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Learning English Again for the First Time

Learning English Again for the First Time

I love my language, and I get a kick out of thinking, toying with, and explaining the little quirks and nuances about English most of us don’t usually bother thinking about. I don’t believe offical recognition of English as an official language is an idea which is entirely without merit, either. But one of the things that drives me crazy about the people who want to promote that latter viewpoint is that they are frequently barely capable of properly speaking English themselves. I don’t just mean throwing a few emoticons into their regular text messages, either; we all do that. I mean that in regular, ordinary speaking and writing, they keep making juvenile mistakes which aren’t exactly major, but still enough to make me question their intelligence.

Well, guess what! In a shocking twist of fate and fortune that could only ever happen to me, upon transferring to my old college, too long had passed since the last time I had taken a proper English course, and so it was time for me to be a good student again and force myself through a whole new English class. And for a person who has been writing semi-professionally for 15 years, knows the language extremely well, and constantly complains that most people complaining about how English isn’t our national language suck at speaking it themselves, I’m rather clueless in knowing exactly what the hell I’m doing in a lot of the problems I’m given in that class. I’m not having some overwhelming amount of trouble, mind you; what’s going on is that when it comes to knowing what’s what in the English language, I’m not quite as smart as I thought I was.

English literature courses rely on cranial flexation in order to understand the theoretical and abstract from any given piece of literature. This is usually music to my ears; the theoretical and abstract are things my own brain gets along with just fine, better than a lot of the course material I’m required to study, in fact. I’ve written interpretations of a lot of movies, TV shows, and literature. You’d think finding and deciphering a theme would be second nature to me by now. As an author who is increasingly writing short stories, though, I am also well aware of the fact that when a writer sets out to write a piece of literature, we frequently write it with just the story idea in mind. Many authors will write up a guideline to help themselves flesh it out, but I feel like that would restrict me on the atmospheric level – I’m only trying it just now, and it doesn’t seem to be going well.

In other words, we have stories to tell. We don’t often write anything up with any idea of what themes can be culled from it; as long as the story itself gets told, I doubt most authors really care how their work is interpreted, and I’m sure most would read an interpretive essay with interest on the reader’s conclusions and how they came to those conclusions. The story I’m currently writing is about a luckless romantic trying to impress a girl he likes, and ending up in a fistfight with Mike Ditka in the process. Read that sentence again, and answer this quiz question: Do you think, with a story like that, I’m really giving a shit about themes or interpretations? I’m not. I’m just going with the flow of the situation, and hoping it turns out halfway decent.

This is kind of my specialty when I try to write fiction. Invent a character, invent an unlikely situation, and figure out how the character would adapt to the situation. I’m also working on a mystery story revolving around a hitman who also acts as a sort of detective for people who live under the law, but that one isn’t going quite as well. In the past, I’ve written works about a rock musician who had an out-of-body experience (that one was inspired by the story of Motley Crue member Nikki Sixx, which he talked about in the band’s autobiography); a guy who found a hidden treasure that made him rich beyond his wildest dreams and exactly what happened after he found all that money; a conversation between God (yeah, that God) and a suicide bomber, and others. I also wish I could write them faster, and that I could figure out where to send them without so much difficulty.

Themes were never the concern with any of them. Sure, I’ve tried to write a few of them within some sort of context, but context is something broader than theme, at least once the rules you’ve established for your fictional world are set up.

In layman’s terms, I think of the unusual situation, and set out to write a story about (mostly) ordinary, regular people in those situations. I tried writing a couple which vaulted off that form of literature – one was a science fiction story that worked nicely, the other is that mystery I mentioned about (I wish I knew how to be good at writing mysteries) – but mostly, that situational stuff is probably my niche.

Besides that, I’ve also got to worry about the subjects of sentences; the verbs of sentences; predicates; sentence fragments; and all those other little goodies that drove us crazy in elementary school which no professional author has ever used. Learning these has given rise to the personal realization that I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever known about them.

To think that, during the past two semesters, I was learning calculus and needed my formal understanding of basic algebra to return to me. What should happen in that instance but my old algebra lessons actually coming back to me, and not being so cluttered or confusing that time. In fact, I was remembering my algebra – a subject I took twice in high school and four times in college – perfectly, and without any of the confusion or clutter that made it such a pain to learn. My second semester, when I took a class in human movement which involved physics, recalling my geometry took a little bit longer, but I still managed to do it when one of my professors was giving me help. Now here I am, fully taking a subject I studied and passed, and having trouble recalling rudimentary aspects of it, even though it’s something I’ve been doing now for a very long time and excelling at. I’m not very fond of my brain right now.

You Know What’s Worse than Working?

You Know What’s Worse than Working?

We take employment for granted in this country. We’re apparently under the impression left in our heads by all those Warner Bros. cartoons we watched as kids, that finding work is as easy as walking into the first store with a “hiring” sign, yanking it out of the window, telling the manager “Here I am!” and getting put on the job immediately. Every job has a single applicant, and employers are so desperate for help, they don’t even bother with an interview.

To what little credit I can offer this overly simplistic viewpoint, I have seen – and even worked – jobs which have operated in this very same fashion. Unfortunately, the only jobs that work in such a way are commission-based, door-to-door sales jobs which force you to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, on the hope that the mathematical law of averages swings into your favor. In other words, they’re scam jobs where the returns on your investments are practically nonexistent. Any real job, in which you can make an actual wage and maybe have a few benefits, requires going out and doing the legwork – filling out applications and hoping you get called for an interview, after which you’ll be made to wait a week or two for your potential employer to give you any kind of word. I regularly read job-hunt books, and most of them say the same thing about that scenario – if the employer says he’s got a bunch more interviews, you’re on the backburner; he’s already hired his guy, and he just wants a few people as backups in case the person he hired decides not to show.

I like to believe most people in this country are aware of this, at least on some level. Unfortunately, even then, the Warner Bros. version of the typical job search tends to prevail in the American imagination. Even in the job search books I’ve read, almost every author makes one of two assumptions: Either that the reader is already working and just looking for an improvement, or that a part-time job is growing on a nearby jobby tree to be easily plucked. Since I returned to Buffalo, I’ve been forced to say no to three jobs I was offered that were totally in the bag, offering reasonable pay and benefits, due to distance. Now that I’m a student, such packages don’t come along every day, but I’m still in the hunt for a part-time position because I want to pursue my career schooling full time. I’m having a difficult time finding a proper part-time position which can get me an income and help me pay off my debts.

I find something a little disturbing in the fact that finding a position like this is so difficult. Finding part-time work shouldn’t be hard. There are people, after all, who are able to find long-term employment after being out of the workforce for years. I managed to go to plenty of interviews, but they all ended with the same message: “We’ll call you back no matter what.” In other words, they’ve made their desired hire and I’m never going to hear from them again.

There has to be some kind of trick to getting whatever job you happen to be interviewing for at the moment, and the people I envy the most are the people who have managed to figure that trick out. You know those people: They’re the ones who are able to hop from job to job, staying on whatever job they’re working for two or three months, then quitting, then, when you talk to them, tell you about how they didn’t like this or that store policy or how their manager was a major douche, so they quit their job and found work someplace else literally the very next day. The jobs they’re constantly drifting in and out of aren’t even skill jobs which require training or education, either; they’re regular, ordinary part-time jobs with a wide glut of people competing with each other to get into. I don’t know what’s more amazing about the people who are able to do that; the fact that they’re able to so callously go in and out of work so easily, or the fact that employers, even after presumably looking at their work history and seeing there’s a better-than-even chance they won’t be around for a very long time, still hire them, apparently convinced they’re the magic employers who have found the secret formula to taming the common job players.

Meanwhile, there’s me, and I plan on staying wherever I get hired for at least the next couple of years so I can finish educating myself. I’ll stay on for longer if I find a job in a media industry – which encompasses my old degree – or the health industry, which is what I’m currently pursuing. I work very hard and haven’t been properly fired since 2006. I’m perfectly capable of leaving my nonconformist tendencies at home whenever I’m on the job. I’ve been praised for being friendly and professional nearly everywhere I’ve been, and the ultimate testament to friendliness and professionalism is that I managed to reel in over $7000 while working to solicit donations from people who watch PBS in Buffalo. These were phone solicitations too, which basically meant I was working as a telemarketer to take these donations. I’ve been able to fit in and get along with every co-worker I’ve ever had, so it isn’t like there are any major issues that anyone should be worried about.

I’ve pinpointed interviewing as my trouble spot, and that’s partly because I’ve received so much conflicting advice over how to deal with interviews that, at one point, I tried following all of it. As you can probably imagine, that didn’t work out very well. So I recently ditched around, oh, say, probably 90 percent of the interviewing advice I’ve ever received and started just going strictly by the basics: Keep my personal life out of it, research the company, avoid asking about salary or benefits, things of that nature. Still, I want to be one of those people who can get any job on the planet and hop from one to another with no trouble. I’m not saying I would hop from job to job at the slightest inconvenience. I’m just saying I hate not having an income and am in search of any infallible secrets which could help me attain one. I have a life I really want to get back to living, you know.

Depression and the Blue Collar Ethos

Depression and the Blue Collar Ethos

If you’ve been living somewhere among the outer planets during the last couple of days, you might not realize that iconic actor and comedian Robin Williams recently died. That means in the coming weeks we’re bound to be subjected to runs of many of his movies, both the good ones and the ones that are not so much. I’m looking forward to seeing the runs of Good Will Hunting, the 1997 indie blockbuster in which Williams won his very deserved Oscar for playing Sean McGuire, the court-ordered shrink to Matt Damon’s titular title character, Will Hunting.

There’s a kind of sad irony in the fact that Williams gave perhaps the greatest performance of his career in maybe the best movie of his career as a psychologist. The official ruling on Williams’s death was suicide, and I’ll spare the platitudes about depression and everything non-sufferers don’t get about it. They’re trickling in at what has to be a record rate, and depression in and of itself really isn’t the point of this post anyway. Good Will Hunting might be my favorite movie from the eccentric filmography of Robin Williams, save maybe Aladdin. Although the movie takes place in Boston, there’s a serious element of Good Will Hunting that really clicks true in Rust Belt cities, and it results in a movie which is able to attack one of the dominant aspects of Rust Belt life while avoiding the kind of condescension and elitist views of the blue collar class which is typical of Hollywood directors. (And the insufferable Robert Altman in particular, whose death I continue to view as addition by subtraction.) The South Boston/Rust Belt commonalities are many and very minute, if Good Will Hunting’s portrayal of Southie is to be believed.

