Commentary

Big Papi, Big Puma and many more

Paying homage to best nicknames in circulation among active players

Updated: April 26, 2012, 2:11 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Albert Pujols' first spring training as an Angel got off to an inauspicious start with news that the team was running billboard ads in Southern California heralding the arrival of "El Hombre." Throughout his tenure in St. Louis, Pujols made his distaste for the nickname clear because he thought it was disrespectful to Cardinals icon Stan "The Man" Musial.

In hindsight, Pujols should have been more perturbed for aesthetic reasons: It's just not a very good nickname.

Pujols is the greatest player of his generation, but his Baseball-Reference.com profile lists several monikers befitting a Triple-A lifer. The list includes Phat Albert, Prince Albert and The Machine.

It makes you yearn for the days of wool uniforms and sleeper cars, when the Sultan of Swat, the Iron Horse, the Splendid Splinter, Joltin' Joe, the Commerce Comet and the Say Hey Kid roamed the landscape and became part of the game's lexicon.

Baseball has a long and illustrious tradition of nicknames. But political correctness, a lack of imagination and other factors have combined to put a damper on things in recent years. The crop has gotten even thinner since Sean "The Mayor" Casey, Eric "The Human Crash Test Dummy" Byrnes and "Pat The Bat" Burrell retired.

In this edition of Starting 9, we resurrect the past and have a little fun by paying homage to the best nicknames in circulation among active players. But first, a few ground rules:

Shorthand riffs on players' actual names don't count

Sorry, A-Rod, K-Rod, CarGo, Tulo, V-Mart, Youk, J-Roll, Man-Ram, Tex, LoMo, Longo, Cutch, J.J. and J-Up, to name a few.

When a player officially renounces his nickname, it fails to make the cut

"The Mexicutioner" seemed to fit well for Joakim Soria, but last year he asked people to stop using it in response to drug-related violence in his native Mexico. Dustin Pedroia has also made it plain he's not a fan of "Laser Show." Out of respect for the players, let's give those names a rest.

George King, the Yankees beat writer for the New York Post, won points for inventiveness a few years ago when he referred to injury-plagued righty Carl Pavano as "American Idle." But Pavano has since made the name obsolete with back-to-back 200-inning seasons in Minnesota.

No John Sterling-isms

The Yankees radio broadcaster deserves credit for trying, with "The Giambino," "The Melk Man," "The Grandy Man" and "Shane Spencer, the Home Run Dispenser" among the monikers in his personal collection. But after a while they all start to blend in together -- sort of like Tim Kurkjian impersonations.

So which current nicknames top the list? Here are nine that suit each player's personality and are catchy and fan-friendly enough to stand the test of time. When you see the player, you think of the name. And chances are it makes you smile.

Big Papi (David Ortiz)

David Ortiz
Ortiz

When Ortiz was a young player in Minnesota, his teammates referred to him as "Big O." The Big Papi moniker caught on once he arrived in Boston, in part because of his congenial brand of forgetfulness.

"I'm terrible with names," Ortiz told Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com. "I just can't remember them. So everyone I see, I call 'Papi.'

Ortiz laughed.

"Or 'Mami."

Ortiz has weathered the obligatory ups and downs in Boston, but will ultimately be remembered as one of the great sluggers in Red Sox history and a big, friendly guy who goes with the flow. He's survived almost a decade in one of baseball's most demanding markets with his popularity intact.

In his autobiography, "Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits," Ortiz revealed how the name has become synonymous with his identity.

"Wherever I go now, bro, that's what people call me," he said. "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."

Big Puma (Lance Berkman)

Lance Berkman
Berkman

Leave it to Berkman, one of baseball's most insightful and quote-worthy players, to give himself a nickname so wry and unique that it prompts people to see him in a whole new light.

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.

Kung Fu Panda (Pablo Sandoval)

Pablo Sandoval
Sandoval

In the 2008 DreamWorks animated action comedy film, Jack Black was the voice of Po, "an energetic yet immature, accident-prone, obese giant panda" who was a die-hard fan of the Furious Five.

In August 2008, Sandoval arrived from the minors and hit .345 in 41 games with the San Francisco Giants. He's a switch-hitting corner man with wonderful hand-eye coordination, a flair for hitting eye-level fastballs, and a physique that resonates with fans at the garlic fries stand. Some folks refer to Sandoval as the "Round Mound of Pound," but that's too much of a Charles Barkley ripoff to make the grade.

The worlds of bear and ballplayer collided early in Sandoval's career, when he deftly jumped to avoid a tag from Dodgers catcher Danny Ardoin and teammate Barry Zito referenced the Kung Fu Panda. Four years later, Pablo Sandoval panda hats are readily available on eBay.

