Minor League Monikers


For the first time in nearly 50 years, baseball fans in Allentown, Pa., have a professional team to cheer for. And the cheer is: "Go, Pigs!"

Actually, the team's official name is the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. But fans were quick to shorten the name, and a local reporter wasted no time titling his Internet column "The Hog Blog."

It's part of the charm of minor league baseball, which many fans have come to love as an alternative to Big League drug scandals, Big League egos,

and, of course, $7.50 Big League beer. Most minor league baseball - even in Colorado Springs, Colo., where the Sky Sox play at 6,531 feet - is very much down to earth.

It's immediately evident in team names. The Major Leagues have always been content to name teams after mundane things such as cute little birds (Cardinals, Orioles, Blue Jays) or items of clothing (White Sox, Red Sox). This season owners of the Tampa Devil Rays decided it was time for a fresh approach, so after considerable market research the team unveiled its dynamic new name, the Rays. Presumably the second-place choice was the Devils.

That's why you've gotta love the IronPigs. Or the squad in Davenport, Iowa, which this season became the Quad Cities River Bandits. Or the team in Casper, Wyo., recently renamed the Casper Ghosts.

For decades, minor league teams were stuck with the boring names of their Major League parent clubs. There remains a lot of that, with teams such as the Pawtucket Red Sox, Scranton Yankees, and Iowa Cubs each still saddled with the Big League moniker. But imagine the excitement rooting for the Albuquerque Isotopes (a name based on an episode of "The Simpsons"); the Brooklyn Cyclones (honoring the famous ride at Coney Island); the Augusta Greenjackets (the prize given winners of the Masters golf tournament), or the Vermont Lake Monsters (proudly perpetuating rumors of a beast in Lake Champlain).

In Savannah, Georgia, they've got the Sand Gnats. In Lansing, Michigan, the team goes by the name Lugnuts. And in Batavia, New York, the loveable locals are known as the Muckdogs.

In Idaho Falls, the team used to be named after a potato and was known as the Russets, but now it's named after a partridge and is called the Idaho Falls Chukars. There are actually a lot of bird names in the minor leagues, they just tend to be more exotic than their Big League counterparts. How about the Great Lakes (Michigan) Loons, the Delmarva, Md., Shorebirds, and perhaps the most famous team in minor league history, the Toledo Mud Hens. Toledo's Triple-A team has borne the long-legged marsh bird's name since 1896.

Some minor league organizations conduct team-naming contests. A few years back there were over 2,800 suggestions for what to call a team in Alabama, resulting in: the Montgomery Biscuits. Between innings hot biscuits are fired into the crowd.

Fans in Reno, Nevada, will soon be asked to suggest a name for the new Triple-A team that begins play there in 2009. The Reno Roulette? That's got nice alliteration, but organized baseball has never felt comfortable acknowledging organized gambling. Since Nevada has no corporate income tax, how about the Reno Refunds? As city that stays up late, the Reno Revelers? Or, considering the large population of retirees, the Reno Wrinkles?

Whatever they settle on, Reno's fans will have a hard time competing with the pure simplicity of the name worn by the Class-A team in Modesto, California, where almond trees cover the landscape. When a bad play is made on the diamond, fans simply call out the team's name, "Nuts!"

Modern minor-league monikers reflect an ingredient that often seems lost among Major League franchises: fun. And when it comes to the Great American Pastime, that's really the name of the game.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.

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