Though war still sounds like football—troops last week entered the "red zone" outside Baghdad-servicemen are more eloquent than sportsmen and sports media in one important regard. They coin better nicknames. And so the Coast Guard cutter Evergreen became the Never Clean, the Iris the I-rust, and the Red Cedar, gloriously, the Dead Peter.
While Americans still coin excellent disparaging nicknames for foreign airlines (APSA: "Angry Peruvians Smashing Airplanes") and state railroads (ACELA: " Amtrak Customers Expect Late Arrivals"), we've lost our way in nicknaming ballplayers. In fact, it is now difficult to distinguish athletes from Apple products. Is T-Mac shilling iMacs? Does A-Rod have an iPod? You'll be forgiven for thinking, as I once did, that C-Webb was C-Span's website.
Military history is rife with generals and warships whose evocative nicknames—Old Blood and Guts, Old Ironsides—sound like cut-rate whiskeys. Sports history, too. And so one can imagine calling for a shot of Ol' Perfessor ( Casey Stengel) or Ol' Magnolia Mouth ( Babe McCarthy, the ex- Mississippi State basketball coach with a magnificent drawl). These were nicknames to put hair on your chest. Barkeep, two fingers of Three-Finger Brown, please.
Indeed, as James (Babe [Ol' Magnolia Mouth]) McCarthy will attest, our sportsmen used to get nicknames within nicknames, one fitting neatly inside another, like Russian nesting dolls. And so Cardinals third baseman Johnny Leonard Roosevelt Martin became Pepper, and Pepper Martin became, supplementally, the Wild Horse of the Osage.
This prepositional nickname construction—the Wild Bull of the Pampas ( Luis Firpo), the Black Uhlan of the Rhine ( Max Schmeling)—has largely fallen into disuse. Sure, NASCAR's Bill Elliott is Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, but the best we could do with a modern, ball-smiting behemoth like Mark McGwire was the pathetic Big Mac. Seventy years ago he'd have been something rather grander—the Red Scythe of Pomona, perhaps.
Big Mac, like Air Canada—a nickname embraced by Vince Carter—is descended from a brand name. Likewise, new ballparks, named for corporations or corporate titans, come equipped with prefabricated nicknames that have about them a forced, executive-approved jocularity: the Bob, the Ted, the Jake.
Mercifully, there is hope. As UCLA seeks to hire yet another heir to John Wooden, former Bruins basketball coach Jim Harrick—recently fired at Georgia—has been referred to, in some circles, as the Lizard of Westwood. Today's nicknames don't stick like the Splendid Splinter's, but those fans of the Tampa Bay Double A's (n� Devil Rays) are at least trying. Many nicknames that don't look clever at first blush really are. And so, in England, it helps to know that Arsenal soccer player Ray (Pizza) Parlour was arrested on a drunk-and-disorderly charge at a Pizza Hut in Essex.
And then there's Ivan (the Terrible) Gantz, a former Indiana club pro and part-time Tour golfer prone to assaulting himself in anger. Gantz, according to Golf Magazine, once punched himself in the face for blowing a chip and—in Texas, in self-reproach—threw himself onto a cactus. Golf, in fact, is doing more than its share to resuscitate nicknamery. Robo-putter Loren Roberts is the Boss of the Moss, a sobriquet that would have stood proudly alongside the Galloping Ghost and the Sultan of Swat in the Golden Age of sportswriting. An English writer has called chronic runner-up Phil Mickelson "the Nearly Man," a perfect nickname that sadly hasn't gained currency. The English, incidentally, do this well. Can Hammerin' Hank Aaron ever hope to compete with the unspoken H's of Cockney boxer 'ammerin' 'enry Cooper? 'ell no 'e can't.
The decline of boxing nicknames may be merely an accident of geography. The sport that gave us Jack (the Manassa Mauler) Dempsey still delivers alliterative nicknames based on a fighter's hometown. But whom do you find more fearsome—Rocky (the Brockton Blockbuster) Marciano, or Kevin (the Flushing Flash) Kelley, a shopworn New Yorker who'll fight featherweight champ Marco Antonio Barrera on Saturday? Not since George Michael's arrest have flushing and flash appeared in such deleterious proximity to one another. We may never again see the likes of fight promoter Harry Levene, spectacularly dubbed the Merchant of Menace.
An anonymous citizen of cyberspace has compiled 531 hockey goalie nicknames, from the legendary George (the Chicoutimi Cucumber) Vezina to obscure players like Blaine (the Lach Net Monster) Lacher and Adam (the Holy Goalie) Lord. This last calls to mind clergyman Tim Davis, who races automobiles as the Pastor of Disaster. Shameful, isn't it, that no professional driver has yet been dubbed the Colossus of Roads?