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Many stories behind names for foreign players in Japan

by Wayne Graczyk

While Japan and the rest of the baseball universe are deep in the World Baseball Classic fever, the conventional major league and Japanese teams are going about their business getting ready for their respective April 1 and March 29 opening days.

In the U.S., “QJ” is getting in shape for his first year with the Chicago Cubs. Here in Japan, 65 foreign players are preparing for their season, and among them are newcomers “Bradley” and “Spili” and second-year man “Nick.”

“QJ” is what the Cubs, their fans and the media are calling Japanese right-handed relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa.

“Bradley” will be the official registered name of Chunichi Dragons pitcher Brad Bergesen, “Spili” is Seibu Lions outfielder Ryan Spilborghs, and “Nick” is Nick Stavinoha of the Hiroshima Carp.

Over the years in Japanese baseball — and even with Japanese players in the major leagues — there have been many guys identified by their first name, initials, a nickname or some other designation not even close to a proper name. Following are some of the names by which foreigners have been known in Japan over the years in what seems to be a tradition dating back to the 1950s.

We’ve had Adam, Animal, Barbi, Bart, Benny, Blazer, Boomer, Brandon, Buddy, Bullet, Bump, C.D., Chuck, D.J., Damon, David, Dingo, Edgar, Fio, Fred, G.G., Gary, Garry, George, Gio, J.P., Jack, Jay Jay, Jerry, Jester, Jose, Kress, Lance, Leon, Manny, Mario, Mark, Mike, Monte, Newk, Nicholas, Nick, Pete, Rick, Robert, Roger, Ron, Shane, Spike, Steve (2), Terry, Willie, Win and Windy.

How many do you remember, and how many of their full proper names can you recall?

There are a few reasons why so many players are identified by a nickname or shortened form of a surname. For some, it is an image thing. For others, their family names may be too long or do not translate well into the Japanese katakana alphabet. Occasionally, a guy’s name in Japanese has a negative meaning.

One example is Brad Lesley, the long-haired and bearded flamboyant relief pitcher with the Hankyu Braves in 1986-87. He was “Animal,” officially registered by that designation with the Pacific League and displayed on the back of his jersey and scoreboard and in newspaper box scores.

Fumihiro Fujisawa, president of the Association of American Baseball Research (AABR), said, “Lesley’s name was difficult for us to pronounce and, because he had a kind of wild, beast-like appearance, it made sense to call him ‘Animal,’ a familiar word to us Japanese.”

Another was Dave Hostetler, an outfielder with the Nankai Hawks who also played in 1986-87. “His name was long,” Fujisawa pointed out. “But Japanese people know the name ‘David,’ so that’s what the Hawks called him.”

There are also cases where a player’s name had an “r” or an “l” that made it tricky for katakana conversion. Chunichi shortstop (1971-72) Bart Shirley went by his first name, and Taiyo Whales pitcher Bob Reynolds was called by his nickname “Bullet,” because he threw hard as a youngster with the Montreal Expos.

Among the names with a coincidentally not-so-good image in Japanese are those of George Hinshaw and Damon Minor. “Hin-sho,” as Hinshaw’s name would have been spelled phonetically in katakana, means “bad business,” so the Chunichi Dragons called him “George” in 1989. When the Rakuten Eagles hired Minor in 2005, the team did not want fans to think they were playing a minor leaguer, so he went by “Damon.”

Several players with long last names simply went by shortened forms. Jim Barbieri (Chunichi, 1970) was “Barbi.” Mike Krsnich (Taiyo, 1963) was “Kress.” Rich Monteleone (Chunichi, 1995) was “Monte.” Buddy Peterson (Nankai, 1961) was “Pete” and Gordy Windhorn (Nankai, 1964) was “Windy.”

Similarly, the Daimai Orions had an American pitcher in 1962 by the name of Frank Mankovitch. The Japanese thought his name was too long but, if it was shortened in the manner of those mentioned above, it became a dirty word in nihongo. So he was simply called “Frank” or “Manny.”

A couple of players changed their identities when they switched teams, apparently for good luck. Roger Repoz went by “Repoz” when the played for the Taiheiyo Club Lions in 1973 but, when he moved to the Yakult Swallows the following year, he became “Roger.” Garry Jestadt was “Jester” with the Nippon Ham Fighters in 1975 but “Garry” while playing with Taiyo in 1976.

Perhaps Greg Wells was called by his nickname to intimidate opposing pitchers. “Boomer,” the slugging Hankyu, Orix and Fukuoka first baseman, boomed many a home run during his 10 years in the Pacific League.

Japanese players too have often used first names or nicknames, led by Ichiro Suzuki who was always “Ichiro” since he broke in with the Orix BlueWave in 1994. He wore that moniker above the No. 51 during his years with the Seattle Mariners and it would no doubt still be appearing above his No. 31 with the New York Yankees if that club had players’ names on the backs of their jerseys.

Also in the U.S. are “Dice-K,” Daisuke Matsuzaka with the Cleveland Indians, and “Hero,” former Seibu shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, now with the Oakland A’s.

Remember another BlueWave outfielder from the early 1990s named Kazuhiro “Punch” Sato who went by his nickname?

He doubled as a TV personality which caused his manager to remark, “We need ballplayers —not comedians.”

There are many more stories about players and their nicknames, and this oddity about Japanese baseball has always given me a sense of amusement over the years covering the game here.


Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com