In a Mediterranean country, not very long ago, my sunburnt family chugged its way through pasta and a €7 jug of rosé and I banged my head against a foreign wifi connection, struggling to tune in New York’s sports radio station WFAN. This was not a good look, maybe, but Matt Harvey was considering throwing a no-hitter and everyone at the table understood. By the time the connection crackled to life, it was clear from Howie Rose's gutpunched tone that something Metsian had happened, and another near no-no was gone.
So: deep breath, and back to vacation mode. Harvey has carried three no-hitters into the seventh this year, and looks sure to throw one at some point this season. Of course, I thought the same thing last May about R.A. Dickey, before Johan Santana’s duct tape shoulder beat him to it, suggesting that Flushing may yet be due for a Shaun Marcum perfect game. What worried me, as I returned to slurping pink wine and slapping away high-class European mosquitos, was the name of the man on the mound. Not his stuff, which flattens hitters like a boulder does Wile E. Coyote. Not his future, which appears bright enough to confound every pessimistic Mets fan urge imaginable.
No, just: he’s Matt Harvey, alias Matt, alias Harvey. Nothing more. No nickname, nothing for short. Full stop.
The good people at Baseball Reference, bless them, maintain a list of every nickname in their system, from Hank “Hammer” Aaron to Salvatore “Zippy” Zuno. Last month, Emma Span wrote a lovely tribute to some of the great weird nicknames, lavishing deserved attention on Bris “The Human Eyeball” Lord, but bypassing my personal favorite, which belonged to Lou Gehrig—not “The Iron Horse,” but “Biscuit Pants,” which the luckiest man on the face of the earth earned by having an oversized ass.
The best nicknames don’t just describe personality, they create, turning confirmed bores like Killebrew, Jeter and Halladay into killers, captains and gunslingers. Until this season, David Wright was a square-jawed goofball—incredibly talented, sure, but far from mythic. In four games at the World Baseball Classic, timely hitting and a hideous red white and blue uniform transformed him into Captain America—210 pounds of patriotic beefcake, who led the tournament in RBI despite departing halfway through. These are 21st Century athletes, bland as plain pasta; their nicknames have nothing to do with their personalities. These monikers are designed to explain how we feel when they step onto the field—a theatrical effect squeezed into one or two words. It makes poetry look inefficient.
A good nickname is the punch line that makes you want to hear the set-up. A good nickname makes you ask, “Why?”
Why was Tony Gwynn “Captain Video”? Because he was one of the first to improve his swing by obsessively watching tape.
Why were Jack Chapman, Bob Ferguson, Franklin Gutierrez all called “Death To Flying Things”? Because sportswriters of the day, though colorful, could only think of so many ways to describe a strong fielder.
Why did so many players earn nicknames like Gentleman George, Gentleman Jim, Gentleman Joe, and Gentlemanly Bob? Because none of them were Ty Cobb.
Why was Ed Heusser known as The Wild Elk of the Wasatch? I don’t know, and neither does Emma Span, but goddamn I really want to.
Why was Don Stanhouse known as Fullpack, or Stan The Man Unusual?
Well, as Damon Runyon wrote, a story goes with it. A journeyman closer with slightly below-average career numbers, Stanhouse distinguished himself in the early ‘'70s with a pre-game warmup that included a primal scream, and an acute lack of command that caused his manager to chain smoke a pack an inning. Thus, Stan The Man Unusual. Thus, Fullpack.
But fullpacks and human eyeballs need lesser nicknames to support them. Pick any old team from any old year, the 1932 Dodgers, say, and you’ll find a few great nicknames (Lefty O’Doul, High Pockets Kelly, Sloppy Thurston) surrounded by bland ones (Mickey, Sukey, Cy). Spend five minutes playing with Baseball Reference’s random page tool, and you’ll find guys like this:
I also stumbled upon Nate Bland and Fred Blank, who need nicknames even more than Matt Harvey does. No all-time classics, here, admittedly. But these are good, solid, hard-working nicknames—the sort that good, solid, hard-working players used to get. But no more. Why not? Is Matt Harvey doing something wrong?
It’s impossible to put a finger on what doomed American nicknaming, but since it’s easy, faddish and fun, I’ll blame ESPN. The golden age of monikerism coincided with the first boom in American sportswriting, when sportswriters bore the entire weight of describing a game, deploying a depth of detail that television simply made obsolete. Chew on this chunk of an article describing the opening of old Yankee Stadium, when Ruth’s “savage home run” christened “this biggest of all baseball stadia.”