The San Francisco roster has its share of catchy monikers. Brian Wilson is known as "The Beard" and Tim Lincecum goes by "The Freak" or "The Franchise" (or "The Freaky Franchise" in an old ESPN commercial). Last year, Giants television and radio broadcaster Duane Kuiper dubbed first baseman Brandon Belt the "Baby Giraffe" because of his long, loping strides. In August, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom reciprocated by naming a baby giraffe "Brandon."

King Felix (Felix Hernandez)

Felix Hernandez
Hernandez

Hernandez hadn't accomplished much in 2003, but hardcore Mariners fans knew all about his wondrous potential. He was pitching for Class A Everett that year when Dave Cameron, the man in charge of the USS Mariner blog, talked to some coaches and scouts who raved about the Venezuelan teenager with the 99 mph fastball and two power breaking balls.

Shortly thereafter, Cameron and blog-mates Derek Zumsteg and Jason Michael Barker christened the kid "King Felix." The name seemed a tad presumptuous at the time, but Hernandez soon justified their faith with a Cy Young Award, two All-Star Game appearances and an ERA title by age 25.

According to Cameron, the Mariners' broadcasters were discouraged (or prohibited) from calling Hernandez "The King" early in his career, because the team feared it would put undue pressure on him. That's all changed now. The Mariners designate Section 150 at Safeco Field as "The King's Court" when Hernandez is pitching, and discount tickets and T-shirts are part of the package.

Hernandez, by all accounts, loves the nickname. He named his two dogs "King" and "Oreo."

Cameron thinks "King Felix" is popular for two reasons: It's short and to the point; and it includes his first name, so nobody has to think twice. Only 17 players in history have gone by the name "Felix." So if Boston pitcher Felix Doubront develops into a star, the Fenway faithful might want to dub him "Prince."

Does Cameron ever regret not staking a claim to the "King Felix" tag before it became so popular? Not really.

"I don't know if I would want to capitalize on his success," Cameron said. "In retrospect, it might have been a good thing. But it doesn't keep me up at night."

The Flyin' Hawaiian (Shane Victorino)

Shane Victorino
Victorino

The Phillies' roster is as nickname-laden as any in baseball. Fans at Citizens Bank Park serenade catcher Carlos Ruiz with cries of "Chooch" and refer to pitcher Vance Worley as "Vanimal." And everyone in baseball knows Roy Halladay as "Doc." Manager Charlie Manuel tried his best when he referred to Ryan Howard as "The Big Piece," but that one never really caught on.

The catchiest label belongs to the team's speedy, Wailuku-born center fielder. Victorino said the Mets broadcast crew dubbed him the "Flyin' Hawaiian" after he made a great catch in a Philly-New York game in 2006 or 2007. But we asked Mets television broadcasters Gary Cohen and Ron Darling, and they have no recollection of coining the name. So we'll take his word for it.

Victorino now has "Flyin' Hawaiian" inscribed on his baseball shoes, and his bobbleheads come with a casual island theme. The Phillies once gave away a Shane Victorino Hula Figurine with the outfielder wearing a grass skirt and lei and strumming a ukulele.

Victorino takes no offense at what some might regard as stereotypical Hawaiian images. He gets a charge out of it when he goes deep and ESPN anchor Neil Everett chalks it up to the "power of poi." He estimates that six out of 10 Phillies fans refer to him by his nickname.

"When I walk the streets or go to opposing stadiums, it's hardly ever 'Shane,'" he said. "It's 'Flyin' Hawaiian, can you sign this?' I love it because that's my heritage. It represents where I'm from and who I am."

Zorilla (Ben Zobrist)

Ben Zobrist
Zobrist

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon coined this one in 2009, when Zobrist broke through with a .297 average and 27 homers to make the All-Star team and finish eighth in the American League Most Valuable Player voting. Maddon is a guy who comes up with nicknames for everyone, and the name just popped into his head.

"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," Maddon told beat writer Marc Topkin in June 2009. "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."

The Rays began selling Zorilla Gorillas at the ballpark, with the proceeds going to charity, and Maddon wore a Zorilla T-shirt to a post-game press conference to promote Zobrist on the MLB All-Star Final Man ballot in 2011. According to Zobrist's Wikipedia page, he also goes by "Zo,'' "Zobi Wan Kenobi,'' "Zoby" and "Benny-Zo.'' But none of those names packs the same wallop as his monster persona.

Unbeknownst to Maddon, Tampa Bay's versatile switch-hitter actually has a wildlife counterpart. The zorrilla, a carnivorous mammal that resembles a skunk, lives in Africa and is also referred to as the African polecat. Zorrillas typically weigh about three pounds and measures 13-15 inches in length, and emit a pungent odor that resonates up to a half-mile away. In the Sudan the zorrilla is referred to as the "father of stinks.''

