Players to be named later: Melvin Upton and 10 others who rebranded
When the Braves released their spring training roster on Sunday, it contained a name unfamiliar to many baseball fans: Melvin Upton Jr. That wasn't a mistake or a new player acquisition. Instead, the outfielder formerly known as B.J. Upton—short for "Bossman Junior," a reference to his father, Melvin Emanuel Upton Sr.—has decided to revert to his given name, thereby joining a colorful cast of characters throughout baseball history.
Call it a rebranding effort on Upton's part. Since signing a five-year, $72.5 million deal with the Braves on Nov. 29, 2012—after a 10-year rollercoaster ride in the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays organization—it's been all downhill for the former No. 2 pick of the 2002 draft. Upton hit .184/.268/.289 with nine homers, a 54 OPS and -1.3 WAR in 2013, then improved only marginally in '14, batting .208/.287/.333 with 12 homers, a 75 OPS+ and -0.3 WAR. His combined 66 OPS+ for the two years is the lowest of any player with at least 1,000 PA, though six players have been worse if you lower the bar to 500 PA.
The Braves' outfield was the focal point of their offseason housecleaning, as they traded away Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Evan Gattis. But with more than $46 million remaining on Melvin's contract, they were unwilling to eat a sufficient enough amount to move him to another team or to release him, thereby putting themselves on the hook for all but the minimum salary should he find a new employer. Maybe it will work; even a jump up to his career line (.243/.324/.400, for a 97 OPS+) might represent close to a two-win improvement.
What follows here is a look at several other cases of players changing names in mid-career. The annals are full of them, particularly among Latin-born players. Some have switched between their father and mother's surnames, and others have assumed false identities in countries where bureaucracy leaves something to be desired, particularly before a post-September 11 crackdown that unearthed several hundred name and birth date discrepancies. Listed alphabetically, here are 10 that I found most interesting.
Dick Allen, formerly Richie Allen
Signed by the Phillies in 1960, Richard Anthony Allen played as Dick in the minor leagues, but when he began his outstanding but tumultuous major league career with the Phillies in September '63, he was Richie, a name he disliked. In September '64, just before the Phillies' infamous collapse, he told a reporter, "To be truthful with you, I’d like to be called Dick. I don’t know how the Richie started… It makes me sound like I’m ten years old. I’m 22... Anyone who knows me well calls me Dick. I don’t know why as soon as I put on a uniform it’s Richie."
Allen played primarily under the name he disliked so much during his stormy tenure with the Phillies, which lasted through 1969. He was Richie on all of his Topps cards to that point, though he recorded a song, "Echoes of November," as Rich Allen and the Ebonistics. Traded to the Cardinals in October '69 and then to the Dodgers a year later, he was Rich Allen on his Topps '70 and '71 cards, but often Richie in the headlines. No doubt against his will, he was back to Richie on his '72 card, but by the time he graced the June 12, 1972 cover of Sports Illustrated, smoking a cigarette and juggling three baseballs in the White Sox dugout (!), he was Dick Allen.
Allen went on to win AL MVP honors in 1972, the pinnacle of a short but spectacular career that some feel is worthy of Cooperstown, and while that transformation has largely followed him throughout the rest of his public life, Chicago Daily News writer Dave Nightingale wrote pieces as late as '74 (his final year in Chicago) with "Richie Allen" in the title. The guy just couldn’t win.
Pete Appleton, formerly Pete Jablonowski
Anyone who has ever tucked into The Summer Game, the first book by Spink Award-winning author Roger Angell, has no doubt come across that volume’s opening salvo, "Box Scores." First published in the April 20, 1963 issue of the New Yorker, a year after he had begun his dispatches, his salute to spring concludes thusly:
And not even a latter-day O. Henry would risk a conte like the true, electrifying history of a pitcher named Pete Jablonowski, who disappeared from the Yankees in 1933 after several seasons of inept relief work with various clubs. Presumably disheartened by seeing the losing pitcher listed as "J'bl'n's'i" in the box scores of his day, he changed his name to Pete Appleton in the semi-privacy of the minors, and came back to win fourteen games for the Senators in 1936 and to continue on the majors for another decade.