Ruth worked the count to two and two, and then Ehmke tried to fool him with one of those slow balls that the Giants used successfully in the last world’s series. The ball came in slowly, but it went out quite rapidly, rising on a line and then dipping suddenly from the force behind it. It struck well inside the foul line, eight or ten rows above the low railing in front of the bleachers, and as Ruth circled the bases he received probably the greatest ovation of his career. The biggest crowd in baseball history rose to its feet and let loose the biggest shout in baseball history. Ruth, jogging over the home plate, grinned broadly, lifted his cap at arm’s length and waved it at the multitude.
To keep 154 games of minute detail from turning mind-numbing, booze- and ennui-addled sportswriters reached for color, sometimes sinking to cliché and sometimes rising to brilliance. They gave us Babe Ruth, Pie Traynor and Lefty Grove, whose given names are remembered as an afterthought, in small font. The nickname was the name, as though it was still understood then that the men on the field were playing a part, that fans could never truly know them, and that it was best to focus on what these guys did while in uniform. That’s a knotty problem of signification, one that a freshman English student could probably wring a paper out of. But for our purposes it’s important mainly because it means that baseball’s best pitchers don’t win the Denton True Young Award.
But nicknames wear out the more you say them, and between ESPN, regional sports networks, fantasy baseball newsletters and all the various other megaphones for modern sports shouting, ballplayers’ names are invoked more than ever before. Nicknames as excellent as Penitentiary Face, HacMan and One Flap Down—all of which belong to Jeffrey Leonard—are too gentle for the 24 hour news cycle. Only the hardiest monikers, of the cripplingly bland A-Rod, K-Rod, CarGo school, can survive. Thankfully, even the New York Post wouldn’t dare call the Mets’ new ace M-Har.
So—what do we do with #33? Nicknames have been proposed, even making their way onto his Baseball Reference page, but “The Real Deal”—endorsed by Doc Gooden himself, but as bland as a real estate newsletter—and “The Dark Knight of Gotham” simply don’t hold up. They could apply to any talented New York pitcher. There is no Harveyness in them. They don’t make you ask, “Why?”
We could count on Harvey finding a nickname organically if the average players around him had average nicknames of their own. (Lucas Duda, I’ve decided, would be called Cream Cheese.) A 24-year-old doesn’t necessarily deserve a great nickname, but nor does a player that age deserve to be as good as Harvey appears to be. Laboring to assign a nickname is silly, like scripting an improv sketch, but the Mets are not good and silliness seems as good a place to take refuge as any.
If you say that the truly great don’t need a nickname, I point you towards “The Franchise,” two words that tell you everything you need to know about what Tom Seaver meant to the Mets. “Le Grand Orange,” likewise, tidily sums up Rusty Staub. If you’d prefer to wait and see how Harvey develops, I applaud your good sense, but I can’t share in it. I am impatient, not just for Harvey to be great, but for him to be legendary—a mythic destroyer bestriding the country, laying waste to ballparks like Orson Welles at a buffet. I’m ready to mythologize him now, and trust him to catch up.
To that end, I’ve got two proposals, neither of which pretends to touch on his personality—which, as I’ve seen so far, is that of a grimly hardworking baseball player who doesn’t mind posing nude. For your consideration: Kid Harvey, because Matt has the rugged, slablike intensity of a Depression-era palooka. Or, Hazmat, because no one else can clean up the toxic Mets. (The Fumigator would also work, but it’s not punny, and is really a nickname for a reliever, anyway. If the Mets ever get a good one, I’ll deploy it then.)
So: Kid Harvey, or Hazmat. I’m open to suggestions; I know these aren’t brilliant. But a nickname doesn’t have to be brilliant. It just needs to make you want to learn more.
I returned to the States on Sunday afternoon, while Kid Harvey was pitching against the Phillies. Suffering from serious baseball withdrawal, I asked the cabbie if he could turn on the Met game.
“The Mets!” he cackled. “They don’t even exist any more! They’re a prehistoric team!”
He laughed all the way out of the airport, a distance of approximately 2.2 miles. When he dropped me off, he said, “Good luck with the Mets. I’m sorry you still think they’re real.”
“It’s a convenient delusion,” I said.
“Have you considered trying voodoo? It can be very helpful.”
Voodoo Harvey, I thought. Not so bad.