10:00 AM EST
For ballplayers, what's in a (nick)name?
When it comes to clever monikers, this generation is lacking
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
Simon and Garfunkel had it right. "Joltin' Joe" has left and gone away. And so have "The Sultan of Swat," "Charlie Hustle," "Hammerin' Hank," "Stan the Man," "Shoeless Joe," "Rapid Robert," "The Iron Horse," "Mr. October" and "The Splendid Splinter," just to name a few. Fred "The Crime Dog" McGriff and Don "Donnie Baseball" Mattingly don't step into our batter's boxes, and Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky and Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd don't patrol our mounds. What we have now is a generation where the clearly clever nicknames have nearly been nixed. One need look no further than the case of Derek Jeter to see how far the nickname game has fallen. Jeter is a nine-time All-Star, a former World Series MVP and the captain of the most decorated franchise in the game, yet the best anybody has created for him, in terms of a nickname, is "Jeet" (not exactly "je"-nius) and "Mr. November" (for his exploits in the delayed 2001 World Series ... which his team lost). Yes, we have fallen into an unfortunate pattern of passing off simple shortenings or addings of "ie" to last names as viable nicknames. Had George Herman Ruth played today, he would probably be referred to as "G-Ruth" or, much worse, "Ruthie." To that point, "A-Rod" is Grade A lame, and "K-Rod" and "Dice-K" are a little more inventive but not exactly iconic. Whenever Manny Ramirez finally gets around to signing a contract, he ought to include a clause banishing all references to "Man-Ram" and replace it with his old alias, "Baby Bull" (even if it is unceremoniously swiped from Orlando Cepeda). Ah, but fear not, fans. There are still some great minds at work out there, striving to sire suitable pseudonyms for your beloved ballplayers. There has been some effort to refer to Royals closer Joakim Soria as "The Mexicutioner," but it hasn't really caught on outside of Kansas City just yet. Perhaps the Royals will have better luck if first-base prospect Kila Ka'aihue sticks in the big leagues and his "Hawaiian Punch" nickname sticks, too. Shin-Soo Choo, the Korean-born outfielder who lit up opposing pitchers in the second half for the Indians last year, is known in some bubblegum-loving circles as "Big League" Choo. Pablo Sandoval, a slightly rotund third baseman who wowed the Giants as a September callup last year, was tagged with "Kung Fu Panda" by teammate Barry Zito and has also been called "The Round Mound of Pound." Not all great nicknames stick -- or even make perfect sense. Both those lessons are learned in the case of Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, who was all-too-briefly referred to as the "Crushin' Russian," even though he's of Macedonian descent. (We must insert here some sort of stipulation that players are not allowed to give themselves a nickname. Sorry, Jonathan Papelbon, but "Cinco Ocho" isn't going to cut it.) Nicknames, of course, aren't always compliments. Just ask Carl Pavano, who recently signed with the Indians after four injury-plagued (and well-paid) seasons with the Yankees, for whom he came to be known as "American Idle." Ouch. Still, even when nicknames are not overly flattering, they can stand the test of time. Free agent Adam Dunn, for instance, has come to be known as "The Big Donkey," while Travis Hafner was once dubbed a part-project, part-donkey -- hence his "Pronk" handle, which is popular with pretty much everybody in his inner circle, with the exception of his wife. When at their best, nicknames enter our consciousness as reasonable replacements for players' actual names. What follows is a list of active appellations that might be worthy of such consideration: Boof Bonser, RHP, Twins: Born John Paul Bonser, the Twins pitcher legally changed his name to Boof, which was a moniker he had picked up as a child. So, technically, this is no longer a nickname. But if you think a guy named Boof isn't going to make this list, you're batty. Alexei "The Cuban Missle" Ramirez, SS, White Sox: So named by Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, Ramirez was given a way to describe the immediate impact he's made in Chicago. Now, Guillen is tweaking the nickname for the newly imported Dayan Viciedo. Guillen has begun referring to the 6-foot-4, 250-pound, 19-year-old Viciedo as "The Cuban Monster." Kevin "Youk" Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox: Ordinarily, the mere shortening of a name would classify as the type of uncreative fodder dragging the nickname scene down. But when the Fenway faithful make your moniker an almost choral canticle (they're not booing, of course, they're saying "Yooooouuuuukkkkk!") it's worth mentioning here. Lance "Big Puma" Berkman, 1B, Astros: Because he essentially gave himself this nickname by referring to himself (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) as rather puma-like on a Houston sports talk radio show, Berkman nearly disqualified himself from contention. But in creating the Puma image, Berkman managed to stop being referred to as "Fat Elvis," so he gets an A for the upgrade. David "Big Papi" Ortiz, DH, Red Sox: In the Dominican, the word "papi" is used the way we might use "buddy." And who wouldn't want to be buddies with the gargantuan guy driving in 100 runs? David "Cookie Monster" Ortiz: It's really not fair, is it? Most ballplayers would love to have just one outstanding nickname, and here Ortiz is ringing in with a pair of them. But you can't deny his slight resemblance to the lovable Sesame Street character with the cookie craving. Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas, DH, free agent: Ken "Hawk" Harrelson -- himself the possessor of a noteworthy nickname -- gave Thomas this sobriquet because of the hurt he put on the baseball. Of course, nowadays, Thomas is merely hurting for a contract. Randy "The Big Unit" Johnson, LHP, Giants: This one came from Tim "Rock" Raines, so apparently guys with nicknames are good at paying it forward and doling out nicknames to others. The 5-foot-9 Raines bumped into the 6-foot-10 Johnson when Johnson was a rookie with the Expos and said, "You're a big unit." And the mustachioed, mulleted one has had an excellent epithet ever since. Covelli "Coco" Crisp, CF, Royals: Guys named Covelli shouldn't need nicknames to spice up their lives, but you can't fault Crisp for sticking with this beauty. According to Crisp's official bio, his great grandmother, Wilda Smith, called him "Co," and his sister Sheileah and godbrother Marcus took a cue from Cocoa Krispies cereal and lengthened it to "Coco." Tim "The Freak" Lincecum, RHP, Giants: When you've got the body of a high school kid but the ability to hurl a baseball 98 mph and baffle big league hitters, the term "freak" is used as a compliment. Lincecum has also been referred to as "Seabiscuit," for his dominance despite his diminutive stature. Shane "The Flyin' Hawaiian" Victorino, CF, Phillies: Anybody who watched last year's playoffs knows this is an apt appellation for the speedy island-born outfielder. Victorino's only problem is he has lent himself to too many Hawaiian-themed nicknames, including "The Pineapple Express" and "The Maui Wowie." Carlos "El Caballo" Lee, LF, Astros: For the uninitiated, that's Spanish for "The Horse," and this nickname has become so popular among Astros fans that Lee now has a fan club of young men and women (mostly of Latin descent) who come to every game, hold stick ponies and stand in the balcony area over left-center field. They call themselves "Los Cabillitos," or "little ponies."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.