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These days, you can't tell the players even with a scorecard. Consider that on April 13, Jeff Robinson pitched a shutout for the Tigers and saved a game for the Pirates. The next night Billy Beane played first base for the Athletics and Billy Bean played first for the Tigers. On May 9, Greg Harris pitched for the Phillies, Padres and Wichita Wranglers. And pity poor Rochester Red Wing fans, who must have scratched their heads on June 12 when Michael Anthony Smith came on in relief of Michael Anthony Smith. They probably had just got them straight when the latter was traded to the Buffalo Bisons on June 22.
What's going on here? Is baseball going through a sort of harmonic convergence? Players of the same name seem to abound as never before. How is it that major league baseball went 105 years without a Greg Harris, and soon it could have three: Greg W. (Padres), Greg A. (Phillies) and Greg S., should he be called up from Wichita to the Padres.
As you would expect, this same-nameness is causing confusion. Open the Brewers' media guide to page 103 and you will find a Kevin Brown who pitched 427 innings last year at Wichita, Tulsa, Jackson, Miss., and Port St. Lucie, Fla., amassing a 19-27 record in 58 starts and 21 relief appearances. When Tracy Ringolsby, of The Dallas Morning News saw that entry last spring, he called Tom Skibosh, Milwaukee's director of public relations. "Congratulations on that guy Kevin Brown you picked up in the off-season," Ringolsby told Skibosh. "You've got a real workhorse there." Skibosh took a look at the entry and said, "Hey, you're right," and then said, "Hey, something's wrong." What was wrong was that a p.r. intern had combined the totals of the three Kevin Browns who pitched minor league ball last year.
"It happens all the time," says James Kevin Brown, who goes by his middle name and now pitches for the Rangers. "One of the other Kevin Browns was hit in the face once, and I got all sorts of sympathy calls. I prefer Kevin to James. In college, a professor would call on me as James Brown, and I would yelp—Owww!—as if I was the Godfather of Soul."
In organized baseball, besides the aforementioned sets, there are currently three Mark Davises, three Jimmy Joneses and pairs of Barry Joneses, Mike Joneses, Mike Youngs, Mike Fitzgeralds, Mike Walkers, Duane Walkers, Dave Martinezes, Keith Millers, Steve Davises, Greg(g) Olsons, Eddie Williamses, Reggie Williamses, Ted Williamses, Kenny Williamses and Matt Williamses. Those last two pairs are particularly confusing because they play in the same organizations: Kenny Williams is an outfielder for the Tigers and a pitcher for their Triple A farm club in Toledo, while Matt Williams plays third for the Giants' Triple A team in Phoenix and catches and plays first for their Class A team in Salinas, Calif. By the way, we are not counting the Ken Griffeys, who have a good reason for sharing their name.
There have been same-name players in the major leagues before—for example, the Ken Hunts of 1961 (Reds pitcher and Angel outfielder)—but the current crop of coincidences is remarkable. Take Billy Bean(e), which is not your garden-variety name. In fact, Billy Beane should be Billy Bean; his family added the extra e for individuality. Both Bean(e)s played for the Tigers and their Toledo farm club last year.
Can this phenomenon be explained? We posed the question to Leonard Ashley, an expert in onomastics—the study of names—who is an English professor at Brooklyn College and a past president of the American Name Society, and he pointed to the increase in the number of major league teams and players. "As baseball expands, the pool of names grows as well, increasing the likelihood of players with the same name," Ashley said. "But even so, I would consider the odds of having two pitchers named Michael Anthony Smith on the same team as being incredible.
"To avoid the confusion, why don't baseball players register their names? That's what actors do. Years ago, there was a young actor named James Stewart who couldn't be himself because there already was a James Stewart working in Hollywood. So he changed his name to Stewart Granger."
Ashley's idea has some merit. The first Greg Harris in the majors gets to keep his name, and the next one has to resort to some other nom de box score. Such a guideline might even result in the return of colorful names to baseball. How about Tweed Harris? Or Split Harris?
Several years ago Jose Uribe, a shortstop for the Giants, changed his name from Jose Gonzalez because he sensed it was too common. Just last month the Dodgers recalled an outfielder named Jose Gonzalez. Thanks to Uribe, Jose Gonzalez is one less name we have to worry about.