Many American cities like to view themselves as tough, take-no-shit kinds of places, living by examples of bootstrap-pulling toughness even in the worst-case scenario. I can’t think of a single place in the country that tries to exemplify this kind of ethos more than the Rust Belt. The Rust Belt is so hopelessly obsessed with this image that many of the people who live on it will place it before any and all personal progress, bringing the whole toughness thing into every decision they make, be it in family or career or anything else they consider living for. This leads to some very destructive contradictions: Rust Belt people are branded from birth with the idea of lending a hand to anyone in serious need, but when in need themselves, actually accepting such help is considered emasculating. The people who offer the help are always dead serious about it, too; if someone should take up our help offerings, we’ll drop everything in an instant and see our promises kept through right up until the very end. That makes it very bewildering and sometimes tragic that most people prefer to turn down the offered help and make the situation even worse.

Therefore, Buffalo is a strict adherent of the “just” culture. That’s the beloved idea always spouted by Fox News pundits that, whatever the problem is, you can turn your entire life around by merely going out and doing the opposite. Are you poor? Why, just go out and get rich! Are you sick? Hey, that’s easy – you just have to get healthy! It can be summed up rather easily with a single, very famous line from the popular sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “Oh, get a job? Just get a job? Why don’t I strap on my job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon and fire off into job land, where the jobs grow on jobbies?!” If only it were so simple, right? What’s unfortunate is that in most of the Rust Belt, people really do think it’s that simple, and the lower classes which are truly affected are too busy blaming each other to ask themselves why the higher classes – those always being touted as the ones who create the opportunities for the lower classes – have been creating rather less opportunities as of late. Of course, if asked, the higher classes will probably spout the same bullshit comments about pulling ourselves up from the bootstraps. It’s a well-rehearsed routine.

Depression tends to get treated in such a manner on the Rust Belt too. Feeling blue? Just cheer up! This is partially the result of the city’s piss-poor education system, which just this last year brought its high school graduation rate up past 50 percent for the first time in decades. (And even now, the current 53 percent graduation rate isn’t exactly worth writing about.) It’s also because Buffalo also runs around sporting a real 50’s mentality, which means you do your brooding in secret and pray your ass off to a very specific god until you magically turn happy again. Ask anyone from Buffalo, and they’ll tell you that’s all depression is – eternal sadness. Therefore, all ou have to do to cheer up is toss a funny movie into the DVD player or read the daily funnies in The Buffalo News.

The problem with depression on the Rust Belt is less that the people who live on the Rust Belt don’t understand it, but more the fact that they are very adamant in refusing to try to understand it. Being a good Rust Belt citizen means clinging desperately to the ways of the olden days, even though this adherence to the old ways is clearly contributing to the downward spiral of the region. The Rust Belt locked itself in and insulated itself against forward progress as soon as the steel industry started bailing on it, and the whole area is still under the mistaken impression that trying to pretend everything is like it was during the apex of the postwar boom will actually make the various cities prosperous again. The same revitalization that turned Pittsburgh and Philadelphia around came when those two cities finally recognized that the region will never be an industrial dynamo again. Change like that requires the entire populace to start thinking differently, and Pennsylvania’s two biggest cities have apparently performed admirably. Buffalo, not so much.

Unfortunately, this old time mindset leads the Rust Belt to treat mental problems like they’re paper cuts. Those of us who suffer from depression while living on the Rust Belt are therefore forced to deal with the isolation and loneliness through the rather dangerous method of pretending they don’t exist. It’s hard to say we can deal with it through other means; we’re not taught any other means, and if we are, it’s so we get the strict impression that those who do resort to those other (smarter) means are wusses who just aren’t the tough joes we are. Trying to explain your personal depression to people is a quick way to get an angry brush-off statement.

Depression is also easily compounded by the dominant way of life on the Rust Belt. With the 50’s mindset still gripping peoples’ thoughts and lives with an iron clasp, there’s a very strict script creating that terrible illusion known as “normality.” I give the region a lot of shit about its general lack of curiosity, but it’s hard to tell just how much curiosity actually exists here. That’s because anyone who holds any sense of curiosity, intellectual or cultural, tends to keep their interest on the down low. Science in Buffalo is treated the same way they treated witchcraft in Salem, and most people who believe in any kind of religion adhere to the toxic forms of it which propagate exclusivity and teach the idea of self-unworthiness. This adds up to the fact that any freethinkers who live on the Rust Belt have to bottle themselves up and wear their more socially acceptable masks in public. That’s basically a form of mental self-suffocation, and those who are forced to do it for too long tend to fall deeper into depression. Many end up crawling to the bottle and contemplating suicide. I’ve done the latter at least three or four different points in my life sometimes.

That’s why I love Good Will Hunting so much. We see Will Hunting trapped in the Rust Belt tough guy mindset, trying to live by a certain code which has been drilled in since childhood but is clearly against his better interests. Sean McGuire is successfully able to break through every mental defense Will erects against him, finally breaking Will down. The Hollywood ending, with Will quietly leaving Massachusetts to reunite with the girl his mental defenses stupidly made him ditch earlier, is a gratifying one for all. For me and others who go through depression on Rust Belt blue collar terms, the big reward is in seeing the moment when Will is able to change the way his head is programmed. He awakens to the fact that what his blue collar culture instilled in him doesn’t work, and his departure to follow Skylar is not only the right choice for his heart, but a subtle form of rejecting his old culture and his bad habits.

Sadly, Will Hunting’s end doesn’t happen for enough people who live by the rough and tumble blue collar ethos of the Rust Belt, because we don’t have a Dr. McGuire or a Chuck, a best friend who is able to muster enough realism to tell Will he probably would be best off someplace else. Anyone who gets depressed to the point of suicide living on the Rust Belt will likely have to gather enough courage to admit it to themselves before acting on it. And when (if) they do, fortunately, there’s a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline they can call at 1-800-273-8255.

Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Marlon Brando died ten years ago this year. Back when all the Brando memorials came out, the acting legend was lauded for a handful of movies he made. That’s all it was, though; just a handful, and there’s a reason for that: Brando’s choices of film roles left a lot to be desired. Many people rightfully single out the handful of truly iconic movies he was in, because he did manage to get his name atop the marquee of some great ones: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Wild One, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now. That there is a Criterion Collection of filmmaking excellence. But does anyone remember The Nightcomers? How about Burn, in which Brando wrote in his autobiography he believed he gave his best-ever performance? A Countess from Hong Kong? Sayonara, which fell out of remembrance in pure spite of receiving an incredible ten Oscar nominations – including Best Actor for Brando – winning five? Yeah, looking at Brando’s total film list, he comes off as less an actor who thought carefully about how good the scripts were and more like someone who just threw until something hit.

While Marlon Brando made a few good movies, he’s best known for his cultural influence, but even more so for what I’m debating now: His acting influence. Brando was the original poster boy of Method acting, which threw movie performances for a loop. For an enormous chunk of the 20th Century, it was common for filmmakers to nab their stars right from the stage, which is why performances from earlier movies are so much different. The Method relied on emotional memory, in which an actor focuses inward to basically bring out the character, in extreme cases turning the actor into a whole different person. Brando’s performances unleashed a beastly wave of actors who perfected what he started, and into this wave during the renegade period of filmmaking – late 60’s through the 70’s – entered maybe the two greatest movie stars of all time: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The 70’s released any number of screen legends – Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman are arguably the most notable among them – but it’s Pacino and De Niro who are scratched into the stars as Brando’s immediate torch-carriers. Before them, there was never a pair of actors who combined such presence, versatility, iconoclasm, and charisma to such a high level of consistency and memorability. Both actors are in their 70’s now, and with the “After Them” period sadly approaching, I’m still not sure we’ve found anyone on Earth who could so much as meet them halfway. Yes, the candidates are out there, but they all lack in one area or another. 

That being the case, it’s still Pacino and De Niro who dominate all the film school best actor ever conversations. Now, it might be unfair to compare two different actors, but Pacino and De Niro have also had such incredible career parallels that Pacino vs. De Niro became a 90’s debate before anyone knew just what the hell a 90’s debate was. Both are native New Yorkers who were taught by Method legends; De Niro learned his craft under Stella Adler (who taught Brando himself) while Pacino makes the case for Adler’s fierce rival, Lee Strasberg. Both performed to acclaim onstage before being noticed by critics in indie movies – Pacino in Panic in Needle Park and De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly. Both rose to stardom in the 70’s in a series of iconic roles from classic movies. Both are popular for their parts in gangster movies. Both hit the skids during the 80’s before hitting their apexes in the 90’s. Both are in paycheck-cashing periods now. (Though De Niro seems to be undergoing a mini-resurrection.) Most importantly, both are among those people who force fans who favor one to bolster the other as much as possible while still defending their choice. So let’s do this! Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro. One day, I’ll learn. 

Style
It’s tempting to say both actors use the same style, but when you take a real look at their performances, you start to notice just how different they are. De Niro tends to understate a lot of his roles, bringing the common idea of quiet strength. Pacino is a lot more explosive, and its given rise to the concept of “Shouty Al,” scenes in which Pacino starts hamming it up and goes over the top. This isn’t to say that Pacino breaks character. He just appears to have a knack for picking roles which give him good five-minute power speeches, and when the final delivery comes in his movies, you know exactly when he’s going to start spouting all the best lines – the ones you’re going to be remembering and quoting for the next decade. It’s fairly safe to say Pacino has the better presence of the two of them, but what De Niro doesn’t use in presence, he makes up with his sheer versatility. When De Niro steals a scene, you can’t help but get the impression sometimes that he’s doing it by accident, and that’s he’s trying to come off as more of a compliment to the movie’s other actors rather than as the marquee star in his own right. 
Winner
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod….. De Niro by about a hair. Lord knows this isn’t a knock against Pacino, but rather a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that there seems to come times in many of Pacino’s flicks when Al starts to slightly crack under intensity and he needs to let everything out. The reason “Shouty Al” is such a popular idea is because he always seems to include that single scene in a movie which is wrapped up and sent right to the Oscar committee immediately after it gets shot. You know these scenes when you see them, and can easily hear Pacino tacking an “I’M AL FUCKING PACINO!” right onto the end of it. De Niro can be small. Pacino not so much, even when he tries.

