The Insider

P.C. Follies
Perhaps the lingering hangover from our ungodly hot and dry summer has set Houstonians on edge, because more than a few people around town are steaming and getting their dander up over some very unlikely causes.

Here are examples -- the Houston Chronicle's suddenly prudish treatment of Astros star pitcher Randy Johnson's moniker; a fishy appetizer with a rancid name on a Montrose eatery menu that has sparked charges of anti-Semitism; and the allegedly sexist antics of a district judge addicted to forwarding stale jokes on his court e-mail. In each of these playlets, the participants should consider taking long, cold showers before spouting off further.

First comes the cautionary tale of what happens when a sports columnist tries to freight an innocuous baseball nickname with sexual titillation.

The unexpected blockbuster trade that brought pitcher Johnson from the Seattle Mariners to Houston early last month created an instant local hero. Sports scribes, headline writers and broadcasters couldn't get enough mileage out of the six-foot ten-inch fireballer's nickname, the Big Unit. Front-page boxes, sports-section headlines and numerous leads in the Chronicle bannered "Big Unit" ad nauseam. But all that was before the paper's new columnist, John Lopez, the anointed successor to ousted Ed Fowler, used his debut column on July 9 to lampoon Johnson's nickname as a sort of extended penis joke.

"Someone once asked me at a party what I thought of the Big Unit," wrote Lopez. "I found myself inexplicably jealous when I heard my wife and two other moms talking about the Big Unit. These women are not even crazy about baseball.... And just imagine the potentially humiliating 'Big Unit' headlines we'll see if the Astros win the World Series and meet President Clinton."

Before going on to tell his readers that writing a sports column wasn't work, an assertion for which his initial effort provided open-and-shut evidence, Lopez declared, "no more Big Unit references, please."

Although Lopez now claims the column was all tongue-in-cheek, it didn't sit well with either Johnson or the Houston Astros, who have avidly embraced the Big Unit tag. The nickname originated from an incident in the late eighties, when then-Montreal Expo Johnson accidentally collided with five-foot eight-inch slugger Tim Raines as he walked out of a batting cage. Exclaimed Raines after he bounced back several feet: "You are one big unit."

The tag stuck after Johnson was traded to Seattle and developed into one of the premier pitchers in the game. He now has a line of sportswear, including shirts and caps, that proudly display the nickname. The Astros printed up "K" strikeout cards for fans to wave at Johnson's debut performance in the Astrodome, with "Big Unit" printed on the reverse side. Astros Media Relations Director Rob Matwick says he asked Johnson whether he would prefer to have "Randy" on the cards, and he insisted on "Big Unit." Astros web page designer Craig Sanders reports that caps and shirts emblazoned with "Big Unit" have been selling briskly to customers over the Internet.

The Astros weren't the only folks confused by the Lopez column. The right sports hand at the Chronicle obviously didn't know what the left was up to, because on the other side of the section front from Lopez's column, writer Carlton Thompson led his feel-good profile of devoted family man Johnson with, "The minute Randy Johnson enters a big-league ballpark, he's the Big Unit -- the most intimidating pitcher of his era."

But after that initial breach of the Lopez line, the use of "Big Unit" in the Chronicle dwindled alarmingly, to a few rare sightings in odd locations over the following week and a half.

Two days after the Lopez manifesto, features columnist Ken Hoffman mentioned that the addition of the Big Unit had doubled the number of Net surfers visiting the Astros web site. Two days later, sportswriter Neil Hohlfeld quoted pitcher Shane Reynolds as lauding Johnson with: "He's the Big Unit, and this is what he does...." The same day, Hoffman dropped in another reference by describing a menu item at Clive's called "Big Unit Cheesecake Special." And a statistical ranking compiled by Thompson twice included mentions of the Big Unit. After Johnson's victory in Chicago Saturday, a front-page headline proclaimed, "Big Unit, Big Bats Overpower Cubs!" The normally cliche-and-nickname-addicted sports section continued on cold turkey status.

Meanwhile, several incensed Chronicle readers blasted Lopez in letters published in the sports section a week after his first column.

"To turn a proud nickname into something salacious is disgusting," fumed Tom Kessler. "Absolutely the worst column I have ever read on a sports page," thundered Michael McCroskey. He beanballed Lopez with: "He has now topped Kenny Hand as worst sports columnist in Houston history, with only one column." Clear Lake resident Bob Trainer raved that "Lopez has dishonored himself, the paper, the city I call home, the Astros organization, and even his own wife with this garbage" -- language more applicable to the Clinton-Lewinsky coupling than a sports column.

An unchastened Lopez insists he was just having fun with the Big Unit, and is unaware of any restrictions on using the moniker in the future. Still, he was at a loss to explain the almost total disappearance of the nickname from the Chronicle sports pages.

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