Baseball and barbecue: reviewing a fanastic All-Star week in Kansas City.
Random musings as the media contingent in Kansas City begins its mass exodus to the airport…
My excursion through FanFest during All-Star week got me thinking about nicknames. Ballplayers have had some doozies over the years, but regrettably, the number of nicknames that score high points for originality and creativity has definitely tapered off. A lot.
One look at the Negro Leagues exhibit at FanFest made me realize we are really missing the boat these days on nicknames. Nearly every player in
the Negro Leagues had a cool alias. Wilbur “Bullet Joe” Rogan. Joseph “Smokey Joe”/”Cyclone” Williams. Norman “Turkey” Stearnes. James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell. William Julius “Judy” Johnson. John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. Elijah “Pumpsie” Green. Mamie “Peanut” Johnson.
I realize names like “Turkey” and “Judy” probably wouldn’t go over well in these modern times, but still. They were definitely on to something back then.
(Full disclosure: I come from Houston, where players are called by their last name, with a “y” or “ie” at the end, depending on your spelling preference. The manager, Brad Mills, is “Millsie.” He calls his closer, Brett Myers, “Meersie.” Matt Downs is “Downsie.” If they call up Brett
Wallace after the All-Star break, he will answer to “Wally.” Jose Altuve is “Tuvie.” Wilton Lopez? “Lopie.” It’s absurd. The only one who’s exempt is Jed Lowrie. For obvious reasons.)
That’s not to say there haven’t been any creative nicknames in more modern times. Jeff Francoeur is “Frenchy,” which is pretty cool. Then there was Andres Gallaraga, “Big Cat.” Fred McGriff was “Crime Dog.” David Ortiz, “Big Papi.” Sean Casey is, appropriately “The Mayor.” And how could we forget Jose “Lima Time”? Or Lance Berkman, the only documented player in the last 100 years to actually give himself his own nickname — “Big Puma” — to make people forget about his other, less desirable moniker: “Fat Elvis.”
An extensive Internet search on the matter revealed a bunch of nicknames I never knew existed. (And by “extensive,” I mean, I googled “Major
League Baseball Player nicknames” and stumbled on a page from the believe-it-at-your-own-risk Wikipedia site. In other words, research was
entirely unscientific.) Living so far away from New York, I never heard Phil Hughes referred to as “Phil Franchise.” During my stops in
Colorado, I never heard Todd Helton referred to as “The ToddFather,” thank goodness. Other cringe-inducing names: “The Mexicutioner” (Joakim Soria), and “Huff Daddy” (Aubrey Huff).
Working an All-Star Game involves a lot of work and a lot of long hours at the ballpark, but there’s a major upside to all of this. One of my
favorite things about MLB’s jewel events — namely, the All-Star Game and World Series — are the number of Hall of Famers and fan favorites who are involved in the events.
MLB tries to include as many local stars from the host cities as possible, citing one big name to be the official All-Star ambassador. The All-Star Game being in Kansas City this year, it was only fitting that the Royals’ only Hall of Famer, George Brett, serve in that role.
Brett, one of the few Hall of Famers who played for only one team his entire career, was pretty much up at the crack of dawn every day for nearly a week to fulfill about a dozen good will commitments, in addition to managing the U.S. Team in Sunday’s Futures Game. He jokingly rolled his eyes at the Royals’ head of PR while rattling off his list of responsibilities for the week. But when discussing what Kansas City means to him, Brett’s tone grew more serious.
Eyes welled, Brett said, “I love this town. They adopted me in 1973 and have been so good to me. I’ve had a great time this week and I’m extremely honored that they named me ambassador. I didn’t realize the work that would be involved, but it’s been a pleasure.”
Asked what he says to today’s players about the importance of a strong work ethic, Brett answered, “I played every day like my dad was in the stands.”
Brett creates a stir in this town, but there is one person who can eclipse even that and take it to an entirely different stratosphere. That person is Bo Jackson, who starred in both the Major Leagues and the NFL and was once considered by many as the greatest athlete, ever.
Jackson participated in the Legends/Celebrity Softball Game Sunday night at Kauffman Stadium, not as a player, but as a coach. When it comes to our sports heroes from the past, it’s easy to romanticize what they once were and brush aside the realities, like why they were forced to retire in the first place. Jackson had a hip replacement 20 years ago, and while I have no idea what he’s had to deal with pain-wise today, I’m guessing he’s still dealing with the aftermath from the injuries that prematurely ended his athletic career.
Whatever the reason, Jackson clearly did not want to play in the softball game, but when it came down to the American League’s final at-bat, the
sellout crowd started chanting his name in an effort to get him to step to the plate. Jackson did not want to. The crowd got louder, but he stood his ground. Then Jackson’s teammates began gently coaxing him, and finally, he gave in. He was clearly uncomfortable.
Jackson popped up to third base side, but he hit the ball hard enough to satisfy the crowd, and most importantly, he didn’t do anything do embarrass himself. It wouldn’t have mattered even if he had swung and missed; nothing was going to diminish the crowd’s adoration for its local hero. But watching the scene unfold was a little disconcerting, and when Jackson made contact, with some level of authority, it came as a pretty big relief.
During a question and answer session at FanFest, Rollie Fingers explained the origin of his famous handlebar mustache, and what prompted him to grow it. It used to be against the rules for ballplayers to have facial hair, but in the early 1970s, Reggie Jackson rebelled and showed up to Spring Training with a mustache. Oakland Athletics owner Charles O. Finley, normally unreasonable and cantankerous by nature, liked it so much that he asked the rest of the team to follow suit.
Finley even went as far as to add an incentive: have a mustache on Opening Day, and receive a check for $300. Needless to say, Finley ended up handing out 30 checks for 25 players, four coaches and one manager.
That got me thinking about old friend Phil Garner, who was drafted by the A’s just before the 1972-74 dynasty began. He had to have spent time with the big league team during Spring Training, even before his ’73 debut. And he does have a big bushy mustache. Did he, too, grow it for the money?
Answer: yes. But this story doesn’t have quite the happy ending as it did for Fingers.
Garner grew the mustache like everyone else, but he was sent to the Minor Leagues when camp broke. He asked for his money, but the Minor League director and Finley’s son-in-law said it was only for big leaguers.
“I got hosed,” Garner said.
Favorite quote of the week:
“Twitter, tweeter, twooter.” George Brett, explaining why it’s harder for a player to stay under the radar when he’s struggling in this day and age, because of the Internet and the ability to find out any stat, for any team, anywhere in the world.
Random images from a great week in Kansas City. Hat tip to the Royals for putting on a fantastic show.