Monday, October 19, 2009

The Perfect Heckle

Heckling is a lot like handling the TV remote. Everyone can do it, but very few can do it right.

Being a good heckler takes patience. It requires a strong base of knowledge. And you better have a voice, too. Anybody can just go out to a game, throw down multiple brews, and start screaming venomous material at the opposing team. But in all likelihood, that guy isn't putting any effort or thought into his heckle.

He's just screaming for the sake of screaming. His insults are poorly worded, lack cleverness, and only make one person (himself) in the whole stadium laugh. He's forgotten one of the cardinal rules of heckling; proceed only when you have a legitimate bullet to fire...otherwise, keep the safety on.

Take, for instance, the guy in my section during the Tigers' final home game of the '09 season. He had nothing to offer as a heckler, but that didn't stop him from peppering our ears with his nonsense for the majority of the day.

Scott Podsednik came to the plate for Chicago and this guy yells out at the top of his lungs, "HEY PODSEDNIK!! (then gets very quiet for some reason)...Yah muddah wears Ah-Mee boots." (Translation: "Your mother wears Army boots.") He continued repeating this inexplicable heckle throughout the day, each time eliciting the same confused reaction from myself and all others unlucky enough to be subjected to such amateur (and dated) heckling.

Why the decrease in volume at the big moment? Why was he going after Scotty Pods in the first place? And what in god's name was he trying to convey by suggesting that the left fielder's "Muddah" wore Army boots??? It was an unequivocal disaster on every level.

The one thing this guy did have going for him was that he did not rely on the "shock factor" of swear words to make an impact. The best heckles are the ones that do not require an abundance of vulgarity. It's about the fan having a little nugget of information about a certain player and playing that card in the perfect situation. It's about that moment when the stadium gets just quiet enough where you see your opening to not only let loose with your catcall, but to do it at such an elevated pitch where your intended target can't help but listen to every last syllable. Seeing a back-and-forth game with a classic ending is a wonderful memory. But hurling out a perfect heckle and getting a perfect reaction in return is what stays with you forever.

Following are some of the best and most bizarre heckling experiences I've been involved with or seen in my countless years as a sports fan...

-One of my favorite heckling/fan-athlete interactions was a cute little back-and-forth between myself and Braves utility infielder Tony Graffanino. The scene was Wrigley Field, sometime in the late 90's. The Bravos were stretching and getting ready for the game when I made my way down near the field and yelped, "Hey Graffanino! You're the poor man's (Mark) Lemke!!"

Graffanino looked stunned for a beat, then took the insult in, pondered its meaning, and finally nodded, as if to say, "Yeah, that's about right." It was the unique heckle where not only did the player refuse to get upset about being razzed, but also went the extra mile to actually acknowledge that the pseudo-insult was probably pretty close to the truth.

In this case, calling him the "Poor man's Lemke" was not the worst thing. Lemke was no superstar in his day, but he did have some very heroic moments in the month of October. Graffanino was simply following in the footsteps of the many mediocre middle infielders the Braves employed in that time period (Lemke, Jeff Treadway, Mike Mordecai), and I was essentially stating a fact that he was probably the lesser version of all those that came before him.

He knew his place on the baseball totem pole, accepted my barb as tasteful and well-researched, and gave me a respectful nod of approval in return. It was a mere 7-8 second exchange, at most...but it remains one of the more pleasant heckling experiences I've ever been a part of.

-Back in August of '01, my older brother Gabe and I were on a summer trip to LA to visit some family and take in a few ballgames. This particular night saw us sitting about 8-10 rows behind the visitors' dugout at then-named Edison Field (home of the Angels) for a nine-inning affair between the White Sox and hometown Halos. Jarrod Washburn was on the hill for the Angels that night, and not surprisingly (to Tigers fans), he got absolutely ripped. Line drive after line drive, capped off by a monstrous three-run bomb from Sandy Alomar, Jr. that sent fans racing for the exits just a few innings in. All except one.

Stationed a few rows in front of us was an Angel fanatic. Full gear, authentic merchandise head to toe, and the "headphones tuned in to the radio broadcast" move which tells everyone else around him, "I'm all business."

He was gonna stick it out for the remainder of the game, no matter how long it took, and no matter how badly it pained him to see his boys getting shellacked all over the diamond. But he had to let his frustrations out somehow.

