11 of the Greatest Baseball Names of 1990s

One of my best friends and I used to play a game whenever he and I sought to fill dead air in our conversations. It was based in uniquely exclusive subject matter yet very simple as it only had one rule: Name a baseball player from the 1990s that was never a star but always seemed to pop up in any pack of baseball cards. These were the commons, the players you may have only known because of quickly passing over them while scanning for a Ken Griffey Jr. or Frank Thomas card.

We were both pretty good at this, if there were any quantification of skill at recalling long-forgotten names from a bygone era of the baseball card industry. The semi-stars were rattled off quickly between the two of us; names like Delino DeShields, Kent Hrbek, Mark Lemke, and Wally Joyner were offered in quick succession. As time moved forward and our interactions became less frequent, we also had to work harder to think of someone more obscure that we both remembered. Names would occasionally bubble up in one of our heads and be texted to the other without context: John Jaha. Rob Deere. Greg Gagne. Gary Disarcina. We both took delight in excavating a new one from the deepest recesses of our memories, but I always felt an inordinate amount of pleasure in thinking of the most unwieldy name that had escaped our compilation thus far.

From youth, I’ve had a interest- perhaps a fascination, even- with unique names. This certainly comes from having my own name rarely spelled correctly (people have always seemed to have a level of stubbornness about spelling my ‘Michell’ rather than ‘Michelle’ or the less phonetically-plausible ‘Mitchell’ judging from the number of times my corrections have gone unheeded) and a rural childhood that led to a lot of imaginative writing during the colder months. When I was eight or nine years old, I wrote a short story called “A Trip to Saturn” and I’ve reread it a couple of times out of nostalgia. The story’s not too shabby despite a few large leaps in logic that would never make it through rigorous peer critique, but overall it is coherent and quite action-packed. A marked improvement over my first grade work “The Girl Chase”, which was practically a Michael Bay spec script.

“A Trip to Saturn” has one thing, though, that my parents and close friends seem to love for its unbridled imagination but I find to be ridiculous and mortifying; that is, a cast full of cumbersome surnames. As best as I can recall, there are seven human characters and their last names are all alphabet soup, not even based on anything real. There’s only one I can remember off the top of my head, Otto Sapporian. Of course I had not heard of Sapporo and thus was not thinking of an beer-minded Japanese Bacchanalian. It just seems kind of ludicrous, this name without any sort of tie to reality or etymology.

But, dovetailing this with my proficiency to dig up the names of long-forgotten utility players and relief pitchers from the early to mid-nineties, I can see where it came from. I enjoy the fictional camaraderie I share with others holding inscrutable surnames. In loving honor of these lost inhabitants of the packs of Topps I would beg my mother to buy for me when we went to Wal-Mart, I created this memorial of my favorite baseball names from the era, for I fancy myself a champion of he whose last name seems an indecipherable text to the common man, a stance solidified ever since Nomar Garciaparra rose to stardom. Let it serve to keep these names in the collected consciousness of humanity and prove once and for all that I know more obscure baseball players than most.

9. Mackey Sasser

Mackey’s proper Christian name is Mack, which in itself is a bit odd for a given name but one that doesn’t seem incredibly unique (especially when considering the prevalence of legal Bubbas in the world). What strikes me is that Mack was not adequate for him to be known as such through his life, that at some point someone decided “no, we’re not calling you Mack, we’re calling you Mackey” as though there were too many Macks around at one point to keep track of or that he didn’t deserve it, being reserved as a nickname for those with with last names like McDonald or MacDougal.

Mackey Sasser was also Chuck Knoblauch before Chuck Knoblauch, coming down with a famous case of the yips that derailed his baseball career, now proffering advice on getting out of slumps to any major leaguers who might listen.

An interesting side note, Mackey Sasser played high school and some community college ball in my sister’s hometown of Dothan, Alabama. This means my infinitesimally small probability of ever meeting Mr. Sasser is raised slightly, as I assume he occasionally comes back to Dothan, at least for high school reunions. I would absolutely ask him where “Mackey” came from if given the chance.

8. Mickey Morandini / Mickey Tettleton

Closely tied to Mackey is the more common Mickey. Mickey, like Chipper or Bubba, seems like a nickname a grown man should eventually shed after a certain age. Michael Morandini, as he was born, likely kept it because of the wonderful alliteration and assonance it lends to his name, for which I applaud him. Mr. Tettleton, however, was born a Mickey, never to outgrow it. No matter how grizzled his appearance was to become, no matter how many scars he might accrue, regardless of how many men he could claim to have bested in feats of strength, he would always have to introduce himself with a “hi, my name’s Mickey.” Additionally, he has the nickname “Fruit Loops”, which seems to imply his teammates felt it was necessary to try to give this guy some serious arrested development issues.

7. F.P. Santangelo

F.P. Santangelo is currently doing color commentary for Washington Nationals television broadcasts. He is also sole owner of one of the most mellifluous unwieldy names I have ever heard, featuring a bold acronymization that goes against the common of wisdom of needing at least one J. It is something of a shame, then, that F.P. is place holder for the nondescript compound name Frank-Paul, but praise is deserved to whomever found the hidden beauty in that otherwise cacophonous jumble of short vowel sounds. Frank-Paul Santangelo sounds like the manager of a local hardware store. F.P. Santangelo sounds like the name of an Italian author whose works have been regrettably lost to the sands of time.

