Rushin: The Name Game
aseball is seldom mistaken for song. Notwithstanding the circus calliope of the ballpark organ, the percussive pop of ball in glove and the shared language of hits and singles, the game is usually associated with just two kinds of music: chin and walk-up.
Basketball is often likened to jazz, individuals improvising within a group dynamic. Baseball has no such analogy. An arietta (a short aria) is easily distinguished from an Arrieta (a tall righthander), despite the operatic solo artistry associated with both.
There is one large exception to this. For 60 years, Billboard magazine has published its Hot 100 list of the biggest pop songs in America. For the last 28 years, Baseball America has published its own Hot 100, a ranking of the game’s most promising prospects. The names on both charts rise and fall. None stays on the list for long. Every so often a player or song that doesn’t hit in America becomes big in Japan. A very few will endure in eternal memory, enshrined in Cooperstown or embalmed on classic-rock radio.
Most fade into relative obscurity—sometimes even the number ones. “Freak Me” by Silk went to the top of the Billboard chart in 1993; Brien Taylor went to the top of the Baseball America chart the year before. Few of us could hum along to either one today.
If you remember Brien Taylor at all, it’s likely for the flamethrower’s promise undone by injury in a bar fight, or his later imprisonment—but also for that “e” in Brien, which puts me in mind of brine, the pickle brine that Nolan Ryan used as a blister remedy.
Baseball’s musicality is in its names. Forecasting greatness is an inexact science, so why not look at Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects of 2018 without regard to athletic or analytic superlatives, and focus instead on the sound. Baseball, like music, can be played by ear. Take two Yankees, one named Mickey Mantle and one named Mickey Klutts, and it doesn’t take a scout to forecast which one is destined for the Hall of Fame.
Current Yankees pitching prospect Chance Adams (No. 81) seems similarly ordained for Big Apple success, custom-made for back-page New York tabloid heaven: ADAMS’ APPLE.
You can easily imagine Austin Meadows (No. 44) in Flushing Meadows, or striding across any other stretch of grass as an outfielder for the Pirates.
Some names sound epic for a reason. Bo Bichette (No. 8) has the bounty-hunting rhythm of Boba Fett, Or perhaps it’s just the image of his father, 14-year veteran Dante—and his ball-playing brother Dante Jr.—that brings to mind Dante’s Inferno, with its nine on-deck circles of hell.
There are two other sons of former big leaguers among the current top 10 prospects—Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (No. 3) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (No. 9). That suffix can either suffocate (Frank Sinatra Jr.) or enlarge (Martin Luther King Jr.). Ken Griffey Jr. shed the prefix entirely and became the suffix: Junior.
The names of some current prospects recall big leaguers who are unrelated. Phillies righthander Sixto Sanchez (No. 25) is a pleasant reminder of Brewers great Sixto Lezcano. As a child, I thought Lezcano’s first name was a nickname, like Three-Finger Brown, confirming that he had six toes in total.
Max Fried, the Braves lefthander, sat out 2015 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. But he’s recovered, and risen to No. 72 on this year’s list. Any general manager looking to read the tea leaves should consider this: Max Fried is an anagram of Fixed Arm.
The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani (No. 2) is already big in Japan and will soon break America, following the career arc of Cheap Trick. But more modest rankings do not consign one to oblivion. “Purple Haze” peaked at No. 65 on the Billboard chart but remains indelible 50 years later.
Also peaking at No. 65, on the Baseball America chart in 2011, was current Yankees starter Sonny Gray, whose name—always “Sunny Day,” to my ears—chimes with a million pop songs and bands: “It Was a Sunny Day” (Paul Simon), Sunny Day Real Estate (Seattle indie band) and the timeless opener to the Sesame Street theme, which I only ever hear as: “Sonny Gray, sweepin’ the clouds away . . .”
To be sure, a great name is no guarantee of sustained success in the big leagues. “Arismendy Alcantara” is an incantation, magical as Abracadabra. He cracked the Top 100 Prospects list in 2013, and briefly charted in the majors, and will be performing in the Mexican League this year. “I’m on a Mexican radio,” sang Wall of Voodoo. That song peaked at No. 58 in 1983, yet it remains in my head to this day. And so it is with “Arismendy Alcantara,” a tune that will echo long after the artist has left the stage.