Breakthrough Performances
Okay, everyone can pinpoint Pacino’s breakthrough performance: A bit part playing a character named Michael Corleone in a small indie flick called The Godfather. I know, blink and you’ll miss it completely, right? De Niro’s big breakthrough is a little bit harder to spot, but most people are willing to credit the movie which also put director Martin Scorsese on the map: Mean Streets. With Pacino, you have to take into consideration the fact that he was playing what turned out to be an ego-check role, acting against a cast that also included James Caan and Robert Duvall. Marlon Brando gave the movie a major coup, a real marquee name to attract viewers and a small piece of prestige to go with it. It was Pacino who played the main role as Michael, though, and when Mario Puzo – the author of the book The Godfather was based on – learned that, he was pissed off and went around denouncing the movie until it was released. He changed his mind about Pacino immediately after seeing it. Mean Streets didn’t have nearly so much going for it. The cast and director were all basically unknowns, and during that part of his career, Martin Scorsese had done his only major movie, Who’s that Knocking at My Door?, with his Mean Streets star, Harvey Keitel. When Mean Streets came out a year after The Godfather, Scorsese was absolutely convinced that Keitel was going to be his guy, the big name marquee actor who would soon be bringing name recognition to Scorsese’s pictures. He kept on believing it even after the National Society of Film Critics gave De Niro the award for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Johnny Boy, and still believed it until he started making Taxi Driver.
Winner
This goes to Pacino. Great as De Niro played his role as Johnny Boy, all of the gravitas from Mean Streets was dropped onto Harvey Keitel’s head, and he did justice to the movie. Had Johnny Boy been removed, the movie would be different, but not by much, and it’s pretty easy to imagine Keitel moving on to take up the mantle that De Niro eventually picked up – it isn’t like Keitel is lacking for talent, after all. Pacino not only had to convincingly play the center of gravity in an epic drama, he had to play a very tricky role which required him to subtly shift from a sort of offhand, low-key family oddball into the cold, calculating, domineering head honcho crime boss while also getting an audience to think his character believes in his heart of hearts that he didn’t change at all. Pacino screws that up, one of the great, defining masterpieces of American cinema is totally ruined.

Popular, Acclaimed, and Iconic Roles
Oh god, where to begin? I guess the logical starting point would be The Godfather movies, because both Pacino and De Niro played parts which defined their characters. Pacino, of course, was Michael Corleone. Michael’s father, Vito, is the only movie character in history for whom two Oscars have been awarded to two different actors for playing him. Brando won Best Actor in 1972 for playing classic Vito, while it was De Niro who took home the 1974 Best Supporting Actor prize for playing a younger version of Vito in The Godfather Part II – a role for which De Niro barely spoke a single word in English! After The Godfather Part II, Pacino and De Niro spent the entire rest of the 70’s going head to head in an incredible iconoclast contest, playing meaty role after meaty role in a damn near flawless string of movies. Pacino went on to Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and …And Justice for All, all of which he received numerous award nominations for. He even made a movie during the time called Bobby Deerfield which netted him a Golden Globe nomination, even though most people forgot the thing existed. De Niro ran through a highly successful stretch as well, which included Oscar nominations for Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter. After speedbumping through the 80’s, they both hit highs again during the 90’s, Pacino in movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, Donnie Brasco, The Devil’s Advocate, The Insider, and Any Given Sunday while also reprising his old role as Michael Corleone one more time. De Niro also returned to his gangster guns in the 90’s with Goodfellas and Casino, but also making Cape Fear, Awakenings, A Bronx Tale, and Jackie Brown, and keep in mind I haven’t even scratched the surface with either of them. Smack in the center of the 90’s, they collaborated in the ultimate robbery movie, Heat, probably the greatest unheralded movie ever made when it was released, and now properly revered in hindsight. They also both portrayed brilliant parodies of the gangster characters that made them popular in the 90’s: In 1990, Pacino played Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, the main villain in Dick Tracy, while De Niro waited until the other end of the decade before playing Paul Vitti in Analyze This! And for all we know about their nadirs in the 80’s, both actors still managed to carve out niches. Pacino played Tony Montana, one of the decades true icons and a guy who summarized everything both right and wrong about the country’s mindset during the decade; and playing the lead in an understated but well-liked low-key comedy called Author! Author! De Niro’s 80’s started with a bang: He won his very deserved Best Actor Oscar for Raging Bull. Although it wasn’t a sign for his 80’s, he still managed to do a few things very few other actors ever would have attempted: Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s supremely odd The King of Comedy; Sergio Leone’s massive four-hour fucker of a gangstar epic Once Upon a Time in America (which I’ve seen, but never in its entirety); and Terry Gilliam’s surrealist and fantastical Brazil before his work in 1987’s Midnight Run and The Untouchables signaled a real return to form.
Winner
I’d be a complete moron to try to pick this one. Michael Corleone against Jimmy Conway? Frank Serpico vs. Travis Bickle? Max Cady vs. Frank Slade? I know what my personal preference is, but trying to choose one on empirical evidence is way too difficult to judge. You pick them. Then I’ll commend you for your excellent taste.

Role that Shouldn’t have Worked but did Anyway
You could probably think of a few candidates for both actors – Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle for De Niro, Ivan Travalian in Author! Author! for Pacino, Max Cady in Cape Fear for De Niro, Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross for Pacino. But I’m just going to stick with the two that really stick out: De Niro played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. You would expect a movie called The King of Comedy in which Jerry Lewis is one of the stars to be a laff riot, but the movie is instead a very dark comedy coupled with a weird form of thriller with a little bit of drama mixed in. You would expect the lead of a movie like this to try to lighten the mood as much as possible, but trying to play a role directly for laughs means trying to emphasize some moments harder than others and sometimes dialing back the other nuances and intricacies of the character in order to do it right. De Niro, however, usually isn’t the kind of actor who half-asses a character to punctuate particular scenes, so he plays Pupkin straight, and it results in a performance of a character who comes off creepy and a little angry. Pacino’s usual suspect in this category is much better known because it sticks out like a sore thumb: Tony Montana from Scarface. Although Scarface looks like a regular old gangster flick from the outside with little nuances thrown in by screenwriter Oliver Stone clearly making this sucker the typical gangster morality tale, the movie’s entire point flew about three atmospheres over everyone’s head. Instead of seeing a theme about greed doing in a sick bastard of a human being – which was the theme, make no mistake – people saw a story of a man rising up and living the American Dream to an extreme excess, basically reinterpreting the movie. And Pacino’s dynamo of a performance was probably the defining factor. Although Pacino playing Montana should never, ever be mistaken for a good movie performance, it was booming, charismatic, and cutthroat in ways which made an otherwise high-powered cast look puny next to Pacino. 
Winner
Pacino. He’s the reason Scarface managed to transcend its medium and why its true meaning has been sapped away in favor of a strict Reaganist interpretation. De Niro’s performance in The King of Comedy, while very effective, also didn’t have any real sign of De Niro trying to hoist the entire movie; in fact, De Niro appeared to be acting perfectly in synch with director Martin Scorsese, who appeared to be making the kind of movie The King of Comedy turned out to be. Scarface ended up crossing a thematic line by freak accident because of Pacino, and it didn’t look like Scarface’s director, Brian De Palma, had much of an interest in rectifying what was happening or directing it to any vision of his own. In fact, it looks like De Palma was barely involved at all, and that he directed mostly by mailing in his daily stage notes from whatever vacation spot he happened to be sipping mai thais from.

Down Periods
General wisdom regarding both actors: Even periods are lean, odd periods are awesome. The truth is somewhere in between. The early nadir for both actors is generally considered the 80’s, but that’s a little hard on them from a more revisionist point. Pacino didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the 80’s being a movie star. Pacino made only five movies during the decade: Cruising, Author! Author!, Scarface, Revolution, and Sea of Love. Cruising was roundly bashed by critics and also by gay rights groups who believed it was homophobic. The reception warmed somewhat over the years, but never really thawed. Author! Author! and Scarface were also beat up, but years have been kind to both. Revolution was completely forgotten, and at that point, Pacino took the apparent hint and ducked out of movies for the next four years before finally returning to form with Sea of Love in 1989. De Niro made a lot more movies during the time. He started the decade with Raging Bull, which many consider the crowning performance of his career. While he did make forgettables like The Mission and Angel Heart during the time, he also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s strange movie about love and happiness in a clockwork world, Brazil; and in Sergio Leone’s ambitious epic Once Upon a Time in America; he also played one of his more popular roles, Al Capone in The Untouchables, before his big return in 1988’s Midnight Run. Came the millennium, both appeared to get a little less choosy about their roles as well, so their dreck started to trickle in: Simone, Showtime, The Recruit, Gigli, 88 Minutes, New Year’s Eve, Last Vegas, Jack and Jill…. It’s a list that might have been unfathomable 20 years ago, but it’s happening. 
Winner
Let’s see. Who’s down period movies would I rather watch? De Niro’s. Near the end of his career, Pacino can’t seem to help but keep being Al Pacino. While De Niro isn’t exactly testing his range either, he does seem to be having a lot more fun lately. We give De Niro a lot of shit for making more comedies now, but he’s been a sort of stealth comedy guy since Midnight Run in 1988, or 1983 if you count The King of Comedy (I don’t). I actually enjoyed The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and got a kick out of De Niro Yankovic-ing his role from Taxi Driver in that movie, and lampooning his own gangster roles in Analyze This! and Analyze That! He’s proven bankable as a screwball comedy star, and his career is lately rising again: He earned acclaim for Being Flynn, played an uncredited role in American Hustle, and was granted an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook. Hell, Pacino seems to be on an upward trajectory too, having won a lot of acclaim for playing Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector in TV movies with the TV industry booming like never before. There are rumors of De Niro and Pacino teaming up for another movie which will be helmed by Martin Scorsese. I hope to god that’s true. 