6. Benji Gil / Rusty Greer

Picture in your head what a Rusty Greer or Benji Gil should look like. In mine- even with some knowledge of how these two gentlemen actually appear- I see a tall building of a man, dressed like Little Joe Cartwright, having the beard of Grizzly Adams and a railroad tie casually propped on one shoulder. Alas, Benji seems to have gone through the same exact maturation as Donkey Lips from Salute Your Shorts, right down to the goatee. Additionally, I just learned as I looked up his Baseball Reference page that his proper first name is Romar (Romar! As in kind of like Nomar!) and he is Mexican by birth, meaning his last name is not so much Gil as in “gill” but as in “heel”. “Romar Heel” is actually way cooler than “Benji Gill”.

Rusty Greer, however, entered the majors looking like an extra in Saving Private Ryan destined to be gunned down in the first ten minutes and apparently never thought to grow a mustache until he was 40. He’s probably doing just fine selling raffle tickets around town for some new pee-wee uniforms next year, thank you very much.

5. William VanLandingham

I can barely remember William VanLandingham, specifically. But his name I have closely associated with two other ballplayers, all of whom sounded like members of the Edwardian aristocracy who had deigned it time to bring a spot of nobility and civility to this basing of the balls. So, forever will William VanLandingham, Todd Van Poppel, and John Van Benschoten be inextricably tied together in my mind, though none of them were born or raised in Jolly Old England. William, though, can hold his head a bit higher knowing that he got every dollar’s worth out of those jerseys of his having his last name stitched on the back.

Perhaps better still, these three Vans bring to mind John Vander Wal, whose splitting of his surname I have never understood, nor hope to.

4. Bob Tewksbury

Bob Tewksbury both looked like and had a name that sounded like a high school science professor, and not an incredibly well-liked one at that. In the least surprising turn in this whole essay, Bob Tewksbury is currently a sports psychologist, employed by the Boston Red Sox until he was tapped by the Major League Baseball Players’ Association for director of player development. With as unique and potentially mutable a last name as Tewksbury, he never gained a flashier nickname than Bob. That is because Bob Tewksbury is exactly who we think he is. Bob Tewksbury is nothing more or less than Bob Tewksbury. Possibly Dr. Tewksbury, to you.

3. B.J. Surhoff

This man does not have the most unique, ostentatious, or indecipherable name, but rather the one that works in a symbiotic harmony above all others. B.J. is an acronymization that a grown man generally would abandon (see: Mickey) at a reasonable age. Surhoff seems harshly Germanic, a group of people united both by their surname and a disagreeable temperament (evidenced somewhat by a picture of his brother Rich). But combined, B.J. Surhoff is a free spirit, an all-around good dude, a glue guy. He was only an all-star once, but his career statistics show him to be a guy that always produced, just never put up gaudy numbers. That seems to sum up the mellow agreeability of B.J. Surhoff as well as anything.

2. Gar Finnvold

Gar Finnvold started eight games for the Red Sox in 1994 and that was the extent of his major league career. Yet he- or rather, his name- has stuck in my memory for twenty years. I remember simultaneously hating and being fascinated by his name as an eight year-old. It was both intoxicating and repulsive. What did it mean? Was it short for Garth? Was he an alien who randomly generated this oddity in order to blend in while assimilating human culture? Gar Finnvold rolled off one’s tongue about as elegantly as a Rubik’s cube.

A quick search of his name or glance at his Wikipedia page shows that he now sells real estate in Florida. With someone named Jeff, presumably, though it only takes one look at their website to see which of them is the real star of the show. And I, for one, am happy that Gar Finnvold has found his place to shine, juxtaposing the beauty of Delray Beach with the harsh angles of his name.

1. Archi Cianfrocco

This name is perfection. My only sadness is that it is not Archibald Cianfrocco but rather Angelo Domenic Cianfrocco, which is still a fantastic name in its own right. But it lacks the dulcet array of consonant sounds the abbreviated version holds. Archi Cianfrocco is himself a vocal warmup, a dictation exercise.

Unlike a lot of his compatriots on the list, Archi did not continue his career in the world of baseball after retiring. Not long after the end of his playing career, he found himself on a path the likes of which sounds like what Peter and his friends from Office Space were trying to extricate themselves from, landing with a company called Xyratex- a subsidiary of Seagate- starting in entry-level sales. Somewhere, Archi Cianfrocco might be pointing out a coworker is having a bad case of the Mondays. The coworker, perhaps a bit green, may be ruffled by the statement, thinking it corny and absurd. Then another will turn to him and say, “kid, that’s Archi Cianfrocco- he manned the hot corner at Olympic Stadium before the Expos became the Washington Nationals you know today, and he is therefore cooler than all of us.”

I can’t tell if Archi Cianfrocco landing a decent but mundane corporate gig saddens me or makes me glad for his ability to find meaning and purpose after pro sports. On the one hand, I’m happy for him and the stability that means for him and his family. On the other hand, a man with a name like Archi Cianfrocco deserves more grandeur from life. It’s too regal to simply grace a plain white business card when once it was scrawled across the bottom of my 1993 Topps baseball card. If ever he were to provide a fantasy camp, I’d go, so long as Gar Finnvold is pitching to me and Mackey Sasser is behind the plate.


Originally published at www.kevinmichell.com on September 18, 2014.