To be fair, Jablonowski/Appleton was closer to mediocre than truly inept, toiling in a high-scoring era with a 4.28 ERA/104 ERA+ before the change and a 4.31/103 ERA+ after. Via the research of Bill James and SABR member Bill Lamb, Appleton's name change came about via future wife Aldona Leszczynski, a practicing New Jersey lawyer who, during the couple's courtship, shepherded him through the process of a legal name change because she didn't want to be saddled with such a doubly unwieldy moniker. As it turns out, jablon is Polish for apple. The More You Know…
Albert Belle, formerly Joey Belle
Born Albert Jojuan Belle, the slugger who would go on to hit 381 big league home runs played as Joey Belle at Louisiana State University, through the minors after being drafted by the Indians, then through his first 71 big league games in 1989-90 with Cleveland. He built an unfortunate reputation for himself under that name, missing the College World Series after getting suspended for chasing a heckling fan shouting racist insults, then destroying a clubhouse sink at Triple A Colorado Springs after a rough night at the plate.
The latter incident led to a five-game suspension by the team, and further examination led to the revelation that Belle was battling a drinking problem. He spent 10 weeks in a rehabilitation program, undergoing counseling for alcoholism and anger management. When he reemerged, he was Albert Belle, saying, "It's too hard to stay concentrated and focused enough to play major league baseball when there's alcohol in your system."
Alas, he remained a target for hecklers, and his anger issues continued. In 1991, Belle earned a six-game suspension after firing a baseball in the direction of a Municipal Stadium fan who shouted, "Hey, Joey! Keg party at my house after the game!" During the '95 World Series, he was fined $50,000 for screaming profanities at NBC reporter Hannah Storm, who was in the Cleveland dugout, and shortly after that, he made headlines for chasing a group of teenagers who egged his house on Halloween. Nonetheless, he carved out a career as one of the game's top sluggers, peaking with 50 homers and a .690 slugging percentage in the strike-shortened '95 season and finishing in the top three in the AL MVP voting from '94 to '96, though his behavior and reputation no doubt cost him votes.
Santiago Casilla, formerly Jairo Garcia
The Giants' closer signed with the Athletics out of the Dominican Republic in 2000 under the name Garcia, which he used to shave two years and 10 months off his birth date. He pitched a total of seven games for the A's in '04-05, but came forward to the team about his identity in January '06. He pitched only two games for the big club that year but stuck in '07, and has been a staple of Bay Area bullpens ever since, saving 58 games and putting up a 3.20 ERA.
Roberto Hernandez, formerly Fausto Carmona
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2000, Hernandez obtained a visa to pitch in the US under the name of Carmona starting in '02. He pitched under that name in the majors from '06-'11, going through no shortage of lows as well as highs. He went 1-10 with a 5.42 ERA as a rookie, was tarred and feathered for a 6.32 ERA in '09, and gave up a record 10 runs in an Opening Day start in '11. He also went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA in '07 for an Indians team that fell one game short of a trip to the World Series, netted a four-year, $15 million contract the following spring, and earned All-Star honors in '10.
In late 2011, a woman named Yohanny Ventura Solares came forward on a Dominican radio show saying she had been threatened by the pitcher's father because she had requested the one million pesos ($26,000) that he had promised her for a falsified birth certificate. In January '12, Carmona was arrested in the DR for applying for a visa using a false ID that, in addition to giving him a different name, lopped three years off his assumed age. Placed on the restricted list, he didn't return to the majors until Aug. 11, having served a three-week suspension handed down by MLB along the way.
Pitching under his birth name of Roberto Heredia Hernandez—not to be confused with the well-traveled Roberto Manuel Hernandez, who pitched for 10 major league teams from 1991 to 2007— he has since bounced from the Indians through the hands of the Rays, Phillies and Dodgers without rediscovering his '07 form.