Underrated Movies
Wow…. For Pacino, it takes work to think of a particular movie I think is completely underrated. Do I go with his screen-winking redefinition of the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate? His disgustingly overlooked …And Justice for All? The Insider? One of my very favorite Pacino movies is Carlito’s Way, a Brian De Palma thriller about a reformed drug dealer trying to go straight. It’s a gangster movie that holds up against anything else either Pacino or De Niro has ever done. De Palma is in top form, there’s a fantastic supporting performance from Sean Penn – who plays the lawyer responsible for leading Pacino’s character, Carlito Brigante, back onto the path he tried so hard to escape – and while Pacino is never small, he nicely understates himself and gives a true heart to his character. In a fashion, Carlito’s Way is a sort of reverse gangster movie. Instead of the head gangster starting with ambiguous morality being taken further across the moral event horizon, Carlito’s Way introduces a gangster who saw the light and is dragged away from it kicking and screaming. Many of the more sympathetic gangster characters want redemption. Carlito already found redemption; what he wants is his ticket out. I’m sure Midnight Run is a popular candidate for De Niro, but that movie has the benefit of hindsight now, and most seem to believe it’s a solid comedy that holds up well, with De Niro playing perfectly into character. The one that really stands out to me, is Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 movie Jackie Brown. Tarantino, at the time, was looking like the direct successor to Martin Scorsese while also being a wholly original screenwriter. Jackie Brown is an adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, and one of the few Leonard adaptations that worked the way it’s supposed to. Instead of merely giving us an ordinary story stylistically directed and written (which, let’s face it, was what Pulp Fiction and the grossly overrated Reservoir Dogs both were), Jackie Brown focuses a lot more on creating rounded characters and relationships – so much so that the movie was attacked by some for its slow pace. De Niro plays Louis Gara, a dimwit pothead fresh off a prison stint, who simply goes along with his old cellmate’s idea just because he seems to be bored. It’s one of his last truly great performances in one of the most underrated movies ever released.
Winner
Pacino. Great as Jackie Brown is, and great as De Niro is in it, there’s not a single reason to hand this one to De Niro. He’s a supporting character in a movie defined by Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Forster, and it’s entirely possible a more casual moviegoer or less knowledgeable in the nuances of good film acting would write him off. Pacino, just as he did in his earlier collaboration with De Palma (which happened to be Scarface), carried Carlito’s Way and gave it its beating soul. 

Playing Against Type
Despite the prominence of their movies, this is actually a little harder to think of than you would expect because they’ve both created brands on playing gritty tough guy characters. For Pacino, certainly Scent of a Woman makes an argument, but the one that really sticks out in my mind is a disremembered 1991 romance called Frankie and Johnny. Pacino plays the titular Johnny, trying to woo a woman named Frankie, and that line sums up the whole movie. It’s an odd movie in large part due to its very existence – it’s not a snarky romantic comedy where the characters are either teenagers or twentysomethings with wealth, professional accomplishments, and reputations well beyond their years. Both characters are rutted, in the middle of their lives in which they’re merely existing and searching for some sort of purpose. It might be the sweetest role Pacino ever played, and the movie doesn’t try to spice itself up with any tricks – it’s earnest and straightforward. There’s more playing against type in De Niro’s body of work, since he was the busier and more experimental of the two. Do I go with Flawless? Awakenings? The biting political comedy Wag the Dog? Off-kilter as those were for De Niro, what I’m really going to go with is Brazil. Terry Gilliam’s vicious satire against bureaucracy and high-level incompetence has De Niro in one of his more comedic forms playing Harry Tuttle, a rebel leader and renegade air conditioning specialist who helps Jonathan Pryce’s main character, Sam Lowry, escape a pair of Central Services workers who are actually there to serve a much nastier purpose than their humble service titles imply. For all the actual comedies De Niro made, he was probably used most effectively as Tuttle, who is more or less a caricature of a fast-talking salesman but is able to do the job, along with showing Pryce that his feelings toward the oppressive Central Services are spot-on.
Winner
De Niro. Both Pacino and De Niro do drama all the time, and they both excel at it. So while Pacino’s role in Frankie and Johnny is notable in its tenderness, Johnny does tend to come off sometimes as the post-prison Sonny Wortzik (Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon). Although not necessarily a comic role, De Niro’s Harry Tuttle was played rather comedically, and we got a sense of what De Niro could do when he wasn’t losing his temper or brooding. Although De Niro’s appearance in Brazil was little more than a cameo, it certainly left an impression on filmgoers. As for my own personal biases, I’m ever a romantic at heart, but romance isn’t something I enjoy as an entertainment genre. Brazil, meanwhile, is one of my all-time favorite movies, a funny but brutal shot at the idea of bureaucratic control of society. There was never a movie like Brazil before, and we may never find one like it again; this is the kind of movie studios live in abject fear of, because it goes against every ethos Hollywood movies push, and it’s way too elaborate to be made independently. It takes place in a strange fantasy world with little semblance of sanity to start with, and it gradually loses what little ground it was standing on in the first place, culminating in an ending which spirals away from any control or sense, taking you on a path which makes you wonder whether you should be cheering, laughing, or just gaping in amazement…. Before ultimately swiping the rug and absolutely crushing your heart.

Oscar Roles
This one is simple: De Niro won his first Oscar in 1974, the Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. He won his second in 1980 – Best Actor for playing Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Pacino won his only Oscar in 1992 for Best Actor, playing Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman.
Winner
Honestly, it’s sad that this popularity contest gets so much attention at all, and looking over this category, it’s easy to see why. De Niro got an award for which he not only performed almost entirely in a language that wasn’t his, but which was already portrayed two years earlier by Marlon fucking Brando, who also won an Oscar playing it! His second Oscar was the result of an all-time great performance, for which he had to quickly put on a dangerous amount of weight for two scenes which didn’t last a collective total of ten minutes. Pacino was awesome in Scent of a Woman, yes; he even managed to trick many people into thinking Chris O’Donnell was a good actor for awhile. But Frank Slade had none of the manic intensity of Pacino’s early Oscar-nom roles, and it’s generally accepted fact that the Academy was throwing the lifetime achievement Oscar at him. This category belongs to De Niro.

Gangsters
Although gangster and crime roles actually make up very little of the filmographies of both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both of them are indelibly weaved into the image, defining and redefining the common gangster in much the ways of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney before them. Both actors broke through playing gangsters; Pacino played Michael Corleone, a straight man who eventually became the personification of evil. De Niro played Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, a nutty trench gangster with grand delusions of hitting the organized crime bigtime. When Pacino returned as the Corleone patriarch two years later, he brought De Niro with him to play a younger version of his pop, and ever since I first saw The Godfather Part II, I always thought young Vito’s story was the more engaging of the two. Pacino’s portrayal of Tony Montana was like a steroid-addled cartoon, while De Niro’s supporting role as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas tricked a lot of people into thinking Jimmy was the center of the movie; a hell of a trick, considering how great Ray Liotta was as main character Henry Hill. De Niro was the reigning overlord of Tangiers in Casino, a cold, calculating, strategy-oriented businessman whose control just didn’t extend quite as far as he thought it did. Pacino was the world’s only gangster with a heart in the sorely underrated Carlito’s Way, and later played Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco – the character De Niro’s Johnny Boy might have become had he lived longer. De Niro was the very face of all-time gangster-dom in The Untouchables as Al Capone, a wisecracking and dominating villain who, in all honesty, is the only reason to watch the movie. Pacino parodied his gangster characters in Dick Tracy, while De Niro made fun of his image in Analyze This! and Analyze That!
Winner
I know there are people who are automatically going to throw this at Pacino just because he was The Godfather, but that’s a huge disservice to De Niro which requires forgetting that De Niro also played The Godfather. Fuck this. You choose, and I’ll commend you on having excellent taste.

Wow. Close. So close. If you want to state your defense for Al Pacino, I totally understand, but Robert De Niro wins this sucker.

The Ultimate Ranking of Sports Team Names, Part Seven: The Masterpieces

The Ultimate Ranking of Sports Team Names, Part Seven: The Masterpieces

Here we are! The final section. Not much for me to explain in this one; these are, quite simply, the very best of naming American major professional sports have to offer. Each one carries a certain amount of regionalism, decent imagery, strong branding, originality, memorability, strength, and balance.

20: New York Metropolitans, MLB
The major qualm I have with this name is the way it fuels into New York City’s egotism and raging sense of self-congratulatory intellectual supremacy. Come on, New York City, we know two of your so-called boroughs – Brooklyn and Queens – operate their infrastructures on a more independent basis than the others. After that, though, there’s really nothing to complain about when it comes to the official name of the New York Mets. Even feeding into the city’s blustering, New York City is still the largest city in the country, and it’s not even close. New York City has an almost unmatched array of people and activities to keep everyone interested. It represents the modern and open-minded, making it a true 21st Century metropolis, and whenever something new and world-changing comes along, you can bet New York City is always one of the first places it will hit, which means the city is constantly evolving. The Metropolitans are mainly known by their field name, the Mets, which not only makes them the cool rebel alternative to the Yankees, but gives them a cool parallel to the Jets and Nets – the rebel alternatives to the Giants and Knicks, respectively. The name Mets also honors two of New York City’s other great institutions – the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which are both also nicknamed the Met. Unknown to many, it’s also the name of an early baseball team from New York City which only lasted a few years in the 1800’s, which gives Mets a sense of preserved history as well.

19: Ottawa Senators, NHL
Hey everybody, in Canada, they actually got the name of their national capitol’s team right. It doesn’t use a slur (Washington’s football team), it doesn’t use a generic cover-all term for Canadian (like Nationals), it doesn’t simply spotlight the city’s status for attention (Capitals), and it makes sense (unlike Wizards). I don’t know exactly what kind of approval ratings Canada’s Parliament pulls in, but at least the hockey team in Canada’s national capitol succeeds in honoring its outpost. Senators carries weight and balance – two triple-syllable words with a short A in the middle surrounded by harder sounds – while the branding and regionalism go with the territory.

18: New Orleans Saints, NFL
It’s funny to me that a laid-back city known mainly for its vices like New Orleans would be nicknamed the Saints, but then again, New Orleans is a Catholic outpost in an area of the country which is known for being Baptist. Saints holds a double meaning for the popular song “When the Saints Go Marching In,” an old gospel song which is now best known for the many jazz covers it inspired, very fitting in the birthplace of jazz. By combining the city of New Orleans with the idea of being a saint, the New Orleans Saints have taken a very unique road to being a standout: There’s no appeal to anger, intensity, ferocity, or savagery anywhere in this name. Instead, the name Saints holds a virtuous light up to the imagery, giving the team a positive symbol of human goodness, while the city’s name has become synonymous with creativity, uniqueness, and open-mindedness. Recently, New Orleans has become known as a city of resilience, full of people who continued to believe in it even after an enormous hurricane swept in and washed out many of its residents. It’s no wonder the New Orleans Saints have become the favorite football team of everyone in the country to some extent.

