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#NastyNate, the Yankees, and What's Not in a Nickname

In the midst of a dreary and dull season, a failed attempt to create a viral nickname for Nate Eovaldi is the least of the New York Yankees' problems. But it's telling.

by Steven Goldman
Jun 28 2016, 7:40pm

Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

On February 4, 1962, in that most essential of 50-year baseball diaries, Charles Schulz's Peanuts, Charlie Brown unwisely confessed to Lucy, "I've always wanted to be called 'Flash' ... I'd like to be real athletic and have everybody call me 'Flash.'" This earned him much in the way of the usual derision. We're meant to feel sorry for Chuck because he exposed his heart and got it stepped on, but what provides Lucy with an opening for mockery is the yearning gap between Charlie Brown's reality and his dreams.

Every five days in 2016, in that most inessential of baseball diaries, the New York Yankees' season, someone in the Bombers' social media department turns to Twitter and announces Nate Eovaldi's next start with the hashtag #NastyNate. A Google search doesn't turn up overwhelming usage of the nickname outside of that Twitter account; it appears here and there, but seemingly more in force-fed acquiescence than anything else. It's not catching on.

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This is only sensible, because Eovaldi, who has to date been a hard-throwing mediocrity over the course of a six-year career, is not really all that nasty. He has a 4.24 career ERA, 5.19 this year in a league averaging 4.24, and his strikeout rate is a tick below average. With good control and ground-ball tendencies, there is an argument to be made (statistics like FIP will make it for you) that in recent years Eovaldi's defenses haven't given a fair account of his pitching. There's more. We could talk about Eovaldi's fastball, which hangs around the exclusive 98 mph neighborhood, and that he gets relatively few strikeouts despite this velocity, perhaps a reason he's already been traded twice in a short career. The stuff he throws is intriguing, the reality of his results is disillusioning, and his teams pass him on to the next dreamer.

Yet, this isn't really about Eovaldi the pitcher, who may yet become the ace his arm promises—he's still just 26 and, due to injuries, hasn't been worked all that hard. It's not even about the Yankees as a team, because no doubt Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi have better things to do than think up hashtags to promote their players. Those are regular baseball things, and like so much about this year's Yankees, they're boring. Eovaldi is emblematic of something truly lazy: the ham-fisted attempt to hype a pitcher in the absence of truly hype-worthy players. This is purely marketing, but it's also a failure, because Nate's not nasty, and insisting that he is only creates cognitive dissonance, not enthusiasm.

RT if you agree. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When I was a kid in the mid-1980s, I listened to most Yankees games on the radio. My father, a strong believer in self-abnegation to the point that you were causing yourself and others pain for absolutely no reason at all except to satisfy your own stubbornness, had an unshakeable prejudice against cable television at a time when the Yankees were migrating increasing numbers of their games away from over-the-air stations. So to the radio I went, which wasn't all bad because John Sterling had not yet arrived to become the auditory symbol of the disdain with which the Yankees treat their fans.

What was all bad was that radio advertisers tended to book a spot during spring training and let it play again and again through the end of the season, not altering it no matter the state of the team. You still hear them sometimes, the commercial that begins, "The Yankees are going to be champions this year, and that's why you need Championship Air and Heating in your home! Our air-conditioning units are as dominant as the Yankees!" and so on.

It's a great ad if the team gets off to a Cubs–like start, but it's excruciatingly painful when the club is struggling through an 8-20 August that drops it from first to fifth place. You'd hear, "The Yankees are going to be champions this year!" and you'd want to throw the radio, shout, "No, they're $#!@$#@$# not, you $#!@$#@$# because Richard Goddamn Dotson is pitching, the Blue Jays are up 5-0, and the national anthem isn't even over!" And you would vow that by Odin you would sooner roast in the flames of Hell than invite a Championship Air and Heating salesman into your home.

Or at least you did, up to a point—early exposure to this mildest of mindless boosterism is at least partially responsible for the fact that at some point I checked out, determined not to become a zombie repeating the ad back by rote. The leaves were turning, the Yankees were nine games out, the starting rotation had an average age of 40, and still those people, and by extension many fans, believed. I would not let that be me.

Now there's a nickname you can believe in. Photo by David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

As such, I am not up for calling anyone nasty who's so clearly not, and I resent the effort to make me or anyone else in the world so anesthetized by the sheer repetition of it that they would succumb to doing so. The nastier you insist Nate is and the more anodyne his pitching is in contrast to your bogus boasting, the more it underscores the failure to give the audience anything that's actually nasty, or worth the hashtag, or even interesting. That's why, aside from the autumnal resurgences of Carlos Beltran and C.C. Sabathia and the Betances–Miller–Chapman bullpen Cerberus, the most compelling thing about this year's Yankees is whom they're going to trade in July, if they're smart enough to do so.

Look, either nicknames happen naturally or they're earned. Baseball has had legions of guys named Red, Rabbit, and Jumbo because that's what their appearance suggested; the Reds have one of the latter now, and you hope he wears it proudly because it's apt. The 21-year reliever Tom Gordon was Flash because people remembered either the great old comic strip (as well they should have, Alex Raymond had chops!) or the cheesy 1980 film written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., the guy who wrote the broader puns of the 1966 Batman TV show, or perhaps the accompanying Queen album. We Americans were just used to hearing "Flash" and "Gordon" together; the great Yankees and Indians second baseman of the 1940s Joe Gordon got to be Flash, too.

(Related: Alex Gordon is already 32 and running out of time to get folks to start calling him Commissioner. In Joe Randa, the Royals already have The Joker in their franchise record books, which means Gordon's should-be nickname would balance things out nicely. Randa's is another nickname that didn't have to be forced; his big smile simply reminded fans of Batman's antagonist.)

Similarly, Bob Feller was Rapid Robert because his fastball was fast, and because folks always enjoy a alliteration; Joltin' Joe, the Splendid Splinter, and the Reading Rifle were likewise reflective of the players involved. Max Bishop was Camera Eye because he was persnickety about borderline pitches; and Christy Mathewson was called Big Six because—OK, things break down there; no one knows why Mathewson was called Big Six. As long as it sounded like a signifier of outsized achievement, it didn't really matter. Matty won 373 games with ERAs often in the 1.00s and Big Six sounds a lot like "big success," so it makes sense to us. And yet the fact remains: Nate is not nasty.

In the interests of a more fan-friendly truth-in-marketing policy for whoever is running the @yankees account, some suggestions for alliterative Eovaldi hashtags:

  • Innocuous Nate
  • Non-Toxic Nate
  • Now-and-Then Nate
  • Rectilinear Nate (because his fastball is so straight)
  • Nettlesome Nate (for a fastball that isn't nasty but only mildly irksome)
  • Nomadic Nate (for trades both past and future)
  • Nominally Effective Nate
  • Pay-No-Attention-to-the-Lack-of-Players-Behind-the-Curtain Nate

Googling "Nasty Nate" brings up several clips from a 1998 Dave Chappelle film called Half-Baked and this description from the Urban Dictionary (children, avert your eyes): "The muscular criminal black guy in Half-Baked who tries to ass rape Kenny and is beaten up by Squirrel Master."

Your 2016 New York Yankees. Hashtag desperate, hashtag NotNasty, hashtag SquirrelMaster.

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