I’m not sure when sports-marketing pros decided that Mother Nature provided the best options for naming athletic teams. Whether a team plays hockey, hoops, or handball, if named recently, the players for that team are as likely to be named for a weather pattern as they are for a fighting something-or-other (a creature with teeth and legs, or at least a beak). Storm Chasers? Are you kidding? It should be noted the Storm Chasers are part of the finest minor-league system in baseball these days, future Kansas City All-Stars now trying to make out which “body part” is holding that bat in their logo. Ask survivors of the horrendous tornadoes that hit Joplin, Missouri, over the weekend what they think of that logo.
With this most recent name-changing atrocity, it’s time for me to sling some nickname hash, and air frustrations I’ve kept to myself too long. In the interest of keeping your reading time under an hour, I’ll focus solely on nicknames in the four major American team sports. There’s plenty to cover.
* When Miami announced in the late Eighties that its NBA expansion team would be called the Heat, a Sports Illustrated writer wondered, “What does a kid aspire to be if he follows Miami basketball? A Hot?” Not only is weather a ridiculous “mascot” to adopt, the singular structure of names like Heat, Lightning, and Thunder make the work of analysts, fans, and yes, writers, that much more complicated. Which is correct: “The Tampa Bay Lightning have won five straight games,” or “The Tampa Bay Lightning has lost any credibility for establishing a sport played on ice in the Sunshine State”? Are the Oklahoma City Thunder on their way to their first NBA title? Or is it?
And here’s another problem I have with weather-related team names: they tend to suggest calamity. You think there may be some residents near the coast of North Carolina who might have a problem cheering for a hockey team (that ice sport, again) called the Hurricanes? (Worst of all, this franchise originally called Hartford home and had one of the coolest names we’ll ever see on a bubble-gum card: Whalers.)
Storm Chasers not only incorporates weather — dangerous weather — in its marketing pitch, it suggests a degree of stupidity, too. Hats off to the professional scientists who know how to safely track tornadoes, hurricanes, and the like. But when I see that logo, I’m thinking of the idiot who wants to race a twister on his Harley.
* Nicknames can be as poor for their geographic placement as they are for what they symbolize. How can there be an NBA team in New Orleans with a another team in Utah — and let’s emphasize here ... in Utah — named the Jazz? How can there be a basketball team in Minneapolis with a team — and I don’t care how many championships they’ve won —in Los Angeles called the Lakers? The Colts play football ... in Indianapolis? (Sad truth: A 25-year-old NFL fan today considers “Baltimore Colts” as ancient as “St. Louis Browns.”)
* Spelling counts with nicknames. Bless the Red Sox and White Sox. But was Ted Williams a Red Sock? Was Luke Appling the greatest White Sock of all time? And I’ve asked this for years without ever getting a reasonable answer: Why are the Toronto Maple Leafs not the “Maple Leaves.”
Maybe we’re running out of decent nicknames. (But how can there not be an NFL team called the Rhinos? Think about that marketing fun.) There are a few that have done it right. I admire Atlanta for going bird on us, with the Falcons, Hawks, and Thrashers. (Remember Atlanta’s original hockey team, the Flames? A team named, apparently, in honor of William Tecumsah Sherman.) The Pittsburgh Penguins — considering sport, color, and the underrated alliteration factor — may be the single best team nickname in America. I love the fact Memphis kept Grizzlies for its NBA team, a vast improvement on the city’s track record (TAMS, Americans — huh? — Showboats, Mad Dogs, etc.). There are even a few singular names that work: the St. Louis Blues and the Orlando Magic.
Omaha visits AutoZone Park to take on the Redbirds later this week. (They’ll also play here July 18-21.) Memphis is a town bursting with creative types, and some of them actually like baseball. Please visit Third and Union and send a verbal maelstrom of heckles toward the Storm Chaser dugout. Wear a name like that on your jersey if you must. But you need to hear about it.