17: Texas Rangers, MLB
A few points are deducted because these guys are, sadly, forced to share their nickname with a certain NHL team which really doesn’t have any business using it. There’s no forgetting the branding, though, because the most famous statewide law enforcement agency in the country uses it. I’m not talking about just the nickname, either, but the entire thing: The Texas Rangers, who are actually more famous than the baseball team named after them, thanks in large part to a weekly action TV show starring Chuck Norris. (Although, since winning the Pennant in 2010 and 2011, the baseball Rangers have started making up a little ground, particularly after that vicious 2011 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.) Even if that weren’t the case, Texas Rangers is a great name standing alone, since Texas is synonymous with vast skies and wide open land ranges. Rangers also works as a colloquial to the nickname of Texas – The Lone Star State – because we tend to think of rangers as rugged individualists in the same vein as we do cowboys. Yeah, the Texas Rangers have every right to take themselves after their state rather than their metropolitan area (Dallas, if you don’t know).

16: Denver Nuggets, NBA
Let’s be frank: A small lump of rock isn’t the most inspiring thing to name a sports team after, even if it is supposed to represent a nugget of gold. The importance of the name Nuggets, though, comes from the fact that an entire state was built around the power of small shiny nuggets – Colorado was populated by the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. That means there’s significant history and regionalism surrounding the name, not to mention a hefty dose of originality from a team that decided it wanted to take a chance with a name. Gold nuggets are a huge deal, in any case; they have the potential to put lots of money into the economy, and who doesn’t love money? So there are some good colloquialisms to be drawn from a nugget of gold: Gold means power, gold means wealth, gold means Murphy’s Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules. So let’s stop knocking this team name as useless lumps when they can do all that.

15: Philadelphia Phillies, MLB
This name wins the regionalization contest hand down. If you ever forget where this team plays, just think of the nickname, and it will tell you everything you need to know about who you are and where you’re from. It one incredible swoop, Phillies nails everything right about team names: It’s regional, unique, memorable, original, and brands the team with a hot iron without even trying. Like the Los Angeles Angels, it makes the city nickname into the team nickname. Granted this name came from a time when every baseball team was named after its city, but that Phillies is the lone survivor speaks legions about its staying power and its resonance, especially if you’re also aware of the fact that it survived an incredible THREE efforts to change it.

14: Baltimore Ravens, NFL
I put Baltimore’s divisional rivals, the Cleveland Browns, way down at number 106, where I asked why Browns fans keep giving the Baltimore Ravens shit about their name. Here we are, in the top 20, and I’m still confused. Baltimore Ravens brings us the coolest literary allusion on this list. Baltimore was the original home of all-time American literary giant Edgar Allen Poe. Poe wrote an iconic poem called The Raven during a career which, while tragically understated during his own time, was blessed in historical hindsight when it inspired countless mystery and horror authors. That’s an awesome element in regionalizing and branding the team while also trying to get it to transcend football and appeal to literature geeks. The raven is also a great bird to use in an image, because instead of making an appeal to kitsch freaks or going with ferocity, ravens make an appeal to the terrifying and mysterious. They’re large and black, and can spook people in dark places. And so, be that as it may, ravens are frequently used in superstitions to mark omens, set moods, or act as psychological conductors. It’s pretty incredible to think that with all the birds flying around out there, more teams didn’t try to go with an image which holds that kind of power.

13: New York Knickerbockers, NBA
This one is based on a term popularized from another literary allusion, this time from Washington Irving. Irving’s first major book was called A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Diedrich Knickerbocker was a fictional name Irving used in what was really an early version of a marketing campaign, but it was a nickname given as far back as the early Dutch settlers in New York state which eventually worked its way into regional lexicon first as a term for Manhattan’s aristocracy, then as a general term for New Yorker. As with the Ravens, that makes it both historical and regional, but it works better in this case because Knickerbocker was a term created strictly for the people living in the region. This team is like the Metropolitans in that it uses a stage name – the New York Knicks, and not only is Knick an effective nickname for Knickerbocker, it rolls just as nicely as a name for the team because it sort of combines the city’s name into one term: New York, combining the first sound in New and last in York, makes something very close to Knick when combined.

12: Boston Celtics, NBA
This would be a very good name no matter what, but this is one of those extremely rare cases where the mispronunciation makes it better. Celtics is usually pronounced with a K sound, but in this context, is pronounced with an S sound, which makes it roll nicely with Boston. The Celts were an ancient people with roots in Irish culture, who eventually diversified into a few different cultures, including the cultures of today’s British, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh people. The modern Celtic identity is mostly associated with the Irish, and Boston has a population of over 50 percent with Irish roots. It’s also a heavy stronghold of Irish Catholicism. That brings context to the team name. You have to give Celtics credit for not being degrading, too – unlike a certain sports program at the University of Notre Dame.

11: Houston Astros, MLB
It’s a little surprising to me that more teams don’t try to use space imagery. After all, powerful objects exist there, where they fly at incredible speeds. Yet, here’s a team name that can’t decide on just one of those objects…. So it takes a name that encompasses all of them! Astro is of course synonymous with space, which is fantastic for one of only a handful of cities on the planet that has a right to make an association with space. Houston is known as Space City, after all, and it beats a lot of the other associations you could make with Houston.

10: Seattle Mariners, MLB
This team replaced another baseball team called the Seattle Pilots, and I have trouble deciding which name is better. There’s certainly not much to complain about with this one. Seattle has an aviation history – Boeing is located there – but it also has a history as a major shipbuilding home and a reputation as a transportation center which was solidified during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. So a name honoring sailors makes perfect sense, and it’s unique enough to be something not every city in the country can name a team. You think Dallas or Kansas City residents would ever buy into a team called the Mariners? The name also gives them the right to use the Mariner’s Star to brand themselves, another thing no other team can claim. Mariners also holds significant weight as a name – evenly balanced with its city name with three syllables – but what I really like about it is that, like the Seattle Seahawks, it holds another cloaked allusion to the city name. A mariner is a sailor. Seattle is a port city and a transportation hub whose first three letters are “sea.” That’s something even the Pilots didn’t have. You know what? I think I prefer the name Seattle Mariners to Seattle Pilots after all.

9: Philadelphia 76ers, NBA
Yes, this sucker is a monster of jumpy, soundalike consonants. But it somehow still manages to have an even balance, only this one is two five syllable words which both sound like a wrecking ball smashed its way the vowels which would have otherwise smoothed it out. I don’t think the people of Philadelphia, though, would have it any other way. 76ers is a reference to the year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which took place in Philadelphia in 1776, bringing those regionalization and branding points, and that’s only helped by the fact that 76 is, according to reputation, a number which dominates modern Philadelphia. It’s another instance where the city gets exclusive awesome branding rights based on its history. Also, despite being such a mouthful, you have to admit the name does hold a certain charm: Philadelphia is dominated by PH and L sounds while 76ers makes you fly around those S sounds.

8: Pittsburgh Steelers, NFL
A name and city perfectly matched. Steelers is an honorific for steelworkers, and while steelworkers aren’t especially unique, no city had more of them than Pittsburgh. Steeler isn’t a particularly rugged-sounding name, but it does invoke images of molten metal being poured from giant buckets in huge factories, so there’s imagery that goes with Steelers. Pittsburgh has lately been the great success story of the Rust Belt, turning itself around after decades of depression through an infusion of modern industries, small projects, and utilization of its universities. Still, a lot of people there probably remember the bad old days, and as long as the Steelers exist, it will always be a reminder of both Pittsburgh’s past and the way people were able to keep their heads up, never believing their city was truly defeated when the bad times hit.

7: Baltimore Orioles, MLB
Yes folks, there is a real bird whose official name is the Baltimore oriole. It lives in the eastern and midwestern United States and received its name from having a physical resemblance to the Old World Oriolidae family, which is otherwise unrelated. Mostly, the oriole is a common perching bird, and can usually be found foraging in your backyard trees, shrubs, and backyard hummingbird feeders while chasing down the occasional insect. Not much different from an average blue jay or cardinal, both of which I slammed, but the Baltimore Orioles are rescued by their branding: It was given the name Baltimore oriole because its colors resembled those on Lord Baltimore’s Coat of Arms. I don’t know how a bird can be more regionalized than that, but the state of Maryland sure tried: The Baltimore oriole is Maryland’s official state bird! The name has a very nice roll to go with it, featuring Baltimore’s final syllable having the same sound as Orioles’ first syllable.

6: St. Louis Blues, NHL
Here’s another name taken from a classic song which also serves as the title of a music genre, not to mention what Blues fans find themselves singing during the postseason more often than not these days. “St. Louis Blues” is the title of a very real jazz song, and St. Louis became a highly regarded blues outpost when the musical genre slowly made its way north from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. The title means the song is instantly regional, and it’s unique because music isn’t something that gets mentioned a lot in sports team names. Only the New Orleans Saints and Utah Jazz have that distinction, and the Saints got their name from a single word in a song while the Jazz name is grossly out of place. The St. Louis Blues have no such problems with their name.

5: Houston Rockets, NBA
Originally called the San Diego Rockets after a very silly title San Diego once bestowed onto itself, this team kept their name when they were forced to move to Houston. And in a startling contrast to the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers names, this is a name that might have been barely average during its time in its old home, but became an incredible fit in its new one. You know why Houston is nicknamed Space City? Because that’s where they launch rockets! Real rockets, the ones that carry people into space! NASA’s main control center is located in Houston, which means that every space mission ever launched in the United States – and some in foreign countries – kept in touch with the ground via the control station in Houston. Also, a rocket is a great colloquial for modernity, and despite the reputation of Texas, that’s one thing Houston is getting in spades – Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States at the moment, has over two million people, is growing, and considered a solid place to live. Cities don’t get to that position by trying to become blasts from the past. The name isn’t exactly original, but actual rockets are such a huge deal in Houston’s importance to the country and the world that the otherwise so-so branding gets elevated much like a real rocket.