Joey Bats (Jose Bautista)

Jose Bautista
Bautista

An undetermined Pittsburgh media member first began referring to Bautista as "Joey Bats" during his five-year run with the Pirates. But few people noticed when Bautista was logging a .753 OPS for a 68-win team in 2007. He didn't strike fear into the hearts of many pitchers while hitting 15 homers in 614 at-bats that year.

A 2008 trade to Toronto revitalized Bautista's career and gave his sobriquet a second wind. In the course of hitting 97 home runs during the 2010-11 seasons, he won two Silver Slugger awards and pocketed a pair of Hank Aaron awards. He also did a convincing turn as the Italian mobster Joey Bats in an MLB Fan Cave commercial. Naturally, Bautista uses his alternate identity and his uniform number as his Twitter handle.

Pronk (Travis Hafner)

Travis Hafner
Hafner

Hafner was playing for Texas in 2002 when Cleveland's Bill Selby and Lee Stevens marveled at his ability from seats in the opposing dugout.

"We got him the next spring and we called him 'Project' all the time," Selby recently told the website at Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he's the assistant baseball coach. "One day I passed him, and said, 'What's up, you big donkey?' He said, 'Hey, I can't be the Project and the Donkey.' So we started going with 'Pronkey.' In Spanish, we made it 'El Pronko.' Then it got down to 'The Pronk' and finally just 'Pronk.' It fits him. He doesn't look like Shrek or anything else. He just looks like a Pronk."

Hafner, a professional wrestling fanatic, wholeheartedly embraced the name. After signing a $7 million deal with the Indians in 2005, he told reporters, "I've agreed to signing a three-year Pronk-tract." He even refused to answer when his mother called him "Travis," insisting that she refer to him as "Pronk."

The nickname packed more punch when Hafner was cranking out bombs rather than shutting it down for shoulder surgery. A slice of Cleveland baseball history unofficially went by the wayside last year, when the "Pronkville" section of right field at Progressive Field was renamed the Subway Extreme Fan Zone.

Given their injury histories, Hafner and Cleveland teammate Grady Sizemore are actually prime candidates to share the nickname sported by former Chicago White Sox shortstop Luke Appling: "Old Aches and Pains."

Tony Plush (Nyjer Morgan)

Nyjer Morgan
Morgan

To be honest, we're not entirely sure whether this is a nickname, an alter ego or the figment of a hyperactive speedster's imagination. But it sure has taken on a life of its own.

Morgan's Plush shtick began about a dozen years ago in his native San Jose, when he hung out with his buddies and they invented the dual identities of Frankie Sleaze, James Dot Dean and Tony Plush as a way to meet girls. He continued to cultivate his fast-talking patter in the minor leagues, and now it symbolizes his desire to amuse and entertain while annoying opponents and helping the Milwaukee Brewers find ways to win games.

For all his theatrics and energy, Morgan doesn't necessarily regard himself as a throwback to the days of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, when baseball players were less apprehensive about summoning the free spirit within.

"The Bird Man was a little quirky," Morgan said in a 2011 interview. "I ain't that out there."

Honorable Mention

The Big Donkey (Adam Dunn) and El Caballo (Carlos Lee)

Carlos Lee
Lee
Adam Dunn
Dunn

Combine a male donkey with a female horse and they make a mule, so we'll do a little four-legged, cross-cultural nickname inbreeding here and give you two monikers for the price of one.

Lee was dubbed "El Caballo" (Spanish for "the horse") by White Sox television broadcaster Hawk Harrelson early in his career, when he made a big impression as a run producer in the middle of the Chicago batting order. "He's an RBI horse," Harrelson said in a 2000 interview.

Dunn credits former Cincinnati teammate Chris Sexton for coming up with "The Big Donkey." Big enough to blot out the sun at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, Dunn has a wry sense of humor and an engaging demeanor, and takes no offense when fans hurl donkey references his way.

Indeed, Dunn acknowledges, when he was hitting a major league-record low .159 last season, U.S. Cellular Field crowds weren't exactly smitten by his offensive brilliance.

"Big Donkey would have been awesome compared to some of the things people were calling me last year," he said.

In spring training, Dunn was asked what nickname he would give himself if he had the choice.

"The Big Sexy?" piped up reliever Matt Thornton.

Dunn slowly shook his head.

"No," he said. "I would not have called myself 'The Big Sexy.' That's for sure."

Others of note

The Hebrew Hammer (Ryan Braun), Mr. November (Derek Jeter), O-Dog (Orlando Hudson), the Cuban Missile (Alexei Ramirez), The Bison (Matt Kemp), The Toddfather (Todd Helton), T-Rex (Brian Fuentes), Heater (Heath Bell), The Wizard (Ichiro Suzuki), Frenchy (Jeff Francoeur), The Hammer (Josh Willingham), Spiderman (Torii Hunter), Caveman (Johnny Damon), Pure Rage (Chris Perez), Little Cowboy (Josh Tomlin), TatMan (Ryan Roberts).

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer