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  • 03 / 29 / 2007

But in the World Series of weird baseball names, Cuba is a real contender.

Never mind nicknames like that of the Mets' Orlando Hernandez - "El Duque" or "The Duke." This competition is among the names given to players like Danger Guerrero and Vicyohandri Odelin by their own parents.

The latter is pronounced something like "Big Joe Henry," but when he starred in the World Baseball Classic, the right-hander proved as tough on announcers as he was on hitters.

"They call me Villo," Odelin shrugs. "It's easier."

Then there's Yulieski Gourriel, the 22-year-old star second baseman on the island's national team, whose big brother Yunieski plays center field. Their mother figured that name was such a hit, she changed just one letter when Yulieski came along.

Cuban law once required that children be named after saints, but the communist government long ago abolished that rule. Today, only the names of stars, objects, jobs and animals are prohibited.

American pitcher Roger Clemens has four children whose names begin with K, after the strikeout symbol. Had he been Cuban, he might have gone with names beginning with Y.

One of Cuba's best-known journalists and broadcasters, the late Eddy Martin, once said he counted 400 Cuban baseball players whose names started with the alphabet's next-to-last letter. And while Y names are common in allied Russia, it remains a mystery why Cuban parents would be attached to them.

"Yuniel, Ynieski, Yulieski, Yolexis, Yuslan, Yoanni, Yumiel, Yadel, Yunieski, Yulieski, Yolexis, Yuslan, Yoanii, Yumiel, Yadel, Yonelki, Yunior, Yusded, Yinier, Yusnel, etc.," Martin once ticked off in an interview.

That's particularly remarkable in a Spanish-speaking country, where words beginning with Y, pronounced as a soft J, are otherwise rarely heard. The definitive dictionary of Spain's Royal Academy includes only about 250 words that start with Y, many of them borrowed from foreign languages.

"Now to the plate comes another impossible name," Martin often muttered during broadcasts. Most listeners believed he was only half kidding.

Norge Luis Vera, a pitcher for the eastern city of Santiago, owes his name to a brand of refrigerator. No one seems sure where Odrisamer Despaigne of Havana's Industriales - Cuba's answer to the New York Yankees - got his name.

Jokel Gil, a catcher who joined the Industriales this season, complains that no one ever knows how to spell his name, but adds, "At least they are talking about me!"

And with a name like "Danger," Guerrero could easily be an action star. He says his parents noticed the word in various places and saddled him with it. Whether they fully understood its meaning is unclear.

Some parents invent new spellings for U.S. names. Santiago's center fielder is Adward Laverdeza. Others put their own spin on common monikers, like Leugim Barroso, an outfielder for Havana's second-tier Metropolitanos squad, whose name is Miguel spelled backward.

That practice is not exclusively Cuban. The first name of Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Nomar Garciaparra, a California native of Mexican heritage, is 'Ramon' in reverse.


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