The Magic of the Baseball Nickname

New York Times
August 25, 2018
By Doug Glanville
Endearing monikers make players at once iconic and personal.
After I had played a few years with the Philadelphia Phillies, I noticed that no one on the team was called by his formal name anymore. Instead, everyone had a nickname. My teammates and I had begun this naming metamorphosis from the moment we played our first baseball game as kids, and it continued as we rose through the ranks of professional baseball. Our birth certificates were soon declared null and void. You will now be known in shorthand. You may even be called a number.
This weekend, Major League Baseball continues its new annual tradition of allowing players to put their nicknames on the back of their jerseys for a few days. We will see a range of names, from a simple abbreviated version of a full name, like “J-Ram” (for José Ramírez, the star third baseman for the Cleveland Indians), to a more descriptive designation like “The String Bean Slinger” (for the Chicago Cubs setup man Carl Edwards Jr., apparently in honor of his rocket arm and lean frame).
Of course, a descriptive nickname can dig up some old demons. Nicknames in our childhood were not always welcome and rarely were self-declared. During my playing days, I saw my nicknames evolve over time, reflecting the constant change of scenery that is life in baseball.
When I was drafted in 1991, I was (and still am) a slim guy. My weight had always been a subject of needling, at least as long as I could remember. I got weight gain advice from everyone under the sun. At first they offered “stick to your ribs” recipes; later, it was power workout routines. During my first full season in the minor leagues, in 1992, one of my teammates made my skinny frame into a term of endearment by calling me “Bonesy.” It was a more lovable version of the sort of nickname that I had taken badly to in the past. But he was our team comedian and I took to the name well, not least because of its truth. I had lost 25 pounds that season, dropping to 158 on a 6-foot-2-inch frame. My mother was not happy when I returned home.
Nicknames in baseball usually grow beyond the stuff of childhood teasing. They can have a sense of irony to them. When I was with the Phillies, after being traded there in 1998, I was named “Rocket Scientist” by the Cubs outfielder Tuffy Rhodes, in honor of my Ivy League engineering degree. Later, my Phillies teammates Wayne Gomes, Robert Person and Desi Relaford, in particular, called me “Thug Life,” in reference to the rapper Tupac Shakur. When a teammate’s wife asked Gomes why he had given me a gangster name, he said: “That is what makes it so perfect. It is the opposite of who he is.”
The journey to the big leagues and beyond is often a search for self. There are many opportunities to reinvent yourself, especially since baseball requires you to adapt and adjust to stay competitive. A trade to a new team, getting a big hit or becoming an All-Star can change everything about your identity. This also applies to off-the-field exploits, be it dating a supermodel, owning an alpaca farm or some embarrassing event that no one is supposed to talk about. Any of this could be inspiration for a new nickname. The moments that make up a life in baseball can immortalize you, not just for what you did, but also for what they may inspire others to call you.
Just being called by a nickname can make you feel as if you have been welcomed into a fraternal order, especially if an icon of the game knights you with a title. When I played for the Cubs, my teammate (and now Hall of Famer) Ryne Sandberg came over to me after I had a particularly good game and said: “That a baby, Glan! You set them up, and I bust them!”
Glan? Wow, Ryne Sandberg called me “Glan.” I had made it.
From “Bonesy” to “Rocket Scientist” to “Doug E Fresh” to “Thug Life.” (Also: “La Gacela,” when I was in Puerto Rico — the gazelle.) A name is more than a name. It captures an era, a relationship in the game that frames your intimacy with your teammates, fans and others. It can be a brand, as “A-Rod” is Alex Rodriguez, or something you share only with your locker mates. I know that my good friend and college teammate Bruce Brasser never lived it down after the team found out (which he recently reminded me was my fault) that his girlfriend called him “Bukie.” Everyone promptly started calling him that. To save him from persistent torment, I later made the nickname slightly more formal, and he has been “Bukton” to me for nearly three decades now.
It seems to be the nature of sports to use endearing monikers to make players at once iconic and personal. The nicknames can be records of a childhood or a hometown, bringing with them a history unknown to most. They make players seem like friends or family, even when the transient nature of the game can isolate a player from the fan base and disrupt a sense of intimacy between the two.
Eschewing the name on your birth certificate is also fun, a way to keep the serious you at bay. It allows us all to escape. It can be tough to know someone well, and watch him retire, get traded or released from the team. Better we keep it light and remind ourselves that we are playing a game for a living.
Nicknames helped teach me that words really do matter, whether ironic, loving or descriptive. Sticks and stones may break bones — but words can also break a heart, just as they can fill one. And in baseball, the word that sums you up can immediately take you to your past, where deep memories lie, and more important, it can simply take you home.
Republished from The New York Times
Photo 1: Members of the Detroit Tigers wore special uniforms bearing their nicknames during Major League baseball's inaugural Players Weekend last year.
Photo Credit: Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos, via Getty Images
Photo 2: Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs wore the nickname “El Mago" (Spanish for "the magician") during Players Weekend last year.
Photo Credit: Hunter Martin/Getty Images
Photo 3: Members of the Oakland Athletics during Players Weekend last year.
Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images


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