Perhaps it would be towards Angels second year skipper Mike Scioscia for allowing such a dreadful performance to take place. Or maybe he would take it out on the struggling Halo pitching staff, which at one point trotted out somebody called Mark Lukasiewicz, a hurler so atrocious that many in the crowd believed that the right hander had inhaled about a fifth of Manischewitz before emerging from the pen.

In a game where the Angels were getting beaten every which way, this crazed fan could have went after anybody wearing the 'A' on their chest and it would have been justified. But this psycho was anything but your conventional fan. When he finally blew his top, the heckling began, and his target was revealed...the first base coach for the White Sox, one Gary Pettis.

The four of us (Me, Gabe, my two uncles) were completely flummoxed. What the hell could Pettis have done?? He was coaching first base in a 15-1 blowout!

Then the insults started flying from our psychotic neighbor and the entertainment for the evening went from "mild" to "off the charts."

He bellowed, "Hey Pettissss!! You think you know everything...well you know nothing...NOTHING!!"

We were all still extremely confused. What could Pettis, a one-time good-glove, no-stick outfielder for the Halos, have possibly done?

The man continued. "You think we would just forget, Pettis??? We will never forget!! You never listened to Carew!! He tried to teach you everything, and you thought you were too good for it. Guess what?!? You'll never be as good as Carew!!!!!"

Pettis looked shocked, perplexed, and altogether terrified at the same he wanted to turn around and scream, "What the $#&$ are you talking about???"

After the initial onslaught had ended, we approached Sir Heckles (very carefully) to find out the background for these bizarre allegations. He told us through bated breath that when Pettis was a young outfielder in California in the mid-80's, the Hall-of-Famer Carew was just finishing up his time in the bigs. He claimed that Carew attempted to take Pettis under his wing, and was repeatedly denied. Apparently this perceived stubbornness was the main reason Pettis never fixed his flawed batting stroke (.236 lifetime BA).

The only thing is this...there's no record of this "battle." Nothing. Anywhere. You can Google the words "Pettis...Carew...mentor...fight...failed 1980's veteran-rookie relationships over differences in batting philosophies." You can mix and match in the search bar all you want and you still won't find a single trail of any dispute resembling the one this fan had gone completely bonkers about.

Of course, once we found out this dude was straight loco, we egged him on all the way, saying things like, "Man, that Pettis has some nerve! Hey, you remember that time he slept with Carew's wife?!?!?"

He ate it all up, and due to the fact that he was probably an escaped mental patient, never figured out that our comments were dripping with sarcasm, as opposed to his, which were loaded with passion and legitimate insanity.

He went on busting up Pettis for the duration of the night, never swaying much from his main thesis involving Carew's failed teachings. We all had fun imagining what this guy must have been going through from the years 1983-85 to make him this crazy on a lazy summer night in 2001.

The best heckles are the ones that come out of nowhere and attack a guy that you would never think in your wildest dreams would be the intended target of a three-plus hour verbal assault.

That's what happened on that magical night in Anaheim when Gary Pettis was blasted to smithereens for "refusing to listen" to Rod Carew.

An otherwise forgettable 15-1 Pale Hose smackdown was instead cemented in sports history...all because of a little heckling and a frayed relationship that most likely never even existed in the first place.

-It was the summer of 2003. There was a massive power outage along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest. People were scrambling to local hardware stores for flashlights, water, and DVDs of the 90's football classic The Program (for $4.99, it seemed like an "essential"). Our family hightailed it to Toledo, Ohio, the next closest place rumored to still have power. In a nice twist of fate, the Mud Hens were playing a doubleheader that night in their beautiful new park. What better way to kill the time than a couple of ballgames on a gorgeous summer night? While I looked forward to the evening of baseball ahead, I was completely unaware that I was about to witness one of the great heckling performances of all-time.

My brother Gabe is what you might call the "complete package" in the world of heckling. He has it all: a wide range of knowledge spanning multiple sports and time periods, a solid voice capable of reaching the on-field recipient, and most importantly, a freewheeling willingness to say whatever it takes to get his point across.

That night, he was Reggie Miller in the Garden. He was Barry Sanders twisting Harlon Barnett into a pretzel. Simply put, he was in the zone.