David Ortiz, formerly David Arias
The Mariners signed David Americo Ortiz out of the Dominican Republic in late 1992. He initially took his mother's maiden name, Arias, and played (as a lefthanded third baseman!) in the Dominican Summer League in '93 before coming stateside in '94. On Aug. 29, 1996, the Mariners acquired infielder Dave Hollins from the Twins for a player to be named later. Two weeks later, Arias—whose minor league season was over—was sent to Minnesota. By the next time he took the field, he was the player to be renamed later: David Ortiz had returned, and he would reach the major leagues on Sept. 2, 1997.
Juan Carlos Oviedo, formerly Leo Nunez
At age 17, Oviedo took the name of his best friend, Leo Nunez, to shave a year off his age and sign a more lucrative professional contract with the Pirates than he otherwise might have. As teammate Edward Mujica later told reporters, "To get very nice signing bonuses, you need to be signed at 16 years old… At 17 years old, you maybe lose $100,000 or $150,000 when you sign [compared to a 16-year-old with the same skills]. And if you’re like 18, you might sign for $5,000 and maybe they give you an opportunity."
Nunez reached the majors in 2005 with the Royals and spent parts of four seasons with them. After being traded to the Marlins in October '08, he went on to save 92 games over the next three seasons. In October '11, he told the Dominican consulate in Miami that he was living under a false name and wanted to resolve the problem with his identity, which had prevented him from attending the funerals of relatives. Upon producing his real identity papers, he was able to return to Santo Domingo under a new passport, and while he was arrested upon returning, he was quickly released and did not face charges.
The Marlins signed him to a $6 million contract in January 2012, but Nunez spent the first half of the season on the restricted list, serving suspensions for his identity fraud. While on a Triple A rehab assignment, he sprained his ulnar collateral ligament, which led to Tommy John surgery. He spent '13 rehabbing under the auspices of the Rays, then made 32 appearances for them last year, pitching to a 3.69 ERA. He’s now in camp with the Rangers on a minor league deal.
Ian Snell, formerly Ian Oquendo
Born Ian Snell in Deleware in 1981, Snell was raised by his Puerto Rican stepfather, Juan Davila, from the time he was two years old. After signing with the Pirates in 2000, he spent '01-'03 playing in the minors under the name Oquendo, taking the last name of his wife, who is also Puerto Rican. When he reached the majors in '04, he reverted to Snell and spent seven rocky years with the Pirates and Mariners under that name, though he went by Ian Davila-Snell for the '09 World Baseball Classic.
Giancarlo Stanton, formerly Mike Stanton
The Marlins star was born Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton in 1989, coincidentally the same year that longtime lefty reliever Mike Stanton debuted in the majors. The younger Stanton went by Giancarlo until fifth grade, but grew frustrated by the frequency with which his name was mispronounced, so he went under Mike all the way through his first two major league seasons. In February 2012, he announced that he was reverting to his birth name, and his already promising career has since taken flight to the point that he signed the largest contract in professional sports history, for $325 million, last November.
Jose Uribe, formerly Jose Gonzalez
As Dominican-born players were snapped up by teams in increasing number in the early 1980s, the minors featured two players known as Jose Gonzalez, one in the Dodgers' chain and one in the Cardinals' chain. Both began their professional careers in 1981, but the latter reached the majors first, in September '84, and played eight big league games before being dealt to the Giants the following February in a deal that brought back Jack Clark. When Gonzalez reported to San Francisco, he took up his mother's maiden name, Uribe, which prompted Giants coach Rocky Bridges—a legendary minor league manager/quipster whom I profiled at length when he recently passed last month—to call him "the ultimate player to be named later."
A part of two NL West-winning Giants teams in 1987 and '89, Uribe played 10 years in the majors but had a rough time both on it (hitting .241/.300/.314 for his career) or off. His first wife died of a heart attack in '88, two days after the premature birth of their child, and he died in a car accident in 2006, at the age of 47.