4: Milwaukee Brewers, MLB
Whether or not Milwaukee has a right to be proud of its beer isn’t up for debate – that’s where they make Miller, so anyone heard defending that shit needs to be immediately forced to live in Greenland and forced to subside on Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Milwaukee is a famous brewing hotbed, though, so it has every right to name a team the Brewers. The term isn’t exclusive to Milwaukee – St. Louis and Denver have giant stakes in brewing too – but it’s the city where the brewing industry has the most visible presence. Milwaukee and beer go together like peanut butter and jelly, so much so that even the ballpark is plastered with the name of the brewing corporation. And, of course, the brewer is the guy who makes the beer, so like the Steelers, this team is honoring the silent workers of a very old profession which is still very important in this country. This might be a good time to thank your deity of choice that most American sports leagues don’t do European soccer-style names; we might otherwise have ended up with something corporatized and wretched, like the Milwaukee Millers.

3: San Francisco 49ers, NFL
As we all know, the NFL is in love with images that it sucks at living up to. It infects the naming system as well as anything else. The league has a love affair with ferocity and, while there are probably no more bad names in the NFL than in any other league, it makes the NFL’s missteps particularly glaring. Washington’s football team, having a whopping four teams – including two 90’s expansions – named after big cats, two names for giants, two for birds of prey, one of those ridiculous teams named after a region instead of a place, plus the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, and I didn’t even include everything. When the NFL does a name the right way, though, it turns out excellent, and there’s no better example of that than the San Francisco 49ers. Number names might come off as silly, but numbers have a way of regionalizing the team through huge aspects of their cities like little else. In this case, it sheds history’s light on the 1849 Gold Rush which brought swaths of people to California, resulting in California’s statehood two years later. 49ers were the nicknames given to the gold rushers, and in that single marvelous placement, the name becomes exclusive to San Francisco, historical, original, and memorable all at the same time, and the connection is so well-known that it doesn’t require tons of time to explain. The name is a little on the hard side to say, with eight total syllables which mostly sound completely different, but they all feature hard sounds for a very nice weight distribution.

2: Detroit Pistons, NBA
Here’s what we think of when we think of pistons: Parts of a constantly-moving machine, working together all at once in order to generate power. Anyone can appreciate that aspect of a name like the Pistons, all the more so if they know the Detroit Pistons won each of their three NBA Championships working in a very similar fashion – eschewing individual statistics in favor of a hard-fighting machine that works evenly (none of Detroit’s title teams featured any scorers who averaged 20 points per game). It’s a beautiful image anyone would want to associate with their favorite team, and the idea of pistons working to power something bigger denotes a scrappiness that matches its downtrodden city perfectly. The piston is a fitting image for Detroit, not only for the city’s history as America’s premier automaker, but for something that refuses to quit or give up. America might be giving up on Detroit, but Detroit isn’t giving up on itself. Pittsburgh was in the same position not too long ago, and look what’s happening there; in the meantime, Buffalo seems poised to make its move as well. We’re all cheering for Detroit here.

1: Portland Trail Blazers, NBA
So you have a sport like basketball, which is played at high speeds – blazing speeds, one might say! You decide to stick a team in a snug little outpost in the pacific northwest which most people don’t even realize exists. (The Blazers were created in 1970, long before Portland was the cool alternative to Seattle…. Hell, long before Seattle was ever even cool.) So you’re basically blazing the professional sports trail to Portland, and hell, even with Portland growing and becoming more important now, the other leagues have yet to follow you there. Portland still has a kind of outpost reputation, with an abundance of outdoorsy things to do, and back when most of the pacific northwest was unknown to Europeans and virtually impossible to get to, the people who made the trip were master outdoorsmen who were true pioneers in exploring and recording the territory – trail blazers in a handful of ways. Trail Blazers is a name which acknowledges the speed of its sport and the historical and regional aspects of its metropolitan area. There’s no doubt that it sticks out; it’s simple but highly original because no other team has any right to it, and trying to call a team from anywhere else just the Blazers would be generic 90’s residue. That means Trail Blazers is a fantastic way of branding a team which no one is likely to ever forget, even less so when you realize how cool it sounds and how easily it rolls off your tongue. The Portland Trail Blazers have been noted for being an underrated team with some significant on-court successes, but there’s no question about their name. It’s the best name in the major North American professional sports pantheon.

The Ultimate Ranking of Sports Team Names, Part Six: Built Strong on Solid Ground

The Ultimate Ranking of Sports Team Names, Part Six: Built Strong on Solid Ground

These are the name that are good. Very good. Good as they are, though, they frequently lack a singular element or two which prevents them from ascending to the summit. Admittedly, there are times when that singular element or two isn’t resonating with me for some reason, but the point here remains: All of these names are excellent, and none of them have any major points of contention to concentrate on and single out. While one or two of them might not fit quite the right way, I would be vehemently opposed to any of them who tried to change their names in order to make them more fitting or appealing. These team names are so good that, in trying to change them to make them more appealing, they all run a very serious risk of coming out for the worse and disastrously backfiring.

39: Colorado Rockies, MLB
Yes, we all know by now how cliche it is to name a team in Denver the Rockies. The 1993 MLB expansion team here isn’t even the first team to try it; the NHL moved into the area back in the 70’s after the Kansas City Scouts had failed. The NHL Colorado Rockies also failed, and so they headed east to become the New Jersey Devils. Still though, while Colorado Rockies is weakly balanced, when it comes to the mountain states, every state has a prominent image attached to it. Wyoming has Yellowstone; New Mexico has the desert. Colorado has the most dominant images of the Rocky Mountains, including Pike’s Peak and the Grand Canyon. You can’t deny Rockies fits Colorado like it wouldn’t fit in Montana.

38: Minnesota Twins, MLB
The name Minnesota Twins was given to the state’s baseball team because the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have famously failed to apply the adage of Minnesota nice to each other. They’re serious rivals whose residents take pride in never visiting the other city from whichever one they live in, so in order to quell any fury that may trickle through state sports loyalties, all the teams in the Twin Cities area take the name of Minnesota. Major League Baseball took it a few steps further when they named their Minnesota team after both the state and the metro area. It makes a good way for the cities to call off the blood feud during the baseball season; yes, they may be at each other’s throats for all time, but god forbid another baseball team should come into town. Apparently baseball in Minnesota must be a way for the residents of those two cities to unleash their pent-up rage from being Minnesota nice all the time. Like most of the other Minnesota sports team names, the Twins have to make do with a weak region name, and Twins doesn’t do anything to strengthen it. Minnesota and Twins are almost rhyming first syllables off each other, and Twins doesn’t have the long O to make up any missing strength, so the name Minnesota Twins feels a little incomplete.

37: Tennessee Titans, NFL
It’s hard to believe this team first tried to form a connection to Tennessee’s football fans by keeping their old name, thus making them the Tennessee Oilers. But the fans requested a name change, and the team owner listened and came up with a very good one. One of the nicknames of Nashville, the home city of the Titans, is “The Athens of the South.” Ancient Athens today is seen as a birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and higher learning in general. Vanderbilt University and Tennessee State University are just two of the 24 places of tertiary education in Nashville. There’s also a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, adding a visual to the nickname. And hey, what was the highest level of god in ancient Greek mythology? Titan! The name also has a very easy roll to it, and titans is a very dynamic word which invokes strength and power. You know all those ferocious weather names from the 90’s I said I hated so much? The ancient Greek titans controlled all those elements. The downside is that the Titans nickname feels sort of secondhand. Accurate imagery with Greek myths? Greece and Tennessee are different places. It’s a nice allusion, but not exclusive to Tennessee.

36: Minnesota Vikings, NFL
Another one of those weird names which should be considered politically incorrect but somehow isn’t – viking wasn’t a title, after all, but a people who are still all over the world today. And one of the more popular locations for those of Scandinavian heritage is in the Twin Cities. Viking imagery isn’t even particularly nice to have – while Indian names try to honor the more positive aspects of Indian imagery like bravery, honor, and nobility, viking imagery honors savagery, a great disservice to people who were non-interventional explorers, great strategists, and inventive shipbuilders. However, we can give a pass to that because football is a violent sport. The name does suffer from the same fault of other Minnesota sports team names: It doesn’t balance. We might be tricked into thinking it does, with the “ing” suffix in Viking, but the long I sound and Vikings being two syllables aren’t very complimentary to Minnesota, a four-syllable word with virtually no long sounds.

35: New Jersey Devils, NHL
The name Devils comes across as generic, but it’s based in the popular legend of the Jersey Devil. That equals a nice bonus for regionalization, if not so much originality. The Jersey Devil is a popular cultural icon in New Jersey, and its legend is recorded in Indian folklore. It has appeared in different forms of media and a lot of supernatural buffs believe so much in its existence that some of them form groups which collect reports, visit historical sites, and set out on the occasional night hunts in the Pine Barrens region of New Jersey to find anything they could take as solid evidence of its existence. There’s also the little matter of the name Devils probably working more than one church group into a froth – in 2005, a New Jersey state assemblyman tried to introduce a bill which would force the team to change its name to something less blasphemous. Branding like this can’t be bought.

34: San Antonio Spurs, NBA
Texas has a reputation as a big football state, but it seems to be missing out on its true calling. There are two professional football teams in Texas. While one is the immortal Dallas Cowboys, the other is a 21st Century expansion team with little following, and the NFL callously refuses to place a team in San Antonio – the eighth-largest city in the country – which has been clamoring for one for some time and even built the arena for one over 20 years ago. Fuck you, NFL. Fortunately, San Antonio can take solace in their beloved Spurs, the best of a trio of NBA teams that are all rewarding to follow. Originally slated to be the San Antonio Gunslingers, the name was changed at the last minute for no particular reason. It’s still a good name, though, because a spur is a well-known piece of cowboy equipment which people wore to control their horses during the days of the old west. And no state is more synonymous with the old west than Texas, which holds the imagery and continues to celebrate the old culture of those days. The one problem I have is that a spur is so inanimate and seems useless in this day and age, but I guess the name can be chalked up to a piece of historical equipment. San Antonio Spurs is a great name.

33: Philadelphia Eagles, NFL
You would think I’d have an unbridled hatred for this name. After all, it’s another one of those damned birds of prey, another testament to national appeal through vicious imagery rather than connection to local fans. Or is it? In this case, I can give the generic name a free pass because of what the city of Philadelphia represents in the historical context. Philadelphia is where the First Continental Congress met, where Thomas Paine published Common Sense, and where the national capitol was located until it was moved to Washington in 1800. Philadelphia played an enormous role in the American Revolution, and what is a popular symbol for American independence? The eagle, which was subsequently named the official national bird of the United States. Yes, it’s generic, but if any city has a right to regionalize the eagle, Philadelphia earned it, right along with the branding that goes with it.

