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8 Upper

What's in a Name

By Tom Scocca | Posted 5/30/2001

Nearly everything about the arrival of Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is good for the game of baseball. The former Orix Blue Wave star is single-handedly reviving the art of slap-hitting, ruthlessly exploiting the complacent spots in modern infield defense. He is stealing the spotlight from the Mariners' grumpy superstar alumni. With his .360 average and blinding foot speed, he's smashing cherished beliefs about racial and national athletic supremacy.

My only beef is with his shirt. Across the back of his M's jersey, he wears the name ichiro. This is not a matter of confusion about other countries' naming customs, as when some NBA box scores listed Wang Zhizhi as "Zhizhi." The family name here is Suzuki. Ichiro is his first name.

But Suzuki prefers to go, professionally, by one name. As the New York Observer's Ian Blecher noted last week, that usage has made its way even into The New York Times, where upward-fallen ex-Sun scribe Buster Olney wrote of "inside fastballs that spun Ichiro away from the plate." For a newspaper that only grudgingly refrains from referring to the Mets' catcher as "Mr. Piazza" on the sports pages, this is a serious concession.

And it's a misguided one. Calling a person what he or she wishes to be called is, in most cases, an essential act of courtesy. When Muhammad Ali took his new name, the people who kept calling him Cassius Clay were being deliberately and viciously insulting--making a point of putting the black man in his place. The knuckleheads who used to chant "Jooo-ey" at Albert Belle were doing the same thing.

But Ichiro Suzuki is not dumping his surname to be like Ali. He's dumping his surname to be like Madonna. He aspires to the one-name level of celebrity, in which the name and person are distilled to a single, fabulous brand identity. Putting ichiro on his back is not a point of dignity, it's a point of marketing.

There are precedents for this kind of thing in sports. Soccer stars do it all the time. In baseball, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted, Vida Blue and Chili Davis have put vida and chili on their shirts in the past. And I have in my desk a magazine picture of Elvin Hayes swatting some hapless Omaha King's shot, with elvin on his back. Actually, it's "elvin," all lowercase, and it's on his right shoulder blade, because the left side of his jersey is filled with a thick blue-on-white triple-stripe, which drops down and veers across the seat of his shorts. If you really want a revival of that era, be my guest.

Right now, though, the choose-your-own-name jersey is a little too closely identified with the defunct XFL--specifically, Las Vegas Outlaws running back Rod Smart, better known to America as he hate me. The XFL jersey policy was a bad idea, but unlike everything else about the league, it was at least an interesting bad idea. I didn't fully realize how dumb the XFL folks were until I discovered that they'd never made any souvenir he hate me Outlaws shirts. I was prepared to pay full price for one too, even after the league folded. Especially after the league folded.

If Deion Sanders can play baseball without wearing deion on his back, though, Suzuki ought to live with being suzuki. If he really wants to make an impression, he should insist on being called Suzuki. Everybody else in pro sports, after all, seems to have decided that familiarity is more precious than respect. Everything's first names and nicknames. Turn on an Orioles radio broadcast sometime and listen to Jim Hunter natter on about Cal and Brady and Jerry. Watch the NBA playoffs and hear the NBC crew rave about Shaq and Kobe. Listen to Dick Vitale . . . no, don't listen to Dick Vitale.

Of course, everyone from your boss to your waiter wants to be aggressively informal these days. But at least you're dealing directly with those people. In sports, you're supposed to be on a first-name basis with folks you've never met. Sportscasters want to show you that they've met them; Hunter, in particular, tries to sound as if he just finished soaking in the whirlpool with the guys after batting practice. Hell, when the Yankees come to town, Hunter goes on the air burbling about Tino and Bernie and Scott. When he talks about Texas, it's all about A-Rod.

A-Rod? Uh, bite my F-rod. It's the most moronic nickname in all of sports, and the sports industry slings it around like it's on the guy's birth certificate, or like they're his frat brothers. Say it: Alex Rodriguez. If you can't get through five syllables smoothly, you shouldn't be in broadcasting.

The exceptions are telling. Nobody calls Allen Iverson "Al," because they're all too afraid of him. Nobody calls Tim Duncan "Tim," because he's too dignified. Shaq is a clown; Kobe sells shoes. Duncan and Iverson are ballplayers.

Yeah, there's Magic Johnson. Magic was a special case. Find someone who's like Magic, and we'll talk about nicknames. For the great mass of athletes, going informal means using celebrity to duck questions about ability. "Brady" is a longtime Oriole, a poster boy, Cal's best buddy. anderson is batting below .200.

Why should Suzuki take the same road? He's got the numbers; he doesn't need to monkey with his name. I don't care what the jock-sniffers call him. I'm calling him "Mr. Suzuki."

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