The Decline and Fall of the Nickname

It might be a long time before we get another Daisuke Matsuzaka. The superstar pitcher from Japan has been as good as advertised in his first season with the Boston Red Sox, but I’m not talking about his talent. I’m talking about his sparkling resume for a truly classic nickname. Nicknames are a grand American tradition—in sports, in pop culture, in politics, in life—and when Matsuzaka arrived here, he gave us a golden opportunity to christen him anew. So far this season, Matsuzaka has struck out 110 hitters in 106 innings. He throws at least six different pitches, including one, the gyroball, that might just be an intimidating myth. He never, ever gets tired. He famously threw 254 pitches—two hundred and fifty-four!!—in a single, 17-inning game during high school, then tossed a no-hitter in his next start. And unlike most pro athletes, he clearly adores playing the game. On the mound and in the dugout, he has an endearing habit of smiling like a goofy 6-year-old with an ice cream cone. The guy is so colorful, so unique, that it’d be a sin if we whiffed on the chance to give him a great nickname.

Unfortunately, we did. Matsuzaka’s agreed-upon nickname, for now and forever, is Dice-K, which is terrible because it’s not really a nickname at all. It’s his first name. That’s how you pronounce Daisuke—Dice-K. Way to go, America. One of the most exciting new figures in sports comes along, and instead of honoring his originality with an original honorific, we basically decide to call him “Dave.” Before the season began, before Dice-K was stuck on Daisuke with rubber cement, someone in the sports world tried to start a movement to give Matsuzaka the nickname Bazooka. (I believe it was ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, but I can’t track down the piece.) I loved it. It was just right for such an overpowering pitcher, and it even resonated with the last part of his surname: Bazooka, Matsuzaka. So naturally, America voted for Dice-K.

I don’t know why I’m surprised. Over the years, our culture’s gift for nicknaming has slowly vanished along with so many of our other celebrated American skills, like nation-building and math. The same country that came up with the Splendid Splinter, the Say Hey Kid and Mr. October now settles for A-Rod, T-Mac and AI. (Don’t even get me started on the San Diego Chargers’ franchise running back LaDanian Tomlinson, whose nom de plume, LT, is not only lame but recycled, too. Excuse me, LaDanian, but Lawrence Taylor called and he wants his nickname back.) What passes for creativity these days is taking the word “big” and sticking some physiologically or descriptively appropriate term after it. Which is why the sports landscape has a Big Hurt, a Big Papi, a Big Unit—which has never been confirmed, by the way—and even a Big Fundamental. That last one is Tim Duncan’s nickname. Or if you prefer, you can call him by his other nickname: Timmy.

Baseball, which used to have a phone book’s worth of spectacular nicknames, is now the worst offender in sports. Pedro Martinez is Petey. Derek Jeter is Jeet. God forbid your last name is Rodriguez, because then we’ll just take a letter from your first name, stick “Rod” at the end, and be done with it. Hence A-Rod, K-Rod and I-Rod, which is what some folks insist on calling Detroit Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez even though he already has a perfectly great nickname—Pudge. Is this really the best we can do? A couple of initials? A syllable? An infantilizing “y” at the end?

By my reckoning, baseball has only given us one great new nickname in the past five years. Big, burly Cleveland Indians slugger Travis Hafner is known to all as Pronk, which is perfect, because it evokes a big, burly slugger and it sounds, in a Stan Lee/Marvel Comics kind of way, like the noise that’s produced when Hafner crushes a home run. Plus it’s fun to say “Pronk.” But the fact is, Pronk is the sole highlight of a long, fallow period in a sport that gave us one of the great nicknames of all time, the Negro League’s storied outfielder James (Cool Papa) Bell. I’d even waive the “no-recycling” rule for a nickname that delicious. Why not Cool Papa Matsuzaka? Come on! It even rhymes!

Sadly, our nomenclature nosedive has spread into the pop cultural sphere, where J. Lo competes for headlines with TomKat and Brangelina. (Brangelina? Who thinks of this crap? It sounds like a protein shake.) I don’t want to encourage the obnoxious ways of Lindsay Lohan’s many ex-paramours, but I’ve got to give some light applause to the guy who dubbed her Fire Crotch. At least that jerk is making an effort.

I blame our president. Our commander in chief is also famously our nicknamer in chief, but what he should be famous for is giving lousy nicknames. You might think that President Bush was born to hand them out, considering his own nickname, Dubya, contains within it his favorite thing to do. (“Hey, Michael Brown, I dub ya Brownie. That’s your nickname now. Heh-heh.”) But before he got into politics, Bush owned a baseball team—the Texas Rangers—and that’s probably where he picked up the habit, and where he learned to be so bad at it. “Brownie” is probably Bush’s most famous pet name, and easily his blandest. But a close second would have to be the nickname he gave to my old pal Trent Gegax, who was NEWSWEEK’S man on the Bush campaign bus during the 2000 election. Bush’s nickname for Trent? NEWSWEEK Man.

With all the trouble that this administration has had in the international community, it’s probably instructive to remember that President Bush’s nickname for the Russian premier, Vladimir Putin, has long been Pooty-Poot. This has always struck me as a profoundly stupid thing to call a man who once ran the KGB. Granted, geopolitics are complicated, but is it any wonder that Russia has resumed flexing its muscles and giving its citizens flashbacks to the cold war? I can just imagine Putin watching CNN in some back room at the Kremlin, stewing after Bush calls him Pooty-Poot one more time. “That’s it,” he thunders. “I’ve had it! No more human rights!”

I’ll give President Bush credit for coming up with one decent nickname: he quite cleverly dubbed Karl Rove, his trusted adviser and top hatchetman, Turd Blossom. (Here’s how we know Bush came up with it himself: no one other than the president of the United States, probably not even Dick Cheney, would have the guts to call Karl Rove “Turd Blossom” to his face.) What this means is, there’s still hope for the rest of us. Our long national nicknaming nightmare can be over soon. Maybe we need to form a special committee to ratify good nicknames and veto the bad ones? Maybe we just need to try harder? Don’t ask me. All I know is, Bazooka is pitching Sunday afternoon for the Sox.