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Pros By Any Other Name

April 14, 2003
April 14, 2003

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April 14, 2003

Pros By Any Other Name

Though war still sounds like football--troops last week entered
the "red zone" outside Baghdad--servicemen are more eloquent than
sportsmen and sports media in one important regard. They coin
better nicknames. And so the Coast Guard cutter Evergreen became
the Never Clean, the Iris the I-rust, and the Red Cedar,
gloriously, the Dead Peter.

This is an article from the April 14, 2003 issue Original Layout

While Americans still coin excellent disparaging nicknames for
foreign airlines (APSA: "Angry Peruvians Smashing Airplanes") and
state railroads (ACELA: "Amtrak Customers Expect Late Arrivals"),
we've lost our way in nicknaming ballplayers. In fact, it is now
difficult to distinguish athletes from Apple products. Is T-Mac
shilling iMacs? Does A-Rod have an iPod? You'll be forgiven for
thinking, as I once did, that C-Webb was C-Span's website.

Military history is rife with generals and warships whose
evocative nicknames--Old Blood and Guts, Old Ironsides--sound like
cut-rate whiskeys. Sports history, too. And so one can imagine
calling for a shot of Ol' Perfessor (Casey Stengel) or Ol'
Magnolia Mouth (Babe McCarthy, the ex-Mississippi State
basketball coach with a magnificent drawl). These were nicknames
to put hair on your chest. Barkeep, two fingers of Three-Finger
Brown, please.

Indeed, as James (Babe [Ol' Magnolia Mouth]) McCarthy will
attest, our sportsmen used to get nicknames within nicknames, one
fitting neatly inside another, like Russian nesting dolls. And so
Cardinals third baseman Johnny Leonard Roosevelt Martin became
Pepper, and Pepper Martin became, supplementally, the Wild Horse
of the Osage.

This prepositional nickname construction--the Wild Bull of the
Pampas (Luis Firpo), the Black Uhlan of the Rhine (Max
Schmeling)--has largely fallen into disuse. Sure, NASCAR's Bill
Elliott is Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, but the best we could
do with a modern, ball-smiting behemoth like Mark McGwire was the
pathetic Big Mac. Seventy years ago he'd have been something
rather grander--the Red Scythe of Pomona, perhaps.

Big Mac, like Air Canada--a nickname embraced by Vince Carter--is
descended from a brand name. Likewise, new ballparks, named for
corporations or corporate titans, come equipped with
prefabricated nicknames that have about them a forced,
executive-approved jocularity: the Bob, the Ted, the Jake.

Mercifully, there is hope. As UCLA seeks to hire yet another heir
to John Wooden, former Bruins basketball coach Jim
Harrick--recently fired at Georgia--has been referred to, in some
circles, as the Lizard of Westwood. Today's nicknames don't stick
like the Splendid Splinter's, but those fans of the Tampa Bay
Double A's (ne Devil Rays) are at least trying. Many nicknames
that don't look clever at first blush really are. And so, in
England, it helps to know that Arsenal soccer player Ray (Pizza)
Parlour was arrested on a drunk-and-disorderly charge at a Pizza
Hut in Essex.

And then there's Ivan (the Terrible) Gantz, a former Indiana club
pro and part-time Tour golfer prone to assaulting himself in
anger. Gantz, according to Golf Magazine, once punched himself in
the face for blowing a chip and--in Texas, in self-reproach--threw
himself onto a cactus. Golf, in fact, is doing more than its
share to resuscitate nicknamery. Robo-putter Loren Roberts is the
Boss of the Moss, a sobriquet that would have stood proudly
alongside the Galloping Ghost and the Sultan of Swat in the
Golden Age of sportswriting. An English writer has called chronic
runner-up Phil Mickelson "the Nearly Man," a perfect nickname
that sadly hasn't gained currency. The English, incidentally, do
this well. Can Hammerin' Hank Aaron ever hope to compete with the
unspoken H's of Cockney boxer 'ammerin' 'enry Cooper? 'ell no 'e
can't.

The decline of boxing nicknames may be merely an accident of
geography. The sport that gave us Jack (the Manassa Mauler)
Dempsey still delivers alliterative nicknames based on a
fighter's hometown. But whom do you find more fearsome--Rocky (the
Brockton Blockbuster) Marciano, or Kevin (the Flushing Flash)
Kelley, a shopworn New Yorker who'll fight featherweight champ
Marco Antonio Barrera on Saturday? Not since George Michael's
arrest have flushing and flash appeared in such deleterious
proximity to one another. We may never again see the likes of
fight promoter Harry Levene, spectacularly dubbed the Merchant of
Menace.

An anonymous citizen of cyberspace has compiled 531 hockey goalie
nicknames, from the legendary George (the Chicoutimi Cucumber)
Vezina to obscure players like Blaine (the Lach Net Monster)
Lacher and Adam (the Holy Goalie) Lord. This last calls to mind
clergyman Tim Davis, who races automobiles as the Pastor of
Disaster. Shameful, isn't it, that no professional driver has yet
been dubbed the Colossus of Roads?

But back to goalies for a moment. Nicknames do not get better
than Steve (the Puck Goes Inski) Buzinski's. It's a standard of
excellence seldom equaled. Really, is anyone cowed by those two
coastal colleges--in Rhode Island and Puget Sound--whose teams are
called the Anchormen? We are reminded, in these days of
round-the-clock news viewing, that actual anchormen would be more
intimidating.

Wolfblitzers, anyone?

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
We've lost our way in nicknaming athletes. Is T-Mac shilling
iMacs? Does A-Rod have an iPod?