32: New York Yankees, MLB
Speaking of American symbols. Here’s another team trying to take a spot as a blanket appeal to everyone by naming it after a generic term used by foreigners as a stand-in for Americans. In other words, Yankee is just another way of calling someone an American, and it gets crippled by the fact that in America itself, Yankee is regionalized depending on where you are and who you’re talking to. If you’re in the south, Yankees are northerners. In the north, they’re New Englanders, and so on. New York City is one of the most diverse cities on Earth, so while Yankees should be a generic name, what I like about it is that it presents the spirit of inclusion that appeals to people all over the world who visit or move there. It kind of says “No matter who you are or where you’re from, when you’re in New York City, you’re one of us.” And indeed, New York City has this history – it was the place where immigrants first left their ships, and around one in every seven Americans has a lineage that goes back through New York City. Yankees also has a cool ring to it, with two Y sounds and two K sounds in two back-to-back syllables. The Y is underutilized in nicknames, which also gives Yankees real distinction.

31: Los Angeles Clippers, NBA
This name would have a slightly higher rating had it stayed the San Diego Clippers, and a much lower rating if it had either stayed the Buffalo Braves or held on to the Braves nickname. Still, there’s not too much to complain about. Los Angeles is a giant port city, after all, with one of the largest port harbors in the world. The Clippers nickname is an allusion to a kind of cargo ship which was used in the days when giant canvas sails were the kings of the sea’s horizon. Clippers were known for being some of the fastest vessels available. None of the words in this name, though, come off as particularly strong, so I prefer the old San Diego Clippers name, where Diego is there to carry the weight of the weaker words surrounding it.

30: Indiana Pacers, NBA
Handicapped just because Indiana is a monster of a place name, but it fits because while Indiana is one of the basketball hotbeds of the United States, it’s best known for a whole other sport: Racing. Auto racing, to be exact, with the state’s greatest contribution to the sports world being the world-famous Indianapolis 500. Pacer most obviously is there to represent the pace car, a car which takes the race cars on a couple of slow laps around the race track just before the green flag. In a less obvious allusion, pacer can mean setting a pace, or creating and controlling the tempo for how a game plays out, which is probably what the team owners were hoping for when the Pacers were created. I’m awarding bonus points because Indiana Pacers has better balance than Indianapolis Pacers would have – next to a city name like Indianapolis, everything would look weak.

29: Dallas Cowboys, NFL
This name just makes good sense. Dallas has a history as a wild west frontier city, and what image represents the wild west frontier more than a cowboy? Dallas also fancies itself a city long on fast, high-rolling excitement and action, and that’s the common movie image of the cowboy: Fast, exciting, shootouts with the black bandana-wearing villains who tied the girl up to the train tracks. That’s far from the truth of what being a cowboy was really like, but the team itself certainly tries to live up to that image.

28: Miami Dolphins, NFL
Hey, another marine team! Dolphins is probably the best marine-related name because, being sea mammals, there’s presumably plenty of them in and around the Miami area. While dolphins get a perception as fun, friendly creatures, when observed in their natural habitat, they’ve been seen to be real assholes. We know they’re known to get into fights with sharks and win; some of them do it for no reason. Dolphins can be friendly when bred in captivity, and part of the reason they can learn and perform tricks is because of their incredible intelligence. Dolphins score very high on the chart of animal intelligence, right up there with monkeys, and are the most intelligent animals after humans. It’s also theorized that the dolphin brain was fully developed long before the human brain, meaning dolphins were once the smartest animals in the world. That’s a hell of an image to carry, all wrapped up in a very unique brand because everyone else apparently thinks dolphins are too cutesy to be used as a team nickname.

27: San Diego Padres, MLB
San Diego was originally a mission founded by Franciscan priests, so this name has a historical regionalism which makes it stick out. It can also serve a double meaning: Military chaplains are also frequently known as padres, and San Diego is very well known for being a military base outpost among everything else. Padre is a Spanish word, and that means it goes very nicely with the name of the city itself, which is also Spanish, and it’s also a clever way to appeal to the Mexicans who regularly move in and out of San Diego, since San Diego has a very convenient spot right along the Mexican border, with Tijuana along the Mexican part of the border. Hell, the entire metro area is referred to as the San Diego-Tijuana Metropolitan Area. It’s a very fitting name for a city with such a strong Spanish and Mexican influence, and there’s no need to complain about it not being vicious.

26: Chicago Bulls, NBA
A lot of the appeal of the Bulls name is the same of the appeal of the Bears name: Short but powerful word for an animal with power and crunch. But whereas the Bears had a parallel to the Cubs as an advantage, the Bulls do something better: Chicago was a major producer in the meat industry for a long time, and that makes the bull a very strong allusion to the beef industry that made Chicago an industrial giant. If you’re a literary geek, the allusion is made even stronger through the fictional neighborhood of Packingtown, which was created by author Upton Sinclair for his famous novel The Jungle, about the life of factory workers in the fictional community. That makes the bull a nice secondhand reference to the book that got the government started in making sure our food was clean and, eventually, seeing to it that people who worked in factories got treated like human beings. Maybe it’s not obvious outright, but that’s good enough to be a literary reference, and that’s always worth a few points with me.

25: Charlotte Hornets, NBA
The Charlotte Hornets are back! The second-youngest name on this list, Charlotte’s NBA team finally got its original name back a couple of months ago when the New Orleans Hornets decided they were finally finished with it. That’s good for it in the standings, because if you haven’t figured it out by now, I would have viciously skewered this name had these guys still been the Charlotte Bobcats. The historical precedent comes from a quote by general Cornwallis in the American Revolution, who referred to Charlotte as “A veritable nest of hornets” after the city put up a hell of a resistance to them. Hornets is also very unique and original, because insects don’t tend to be used as nicknames very often. Hornets have very venomous and painful stings, swarm, and are crazily territorial, adding a nice dose of ferocity. But you know why everyone loves the name Charlotte Hornets so much? Say it, and check out that balance! Four syllables, the first in each word ending in a hard R, and the second ending in a short T. There are only a handful of other teams on this list which have such a balance, and of them, the Hornets definitely have the coolest sound. R can be a nasty letter when it’s used properly. Buzz City, on behalf of NBA fans everywhere, we’re glad you’re back!

24: Edmonton Oilers, NHL
The Oilers are the other team from the Canadian province of Alberta. While the Calgary Flames use a generic name which is also a useful adage for how oil is frequently used, the Edmonton Oilers are a lot more direct: Here’s Edmonton, in the province of Alberta, sticking up like a sore thumb in the middle of the Canadian desert, where they dig up oil. And here’s a team called the Oilers, which happens to play in Edmonton. The Oilers have a unique name these days, since the NFL’s Houston Oilers don’t exist anymore, so it’s almost impossible to forget who the Oilers are or where they’re from.

23: Chicago Blackhawks, NHL
Part of the reason I like this name so much – besides the fact that they’re, you know, my team – is the fact that it adds so much nuance to political correctness. Perhaps the Blackhawks could use it as an advertisement: The team! That was named after a restaurant! A restaurant that was named after an army battalion! An army battalion that was named after a person! Yeah, even tracing it back all the way, the Hawks were named after a person. It’s rather unfortunate that their nickname is another generic bird of prey, because I take points off for that. But there’s no denying that Blackhawks is a name with character, and it finds a nice balance in a three-syllable-two-syllable dynamic simply by making the middle sounds the same in both words. It’s just that in Chicago, the short C is a syllable all to itself while in Blackhawks, the CK comes at the end of the first syllable. The name has an history in Illinois, too; Black Hawk was a Sauk tribe chief who led raiding and war parties as a young man, fought in the War of 1812, and led the British Band in the 1832 war presumably named after him. The team itself spent most of its existence known as the Black Hawks, until the owner randomly decided to use the name written on the original legal documents – Blackhawks – sometime in 1986.

22: Boston Bruins, NHL
If this was a list I was writing up solely on balance, the Boston Bruins would win it with almost no competition. Both are two-syllable words, both start with B and end in N, both of them are breezy with hard sounds. In that regard, the Boston Bruins are absolutely unmatched anywhere on this list. That gives the name memorability and strong branding as well, because who could possibly forget a beast like this? The only qualm is that this name is more generic than it comes off at first; a bruin is a foreign word for brown bear. (I forget which language.) But even then, you have to give this name credit for not going with the name Boston Bears and using the Bruins name, which makes it stick out more.

21: Arizona Diamondbacks, MLB
Not all names rooted in our 90’s love affair with all things fierce and XTREME!!! turned out badly. The desert can be an inspiration for some awesome team names, because it’s such a unique environment which takes resourcefulness and hardness to live in. It’s an environment exclusive to some very unique species, and some very particular species of more common animals. Arizona’s sports teams play it safe by going with the latter three out of four times (the exception being the generic Cardinals NFL team), and while the originality mark suffers for that, this is by far the best of what Arizona offers in team naming. The diamondback is a type of rattlesnake which is found in a few environments, but is most noted for being a desert animal. It’s extremely venomous and deadly. They’re also survivalists that can go without two years without food. It’s important to note the team didn’t go a more common route by just latching on to the name Rattlers. While the longer name may be a bit much, it works in this case because with 90’s ferocity a dime a dozen in sports team naming, Diamondbacks is one of those pattern breakers that sticks out among all those cat and weather names.

The Ultimate Ranking of Sports Team Names, Part Five: Blank Space

The Ultimate Ranking of Sports Team Names, Part Five: Blank Space

With a list like this, there are going to be a bunch of names that come up which are too good to be really worth complaining about, but not good enough to be worth raving about; names which are extraordinarily difficult to rank because you have no clue exactly where to put them. So in order to get them rankings that are at least somewhat safe, you write up the list from both ends until you have the blank space in the middle which is the only place they’ll fit. Again, none of these names are truly bad, and in this leg, we’re going to start seeing the good names crop up. It’s just that they didn’t go very far either here or there, so they come off as fillers.

