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No More -Rods and -Dogs

December 9, 2008
The Wild Horse of Osage, not P-Mart

The Wild Horse of Osage, not P-Mart

There are some who say the English language has lost its way; that the recent regression of high school English essays into internet chatter (IMHO, Hamlt iz compltly re a prince whos rly suicidal) is the final straw in communication breakdown. There are others who say it’s a new adaptive form of the language. I could give a fig. All I want back is the lyricism of old baseball nicknames.
 
If the enduring thing about the once-national pastime is its fables that aren’t-quite-true-but-true-enough, the quality of sports monikers is a necessary ingredient to its vibrancy. Oh, for the days when the Splendid Splinter – alliterative and evocative in both talent and appearance – roamed the grass in front of the Green Monster. When the Say Hey Kid turned his back to home plate and ran to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds. Or when the Meal Ticket struck out the Sultan of Swat, the Iron Horse, Double X, and Bucketfoot Al in the 1934 All-Star Game. Through these sobriquets of talent, majesty, endurance, and a strange batting stance, the stories grandfathers would later tell their grandsons were enhanced with a Homeric touch.
 
Now the wit of the current sports cognoscenti is boiled down to this methodology: First initial of first name + first syllable of last name. Example: Even though the Yankees let veteran catcher I-Rod go to free agency, they still have A-Rod at the hot corner. Oh, sure, there are some slight changes to this formula. Take the Mets, who are about to tender an offer to K-Rod (K for strikeouts) and O-Dog (Dog instead of his given name, Hudson, because Dog, you know, is slang for ‘guy’). And who knows? If Omar Minaya gets really greedy, he could throw $30 million at Man-Ram, much to the delight of the unofficial captain, D-Wright.
 
It seems too easy to blame ESPN and even its swami Chris Berman (whose nicknames are clever but rarely stick), with their catch phrases, sound bites, highlight reels, and reductivist wrap-ups. But whatever the cause, we’re now forced to argue over the merits of two NL East shortstops, the skilled, but nominally-uninspired H-Ram and J-Roll. Some of the players’ titles are merely derivative: Derek Jeter, as classic and classy a guy as ever walked in pinstripes, is disrespected by nothing better than Mr. November, which recalls Reggie Jackson‘s original nickname. Jason Giambi, loud, unkempt, one of the friendliest ballplayers in the bigs – the plagiaristic “Giambino.”
 
Ok. This isn’t fair. Nicknames have always been faddish, even if time makes them glossier. Back in the day, dozens of Chicks, Reds, Babes, and Leftys also represented the ages’ vernacular. They even sported derivatives of their own, like the fabled Rabbi of Swat, Moe Berg. And Three-Finger, while simple and, uh, descriptive, was not exactly on literary par with The Wild Horse of Osage.
 
But with the omnipresence of cameras, replays, and constant playback, have the stories lost their rhetorical flourish as well? I wasn’t there to witness the “Homer in the Gloamin’” or “Merkle’s Boner” or “The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.” I did, however, watch Gonzo bloop a Mo Rivera cutter into the Bank One Ballpark outfield to win the 2001 Series for the D-Backs. But why hasn’t it been designated for lore with a mythic reference like “The Pop in the BOB“?
 
There are, of course, some good names scattered among the pros these days. The Greek God of Walks, Kevin Youkilis, is coming off a fantastic season in New England. The Big Unit (Randy Johnson) is a proud bearer in a long line of “Bigs” – Big Train, Big Cat, Big Hurt. And Vlad the Impaler not only suggests Vladimir Guerrero’s hack-it-all swing, but also teaches kids about Dracula’s inspiration.
 
But there are far too many future Hall-of-Famers running around sans legitimate nicknames. No “Poosh ‘Em Up,” no “Dominican Dandy.” To have one of the best ballplayers we’ll ever see in Alex Rodriguez swatting longballs in the city where Red Smith and Gay Talese wrote, it seems a great disservice that he’s saddled with the modern formula (A-Rod). With the House that Ruth Built torn down, don’t we owe it to the sport’s poetic history to dream up a glorious, authentic name for him? Like “The Billion Dollar Question Mark” or “Paparazzi Alex” or “Ol’ Whistling Bat” or – um – suggestions?

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