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Concerning Word Choice, Dodgers Strike Out Looking

March 08, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

It's not easy being the thought and word police for major league baseball.

Last week, so consumed was I by the ignorant fool John Rocker's return to the mound, it escaped my attention when the Dodgers were ignorant and foolish.

Promoting a season-ticket package enabling fans to buy four for the price of two, the Dodgers purchased an advertisement in The Times, suggesting that the two extra tickets can be given to "your kids, your clients, or the two schmucks down the street who swear they went to high school with you."

Unlike Rocker, the Dodgers didn't defame anyone. Except for the two, uh, people, down the street. But their choice of words was, at best, crude, and, at worst, obscene.

In case your only knowledge of Yiddish comes from seeing "Fiddler on the Roof," allow me to explain. Schmuck, or the preferred spelling shmuck, refers to male genitalia.

"Never utter shmuck lightly, or in the presence of women and children," Leo Rosten warns in his book, "Joys of Yiddish."

"Jews tend to be puritanical about public references to the pubic. I never heard any elders, certainly not my father or mother, use shmuck, which was regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo."

But it is not only Jews who find the word offensive. A sportswriter acquaintance of mine, Peter Schmuck, was rejected by the California DMV when he applied to have his last name on a vanity license plate, although I recall that he eventually prevailed after making the talk-radio rounds and threatening to sue. Comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested when he said the word on stage at the Troubadour.

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Here we go again.

Or at least that was my first thought after friends brought the ad to my attention.

When Peter O'Malley sold out to Fox, there were fears that Rupert Murdoch's corporate barbarians would damage the Dodgers' carefully constructed and well-tended image of class and dignity.

Those fears proved founded, so much so that they, in effect, fired themselves and turned day-to-day operations over to Bob Daly, who vowed to restore the Dodgers' tradition.

Until last week, he had a perfect game going. He traded malcontent Raul Mondesi for Shawn Green, who, coincidentally, is potentially the team's brightest Jewish star since Sandy Koufax; brought back Orel Hershiser, and guaranteed that Eric Karros isn't leaving by extending his contract. The latter two moves were motivated as much by public relations as baseball.

You can't however, blame this one on Chase Carey or Peter Chernin.

"This is pretty offensive," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "But if you're going to be scatological, you should at least be grammatically correct. The plural of shmuck is shmick."

Could it be possible that Daly is a shlemiel?

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In this case, the answer is no.

When he saw the ad, he said, he was furious.

It ran for only one day in its original form. The ad still appears, but the wording has been changed to "the two guys down the street." That is not as, say, colorful, but neither is it off color.

As for how such a glitch occurred, it began when the Dodgers, for the first time this winter, hired an outside advertising agency, WongDoody, which is headquartered in Seattle.

WongDoody is known for its chutzpah, but that's not what impressed the Dodgers. They were impressed by the agency's campaign a couple of years ago on behalf of the NBA's SuperSonics. They were declining in popularity because of some of the shmu . . . er, guys on the team, but the agency presented their more touchy-feely sides by showing them at Tupperware and children's birthday parties.

Kris Rone, the Dodger vice president in charge of marketing, said WongDoody's copy writer and the manager in her department who approved the ad weren't aware of the word's meaning.

I suppose that's possible. It's a credit to the richness of Yiddish that a number of its words, including "shlep," "shlock," "shmaltz," "shtik," "kvetch" and "klutz," are now considered kosher in English. As well as "shlemiel," " "chutzpah" and "kosher."

Even the word "schmuck" is often misinterpreted to mean jerk or dope and appears fairly routinely in mainstream publications, including The Times.

Nevertheless, Dodger President Bob Graziano said, "We apologize. We take full responsibility. There's no excuse for our use of the word. We know what it means, and we've taken measures to make sure nothing like this happens again."

Among them will be greater scrutiny by Dodger executives of ads before they appear. Perhaps they should also run them by Shawn Green.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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