53: Columbus Blue Jackets, NHL
Named after an old Civil War unit, this name isn’t so bad. The problem is that it’s so, well, innocuous. Old imagery tends to associated jackets with certain kinds of bees. Jackets is also a remnant of sports teams past which has definitely seen its day, and not only does it feel old, there’s no anger or intensity to be associated with the color blue. There have been many teams in many sports known as the Yellow Jackets and Red Jackets, and while those names project intensity, Blue Jackets projects calm and cool. Which could explain why the Columbus Blue Jackets don’t have a ton of success to their name just yet.

52: New England Patriots, NFL
Oh, goodie. Another pretentious name trying to enclose its entire geographical, multi-state region. Patriots is actually a fine name for the team – it was created to honor the original separatists who wanted the 13 Colonies to break free of England. Of course, one of the major focal points of the events leading to the American Revolution was Boston, in whose suburbs the Patriots play. And that’s precisely why the New England Patriots would be best off named with the name they came up with upon emerging in the AFL in 1960: The Boston Patriots! The branding doesn’t work, though, because generally a patriot is someone who loves his country, and I happen to think it’s kind of rude of the Boston (excuse me, New England) team to try to earn fans through this kind of exclusivity. Boston already has a nasty air of pretension, and their fans are already some of the most self-important people on Earth, and there’s really no need to fuel those feelings by enabling anyone to say either you cheer for their team or you hate America. Of course, it’s not like it would stop them from such self-congratulatory hubris anyway, but it doesn’t help matters.

51: Washington Capitals, NHL
Finally, a place where the word “capitol” is spelled in proper grammatical context. It’s spelled with an O at the end, meaning a place, instead of an A at the end, a way of denoting currency. Also, both words have three syllables, and the final syllable of each starts with a T, so there’s a good balance. The Capitols name works because Washington is the capitol of the United States, after all. Furthermore, since the Capitol is also the name of the building where Congress gathers, the name doubles as a recognition of the federal government. And since the Capitol is one of the most famous bits of architecture in the country, the name further triples as a celebration of great architecture in a city full of historic architecture. This name should be higher up, but it’s no one’s fault the name of the Capitol is so bland. (Edit: At least, that is what I would write had the Capitals been that smart, as I wrote this thinking they were. Apparently they’re not. So while the A in Capitals makes sense to the way the federal government is run, it does a huge disservice to the city. Fuck this name.)

50: Oakland Raiders, NFL
The coolest pirate name on the list. This name would be more of a failure if the Raiders were still in Los Angeles, but it holds a lot more meaning in Oakland. Oakland is a historical hotbed of political activism, and that activism is more often than not against the prevailing government policy, prevailing social norms, and frequently against the so-called knowledge and ideas of the common, white, insufferable coffeehouse intellectuals as well. Oakland’s political reputation has a real grassroots attitude, and you get the feeling that the people of Oakland are a hands-on bunch who try to enact change one place at a time with their bare hands. That makes the Raiders a true team for revolutionaries; or, as much of society would prefer to think of them, pirates. See, not every pirate image is bad, even when you are talking about one of the nastiest fanbases in the country. It’s also cool to say – two double-syllable words with hard beginnings and ends with easy middles.

49: Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
People frequently gripe about proper grammar when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs. They argue this is a shitty name just because it isn’t the grammatically proper Toronto Maple Leaves. This team, however, was named after a Canadian Army battalion called the Maple Leaf battalion. I don’t know why grammar rules work the way they do, but experts tend to argue that the name makes perfect sense since we’re not talking about actual leaves. The maple leaf, of course, is the dominant symbol of Canada, and once again we’re into trying to both nationalize and regionalize the fans at the same time. In this case, it works a lot better, because there’s no attempt at exclusivity in the Maple Leafs name. It’s just grabbing the symbol and latching on, subtly inviting people instead of saying “You’re either with us or you’re against us.” The name is also a lot more balanced than it looks – both Toronto and Maple Leafs are three-syllable terms. See folks, you can use national symbols for names, just as you can use generic animals, as long as you can do it the right way.

48: Arizona Coyotes, NHL
The newest name on this list, the former Phoenix Coyotes changed their official name to the Arizona Coyotes just days before I began. It really doesn’t change very much except the number of syllables. A coyote is a good animal to name the team after – it has nothing to do with fellow canine family member wolves, and it’s very much an Arizona animal. The name change makes the whole name of the team a little clunkier, but it doesn’t do any real damage.

47: Chicago Bears, NFL
Chicago is a burly city name. (Unlike the people who live there.) It has power and crunch. What to name the football team? An animal that has the same! Bears is another small word with big impact. It’s also a great parallel allusion to one of Chicago’s baseball teams, the Cubs, something that wasn’t lost on the owner when the team was named. The Bears once played in Wrigley Field, and in exchange for the lease, the original owner said he would name the football team after the baseball team. Since cubs are most often taken in the context of bear cubs, and this owner noticed football players on the whole were larger than baseball players, he named the football team the Chicago Bears.

46: Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB
The most famous move remnant of all time rolled a lot nicer with its original name, Brooklyn Dodgers, and that’s where the animosity toward Los Angeles Dodgers begins. Then again, I already mentioned a couple of posts ago that Brooklyn is such a great name that you can slap virtually any nickname onto a team there and have it come off halfway decent. The trouble is that since the name Dodgers comes from the original name Trolley Dodgers – people in Brooklyn who used to have to cross the streetcar tracks to get to the field – it makes at least as much regional sense in Los Angeles as it did in Brooklyn. Los Angeles does, after all, have a descendant of the old streetcar lines – a lightrail system. And when the team moved, they weren’t walking away from a string of lousy seasons – they had won the World Series just two years before moving, and had a run of Pennant years. And let’s face it, the name Dodgers is some of the best branding out there. There’s no mistaking it, even with the diehard Brooklynites who won’t shut up about the Dodgers still being Brooklyn’s team. Guys, they’re not going to return. If you hate the Yankees so much, buck up and turn to the Mets, okay?

45: Milwaukee Bucks, NBA
This is a strange name. A buck is a male deer, it has no balance, no connection to the Milwaukee area, and, well, I really can’t think of a whole lot to say about it. (Kinda like the team itself!) It stands out, so that much I can offer, but deer are common enough to still be legal to hunt, and I don’t think they drink beer. I’m giving this a nod largely on branding, just because deer are stronger, more dangerous animals than we give them credit for, so that avoids any complaints about it being generic. And really, it’s not such a bad name.

44: Miami Heat, NBA
This is easily the best name on this list that doesn’t invoke a plural. Heat may be an amorphous concept, but it’s an amorphous concept with a very specific definition. Heat can burn you, dehydrate you, make you vomit, and give you strokes and heart attacks. We go out of our way as human beings to avoid exposure to too much heat at the same time, and when we have no other choice, we carry a ton of water with us. So yeah, heat is very nasty business, and it also happens to be something the city of Miami has in abundance. Miami is famous for its heat. While heat can be found in many, many other places, the name also has a good rapport with the city name, and it comes off like an extra syllable, almost. This is a very rare case where I’m going to award bonus points for not making the name a plural. Since Heat feels like an extension of Miami, the T at the end gives the name a bit of heft and finality, which would make it look ridiculous if we tried to pluralize it. Miami Heats. It just doesn’t sound quite as right, does it? On the other hand, non-plural names are still old 90’s hubris.

43: San Jose Sharks, NHL
It’s strange that of all the generic natural critters people like to name sports teams after, the shark is so generic, and yet so underutilized. The name does have a connection to the Bay Area which makes it work out pretty well. The Pacific Ocean contains seven different kinds of shark, and the Bay Area is the location of an area of water called the Red Triangle which is home to a huge population of sharks. The name’s balance comes mostly from the fact that it’s a three-word name, with the syllable counts being one-two-one. That gives it a better, easier sound than it really has a right to have, and I wouldn’t be lauding it if the NHL didn’t take a chance on San Jose and decided instead to create the San Francisco Sharks – the four syllables in Francisco are just beasts. The branding of this team shouldn’t work, just because sharks comes off as another one of those generic 90’s affairs with animal ferocity, but the fact that marine naming is so uncommon makes it pleasant and quirky rather than bland and generic. We might criticize the NHL’s efforts at expanding during the 90’s, but this is an instance where it worked.

42: Phoenix Suns, NBA
I could write a lot of the same things about this name that I wrote about the Miami Heat: The nickname feels like a very natural extra syllable, the location is perfect since it celebrates something both regionalized and fierce, blah blah blah. The thing with the sun, though, is that it’s the generator of heat, which gives it an extra push. Think of it this way: Heat alone isn’t quite enough to melt your car in a hundredth of a second flat – you need a lot more than, say, a blowtorch. The sun is also the source of our ability to exist; it keeps the Earth in orbit. It has a major role in the operations of the solar system that mere heat alone doesn’t have. Also, it’s a plural, and since non-plural names are 90’s marketing hubris, it gets extra points.

41: Tampa Bay Rays, MLB
Here we have another sun-related name. Changed from the 90’s hubrisful Tampa Bay Devil Rays back in about 2007, the new names aspires to bring the Rays a new reputation as rays of light, as in a beacon of light to the baseball world, or as rays of sunlight. I’m giving this name a lot of credit for trying to be something so different, and it undoubtedly helps the branding – devil rays weren’t a real relatable creature to name a team after. Although the idea of a ray of light certainly holds weight in the Tampa Bay area, calling the team the Rays is taking a different approach than a lot of teams. It’s not aiming to create an image in ferocity or history or regionalization, but in inspiration. That makes it unique to any of the four major leagues, although I have my doubts that a lot of other people see it that way. The originality is stronger than most want to credit it with, but whether devil rays or rays, the branding doesn’t lend itself to wonderful imagery.

40: Miami Marlins, MLB
The most lovably dysfunctional team in baseball – yes, even more so than the Mets – gets its name from a popular gamefish. You have to give it credit – the Marlins were created in the 90’s, but instead of going with typical 90’s ferocity, they went with a less aggressive name. If you consider it, you have to eventually figure out that many of the truly great (or truly popular) names in sports aren’t aggressive at all. So in a way, Marlins is evoking many of the sports names of the olden days, concentrating on finding something the team’s fans can uniquely call their own instead of trying to appeal to a national fanbase of prepubescent boys they hope worship ferocious imagery. And coming up with a name of such a popular gamefish gives the name Miami Marlins a sort of Hemingway feel. Author Ernest Hemingway was a big time gamesman, after all, who lived in Florida for a long time and wrote a book called The Old Man and the Sea, which was about a fisherman trying to make a big catch.

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