With exception of Pronk, baseball is not all fun and names anymore


April 27, 2005|By Jeff Passan | Jeff Passan,THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Gone are the days of the Splendid Splinter, the Yankee Clipper, the Sultan of Swat - the nicknames that made baseball's luminaries sound so regal, so untouchable.

So heroic.

Today we have the Pronk. He sounds nothing like a superhero. He is a breakfast cereal or a car part or a disease.

OK, that's not fair to the Pronk, still known to his mother as Travis Hafner and known around baseball as the Cleveland Indians' designated hitter. At least Hafner has a nickname, the longtime baseball tradition that has, by and large, turned into a blase amalgam of first initial, shortened last name.

A-Rod? Gag us.

"It's baseballish to have nicknames," Hafner says. "There's room for more. Most people have their last name with a `Y.' That's kind of cool, too, I guess."

No, it's not.

"OK, it's not," Hafner says. "I'll take mine."

Bless Hafner for that. Only a few classics remain among the barren nickname landscape. Roger Clemens is still the Rocket, slinging BBs and winning his seventh Cy Young Award last year. Randy Johnson is still the Big Unit, years after compact teammate Tim Raines saw him and said, "You're one big unit!" And Frank Thomas, when he's healthy, is still the Big Hurt, a nickname gleaned from Chicago White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson.

And then, well, there's the Pronk.

"The year before I came to Cleveland, I was playing with the [Texas] Rangers, and Bill Selby was sitting on their bench," Hafner says. "Selby called me a `project.' I came to camp next year, and Selby called me `project' all the time. A lot of people just called me `donkey.' Guess I'm a big dude.

"Selby one day said, `What's up, "donkey"?' I'm like, `You're the "project" guy. You can't call me donkey. Why don't you put them together and call me "Donkject" or "Pronkey"?'

"Pronkey turned into El Pronko. And that turned into the Pronk."

The Pronk is not the Iron Horse. The Pronk is not Le Grande Orange (Rusty Staub). And the Pronk most certainly is not baseball's most original nickname, Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson, so dubbed for his ability to run down fly balls and not a predilection for picking off birds with a shotgun.

Yet the Pronk is a sliver of hope for nickname aficionados and even those who understand baseball needs a dose of silly among its serious.

Look at Indians manager Eric Wedge. He does not call Hafner by his nickname, but he appreciates it. For Wedge's entire career, teammates have called him Wedgie.

"It's something I've always been very comfortable with," Wedge says.

The nickname, he means.

Acceptance of a nickname isn't a definite. It's a safe bet Mordecai Brown did not appreciate everyone calling him Three Finger. He probably was reminded of his missing digits every time he tried to pick up a fork. And it's not like Fred Merkle encouraged people to refer to him as Bonehead after he cost the Giants the pennant in 1908 with a base-running blunder.

Such a situation arose during spring training this season with the Kansas City Royals. After watching the movie The Incredibles, closer Jeremy Affeldt noticed a striking resemblance between the jaw lines of the lead character, Mr. Incredible, and Royals catcher John Buck.

A sneaky bit of computer graphic work - done on Buck's computer, no less - allowed Affeldt the next day to post a side-by-side picture of Buck and his digital counterpart in the clubhouse.

Reservation gave way to Buck's tolerance - and even encouragement - of the nickname.

"With a last name like Buck, I've been called far worse," he says. "Mr. Incredible ain't too bad."

Hafner understands. He's gone through a few nicknames. At Cowley County Community College in Arkansas City, Kan., friends called him Dakota. Because he was, you know, from North Dakota. Even more original were those who called him Hugh. Like Hugh Hefner. Because, you know, his last name is Hafner.

Those didn't stick for the same reason most baseball nicknames these days don't: They're boring, simple, bereft of originality. They're not the Big Train or the Say Hey Kid, Leo the Lip or Sudden Sam, Cool Papa or Rabbit.

"A nickname's not a nickname," Royals pitcher Zack Greinke says, "unless it's good."

Which returns us to the Pronk. For baseball today, it is a good nickname. The lyrical names of yonder are gone with the day when baseball players needed offseason jobs.

Around Cleveland's Jacobs Field, banners hang with pictures of different players and their first names. All except one.

"On mine," Hafner says, "it says Pronk."

And so begins the Pronkization of Cleveland. After a 28-homer, 109-RBI season last year, Hafner, 27, expects there to be Pronk T-shirts at the stadium this year. In the same city that sold a candy bar named after Albert Belle, a chocolate confection bearing the Pronk's likeness can't be far behind.

Not that Hafner minds.

"It's everywhere," he says. "Got it on my phone message: `You've reached the Pronk, leave a message.'"

Columnist Peter Schmuck is on vacation.

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