Ranking the Best Player Nicknames in Baseball
We each go by a name that is different from the one that appears on our birth certificate.
A great nickname cannot be forced; it must come naturally and organically.
Premeditated nicknames simply don't work, and they generally have little staying power, fading from our minds as quickly as they entered.
Nicknames can come from anywhere: our family, our friends, our significant others and, in the case of professional athletes, fans as well.
While my family and co-workers call me by my given name, Rick, almost all of my friends call me Hoops, a name I was given by one of my fraternity brothers in college after a rather uninspiring performance in an intramural basketball game.
That I was in the midst of a three-year stint working for the New York Knicks only made the moniker all the more relevant.
Baseball has a long, storied history of outstanding nicknames, from "The Iron Horse" to "Teddy Ballgame," from the "Say Hey Kid" to the "Big Hurt."
Today's players are no different. They too have names that, while different from the ones on their jerseys, will get their attention when called out.
But not all nicknames are created equal, and some are simply better than others.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the 10 best nicknames in baseball today.
These nicknames are worthy of mention but fall just short of making the cut:
- Ryan Braun: "The Hebrew Hammer"
- Jeff Francoeur: "Frenchy"
- Jason Giambi: "The Giambino"
- Curtis Granderson: "The Grandy Man"
- Todd Helton "The Toddfather"
- Derek Jeter: "Captain Clutch"
- Roy Halladay: "Doc"
- Ryan Roberts: "Tatman"
You can see a list of nearly every nickname in baseball history here, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
10. Joey Bats
This inclusion sort of goes against my personal belief that nicknames should be bestowed upon someone not one's own creation.
But "Joey Bats" fits Jose Bautista well.
One of the game's premier power hitters, the nickname has taken on a life of its own, becoming his Twitter handle (@JoeyBats19) and opening the door to some acting roles, such as this Sopranos-like spoof he took part in with the MLB Fan Cave a few years ago.
9. Big Puma and Fat Elvis
As I included "Joey Bats," I have no choice but to include Lance Berkman's own creation—though he ranks slightly higher on our list than Bautista due to his other alter-ego's presence.
ESPN's Jim Caple tells the story:
In 2006, Berkman appeared on a Houston radio show when the hosts, John Granato and Lance Zierlein, lamented the absence of nicknames in baseball. They asked him what handle he would choose for himself if given the opportunity.
"I said 'Big Puma,' because pumas are sleek, fast, powerful and secretive," Berkman said. The name caught on immediately, and it wasn't long before Berkman acolytes were dressing up in cat costumes, calling themselves the "Little Pumas" and congregating in left field at Minute Maid Park.
During another conversation about celebrity lookalikes on Dan Patrick's radio show, Berkman mentioned that he's been told he resembles race car driver Tony Stewart, country singer Vince Gill and even Elvis Presley. "The fat one or the skinny one?" Patrick inquired. Soon after that, "Fat Elvis" began making the rounds. Berkman is so self-effacing, he didn't even flinch when a Cubs fan threw Twinkies onto the field at Wrigley several years ago. But he is not a fan of the name.
"You don't like to be called 'Fat' anything if you're a professional athlete," he said.
I can totally understand why Berkman would be opposed to the "Fat Elvis" nickname, but calling Berkman, who has stolen 86 bases over a 15-year career, a Puma seems like a stretch to me.
8. El Oso Blanco
Evan Gattis finding success in the major leagues this year is one of the great feel-good stories of the year, something we looked at in depth toward the end of April.
What I failed to mention in that piece was that Gattis spent much of this past winter playing ball in Venezuela, where he was given a nickname that has followed him back to the United States.
The 6'4", 230-pound catcher was playing with Aguilas del Zulia and making a habit of crushing prodigious home runs when, sitting in the back of a cab, he heard it, as he told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“The cab driver was on the radio talking to another cab driver or something,” said Gattis, who spoke almost no Spanish but was with a bilingual passenger. "The cab driver said, ‘Who’s oso blanco? Who’s the white bear?'"
After the fellow on the other end of the line told the cab driver that Zulia had a large American slugger, the cabbie knew that's who was in the back seat.
“He said, ‘He’s in my cab.’ So that’s how it started.” Gattis said of the nickname. “Then Ryan Reid, who’s with the Pirates now, he kind of spread it. And from there, everybody just started calling me ‘Oso.’ It was funny.”
Gattis would end up tied for the league lead in home runs with 16 in only 195 at-bats while leading the league in slugging percentage with a .595 mark.
With the way he's been swinging the bat for the Braves this season, with 14 home runs in 160 at-bats, the white bear continues to play like his Spanish alter-ego.
When 26-year-old Travis Hafner reported to his first spring training with the Cleveland Indians in 2003, he was the new guy nobody really knew and thus had no clever nickname for.
Hafner explained what happened next in an online chat with fans in 2004 (via MLB.com): "It was last Spring Training. Bill Selby kind of came up with it. Some called me 'donkey,' some called me 'project' and it got shortened up to 'Pronk.'"
It's short and sweet, and it rolls off of the tongue easily and is memorable—all the requirements of a quality nickname.
Toward the end of May in 2008, a 27-year-old Ben Zobrist was struggling to produce at the plate for Tampa Bay and soon found himself back in the minor leagues.
Roughly a month later, after four games with High-A Vero Beach and 20 games with Triple-A Durham, Zobrist was back in Tampa Bay, swinging a hot bat.
What happened next just came naturally to Rays manager Joe Maddon, famous for inventing nicknames for every one of his players, as he told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times:
All of a sudden, he started to hit homers, and you talk about guys being a gorilla, and here's ZO-brist. I just went ZO-rilla. I don't know why I do things sometimes. Then it becomes easy to say, and I just started to say it. But he grew into one of those. He's an absolute zorilla. Every time he comes to the plate now, we expect him to hit the ball hard.
Little did Maddon know that there is such a thing as a zorilla; it is a striped polecat—or skunk—that is found only in Africa.
5. The Flyin' Hawaiian
A native of Wailuku, Hawaii, four-time All-Star Shane Victorino made a habit of making tremendous defensive plays in center field while with the Philadelphia Phillies, winning three consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 2008 to 2010.
It was during that time, in a game against Philadelphia's division rivals, the New York Mets, that "The Flyin' Hawaiian" was born after Victorino made an outstanding play in the outfield, as he explains to the New England Sports Network in the video above.
*If anyone remembers which Mets announcer came up with the nickname (I'm thinking Howie Rose but don't know for sure), please write who it was in the comments section below.
4. King Felix
Before Dave Cameron, the managing editor and a senior writer at FanGraphs, became associated with the sabermetric-centered website, he was (and still is) the owner and operator of the popular Seattle Mariners blog USSMariner.com.
Back in 2003, when a 17-year-old Felix Hernandez was still working his way through Seattle's minor league system and pitching for the Low-A Everett AquaSox, Cameron placed a crown upon his head.
Via Jim Caple of ESPN:
"All hail King Felix," the 2003 blog entry read. "Hernandez worked five innings last night against Spokane, allowing just one run on two hits and striking out five. He also walked four, but it's important to remember that he's only 17 and facing much older competition, including some college players. I'm trying not to get too excited about him, but it's difficult not to with the way he's pitched so far."
In the years since, Hernandez has proven to be deserving of the moniker, establishing himself as one of the premier starting pitchers in the game and cementing himself as royalty in the Emerald City by signing a seven-year, $175 million contract extension that will keep him in Seattle through the 2019 season.
3. Kung Fu Panda
Pablo Sandoval made his major league debut in August of 2008, a few months after the release of the first "Kung Fu Panda" film starring Jack Black. For those who haven't seen it, the film follows the travels and travails of Po, an obese Panda who is trying to become a Kung Fu master.
Just over a month after arriving in San Francisco, one of Sandoval's teammates saw the correlation between the animated character and Sandoval, a hefty man at 5'11", 240 pounds (officially).
Sandoval's website tells the tale:
On September 19, 2008, he received the nickname “Kung Fu Panda” from teammate Barry Zito, after a play on where Sandoval scored a run against the Dodgers by jumping over the tag of catcher Danny Ardoin. Sandoval scored from second base on a single by Bengie Molina.
While some continue to call him "Fat Ichiro," an ode to both his girth and ability to swing the bat, "Kung Fu Panda" is the one that stuck. Panda hats in Giants' colors are readily available for purchase on websites like eBay.
2. Country Breakfast
There's a long backstory that leads up to the long story of how Billy Butler became Country Breakfast (which you can read here), but here's the semi-abridged version.
On June 25, 2011, Kansas City was playing Boston at Fenway Park in a game that was first delayed nearly three hours by rain and then went into extra innings.
When the clock hit midnight, Fox Sports Kansas City switched from the game (which was still going on) to its previously scheduled program—Ball Up Streetball.
If you're familiar with the game at all, you know that every player on the hardwood has some crazy nickname. For example, in the game that was being televised, there was a player named "Bone Crusher."
So, a group of Royals fans on Twitter began pondering what the streetball names of the Royals players would be. Greg Schaum, who runs the Royals blog Pine Tar Press, posed this question:
Street ball name game, if Billy Butler was a street baller what would his street ball name be?— greg schaum (@Greg_Schaum) July 26, 2011
Ross Martin, the sports editor for the St. Joseph-Press in Missouri, responded: "Billy Butler=Country Breakfast."
Twitter exploded, and a nickname was born.
Billy Butler got wind of the moniker and embraced it, as he told The Kansas City Star later that season: "It’s fun and it’s cool. I saw it on Twitter and my wife (Katie) told me about it. Hey, if the fans want me to be called that I’m OK with it. If they like it, I like it. It’s pretty catchy and
T-shirts were made.
A year later, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick confirmed that he too was a big fan:
Yes, "Country Breakfast'' for Billy Butler is tremendous. That one needs some traction beyond Kansas City. #royals
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) April 26, 2012
Just think: Without social media, Billy Butler would still be plain old Billy Butler.
Behold the power of Twitter.
1. Big Papi
When it comes to nicknames of active players, you can't beat David Ortiz, er..."Big Papi."
As he wrote in his autobiography, Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits and later explained to ESPN's Jerry Crasnick, David Ortiz might as well not exist:
Wherever I go now, bro, that's what people call me. I'm serious. Whenever I come out of the dugout before a game, if it's in winter ball or spring training or the playoffs, the fans all start screaming it. Even in the Dominican Republic, where anyone can be "papi," that's what everybody calls me.
Where did it come from?
Called the "Big O" by his teammates in Minnesota, "Big Papi" was born when he arrived in Boston thanks to the slugger's issues with putting names with faces, as he told IGN Sports' Jon Robinson back in 2006:
I just called you Papi a little while ago. When I don't know someone's name, and I'm bad at remembering people's names, that's what I call them, so that's what they started calling me. It's a good excuse, a good way to be friendly to people even though you can't remember their names.
If any of us saw Ortiz walking down the street, what would we call out?
No player in baseball has become more synonymous with his nickname than David Ortiz.