By: Ashley Akers
When you hear the name “The Black Mamba,” “Big Papi,” ”Beast Mode,” “Tiger Woods,” or “Birdman,” who do you think of? Is it the famous basketball player, golfer, or baseball player that comes to mind? Often times it is easy to forget in the world of sports that these individuals are identified through the nicknames that were given to them instead of their birth names. For instance, when discussing golf, you would most likely refer to Tiger Woods as Tiger, instead of his birth name, Eldrick Woods. The same goes for David Ortiz (Big Papi), Marshawn Lynch (Beast Mode), and Chris Anderson (Birdman). Of course, some athlete’s birth names are more commonly known than others, but what is it about a nickname that creates so much power and individuality? Perhaps it isn’t individuality at all- perhaps it is the desire to find a commonality between a group of individuals, and to create an overall sense of belonging.
For Ryan Miller of Potomac Falls, Virginia, having a nickname was an important part of his youth league, high school career and college career in baseball. Even through Ryan’s college years at Frederick Community College and Francis Marion University, he was very accustomed to the notion that a nickname can create an individual’s identity on and off of the field. In the arena of sports, there is an unwritten rule that having a nickname is at the core of creating a sense of belonging. All athletes strive for it, but it is something that cannot be pushed. A nickname should flow naturally and even if it does not seem to make logical sense, it has to fit. A nickname can be used to establish power, dominance, and intimidation, but in many cases it can also be given out through the butt end of a joke, through poor timing, and even on an athletes off day.. According to Ryan, “having a nickname on any team was a way to say ‘I’ve made it.’ Once you get your nickname and it sticks, people remember you as that person and therefor it really becomes a special part of who you are.” This ideology is a testament to how sacred a nickname can be- because it is not his or hers or theirs- it is yours.
At 22 years old, Ryan is still called by his childhood nickname, Jigs, which was given to him at the age of 10 by his coach during his travel baseball league. “When I was 10 playing travel baseball I went to make a play on a ball, I was a bigger kid and not in the best of shape at that age so jokingly my coach said nice play Jiggly. That name stuck for about two days, and in the car ride to the next game he said ‘I like Jigs better.’ It was a hit.”
Many athletes have some form of a nickname whether they are called by it all of the time, or only every now and then. However, it is when a nickname becomes one’s identity that people often forget the person underneath, such as the multiple occasions where people would openly forget that Jigs’ real name was Ryan. His identity had been taken over by a nickname that had stuck on the diamond. “In school it would happen a lot. I remember times where there were invitations going out and people would ask me, ‘do I know Ryan Miller?’ At first it took me back thinking they were kidding and when I found out they weren’t, it was probably the first time I realized people didn’t know my real name. It happens in college all the time.” Having a nickname as an athlete is an important part of feeling as if the athlete fits in, however it can be troublesome when the identity of the person is lost within the nickname, just as Ryan had felt throughout his years in school.
Although nicknames can sometimes seem to be an adverse part of a player’s experience like when fans or friends do not know the athletes real name, they can still create a positive impact on the player’s life. For Jigs, his nickname started out as a joke about his size, but it eventually manifested into a name that signified that he was cool, tough, and determined out on the field. “I like the fact that it has built an identity for who I am. Baseball is a sport that I love and everyone knows what my abilities are on the baseball field because of my name. That is something that I cherish because I worked hard, and seeing that pay off through a nickname is cool. Also, the fact that my nickname has stuck for almost 13 years now is pretty unbelievable.” ‘Jigs’ may be a nickname that originally signified something different, but because of the hard work and dedication put into the sport that he loves, Ryan was able to turn “jigs” into a name that meant something so much more than just a catcall at a summer game. In order to accomplish this, Ryan spent more time in the gym, and took more of an interest in working out. He trained rigorously with his coaches and teammates, and he fought hard to win games. By creating better mental focus, and a tougher and leaner physique, he was able to turn his nickname into something he could be proud of.
When asking the question: Do nicknames really matter, for Ryan it became difficult at times to realize that people didn’t know his actual name, but most of the time his nickname proved to be an example of the strong athleticism that he showed on the field. It is often more personal and intimate when a friend, family member or significant other strays away from the nickname and instead calls the person by their birth name. Ryan states, “I believe that people view Ryan completely different than Jigs. I don’t know how to put my finger on why that is but I think people that know Ryan and call me Ryan see the softer side of me.” This point shows that the nickname is often used as a more casual sense of belonging, but the birth name is used only if you are closer to the person.
A nickname can serve the purpose of creating an identity on the field, but outside of the game, there is a different side of that person to be shown. On the field Ryan was more than just a brother to his two sisters and he was more than a son and friend, he was the 3rd and 1st baseman and the pitcher, and he sure as hell always put up a good fight to win the game. Ryan states, “My nickname 100% created a new identity when it came to baseball. I grew up in the game with the nickname and became very successful with that so in my playing years and the area I’m from when people hear my nickname the first thing they think about is my playing ability. That is something that I cherish more than anything about my nickname besides the coach that gave it to me.” For good or for bad, when a nickname sticks, it is up to you to decide whether people see it as a joke, or if you want to use it to create a legacy.
There is something special about a nickname; beyond the press coverage, the merchandise, the write-ups and the columns- a nickname defines an athlete. A nickname is a special token in the arena of sports, and it is used as a way to establish a sense of belonging, friendship, and pride, yet there is something that goes so much further than this, which is the identity that the player too creates for him/herself. Ryan’s nickname helped spread the word of his achievements; through his dedication and love of the game he created an identity on the field as the athlete who couldn’t be stopped. Ryan is devoted, strong-willed, humble, loving, and an all around great friend; I know this because I have had the pleasure of knowing him as both Ryan and Jigs.