He got going in between games of the doubleheader. Norfolk rigthander Jason Middlebrook was jogging around the warning track, and seeing as how he was Jason Freaking Middlebrook, he had no reason to believe he was about to get put on blast in a major way.

Who in their right mind had any idea who this guy was anyway?? Or any reason to heckle him whatsoever??

Luckily, this was a couple of years after Barry Bonds hit his record 73 home runs, and I had been just crazy enough at the time to want to memorize all 73 pitchers (in order) that served up the dingers.

I quickly relayed to Gabe, "Hey, I think that Middlebrook is the guy who gave up like a million bombs to Bonds a couple years ago."

Gabe heard me loud and clear, and within five seconds, he was leaning over the wall barking, "BONDS LIT YOU UP!!! BONDS LIT YOU UP!!! BONDS LIT YOU UPPPPP!"

Middlebrook was clearly stunned that he'd been identified for any reason whatsoever, and even more so that a fan in Toledo was actually aware of his past involvement in Bonds' chase (he surrendered #s 65, 66, and 68).

Gabe's words were perfectly chosen. Straight to the point, no wasted breath, and the multiple repeats of the phrase to make sure it hit home. Brilliantly executed two-man heckle (I get some credit for the initial player recognition) and the perfect beginning to an unforgettable night.

The second game wore on uneventfully. The Hens were trailing, and the crowd was dwindling. The Norfolk manager decided to get involved, sending up a pinch-hitter in the form of Mike Glavine. And yes, if you are wondering, that is the brother of one Tom Glavine.

His at-bat was pretty lame, taking a few weak hacks and ultimately rolling one over to second for an easy out. He trudged back towards the dugout, seemingly content with his night's work and happy to escape the diamond heckle-free. Not so fast, sir.

Gabe wasn't about to let a golden opportunity just go to waste. He cupped his hands, took a breath, and bellowed, "YOU'RE A DISGRACE TO YOUR BROTHER!!"

Glavine's face turned three shades of red. You could tell he'd heard this kind of thing a million times before, but you also got the sense that this one struck a particularly meaningful chord and that he most likely would not sleep for the next month as a result.

It was stellar work once again from Gabe. He identified the target, gathered the appropriate background information necessary for launch, and then let loose at the precise moment. A flawless sequence.

The night crept closer to its end, but Gabe still had a few bullets left in the chamber.

He hit Tsuyoshi Shinjo with a politically incorrect "Ichirooooooo" chant, drawing laughs from nearby fans and even a couple of repeats from the admirers that had indulged too heavily in the beer consumption portion of the evening. (Oddly enough, those fans were promptly ejected from their seats, while Gabe was never even given a second look. Guess they respect the pros.)

The Mud Hens were coming up now in the last inning with one final chance to come back and earn a sweep of the twin-bill. As is sometimes the tradition in minor league ball, the Hens sent out journeyman outfielder Hiram Bocachica to coach first base. And little did we know (but soon to find out), Bocachica was none too happy to be out there.

He'd been up and down from the majors to the minors throughout his career, and let's just say that coaching first base on the tail end of a dog-days doubleheader in Toledo was not a personal highlight.

Again, Gabe saw an opening, but just could not come up with the right dig. But as is the case with any legendary performer, sometimes you just have to grind it out and see what happens. Sure enough, with just one out to go in the game and the tying run in scoring position, Gabe fired.


It wasn't smart, it wasn't clever, it wasn't even original. But it did the trick...and plenty more.

Bocachica spun around, glaring coldly right in our direction. The final pitch was literally being thrown (with the ball put in play), and he had his back to the field with his eyes focused squarely on us.

The only problem was, Bocachica wasn't staring at us...he was staring at me.

And his middle finger was now being raised to full extension.

The moment had just gone from "hilarious" to "potentially life-ending." The final out of the game was being played out on the field, and this simmering Puerto Rican fireball could not have cared less.

We briskly skipped up the steps toward the concourse. I glanced over my shoulder every few seconds to see if Bocachica had moved, and each time I saw the same sight.

Him standing there motionless, like a wax figure, his third finger still pointed to the sky, and his face meeting mine with a look that could literally melt lava. I'd be lying if I said I still don't get shivers up my spine whenever someone mentions the name "Bocachica" at a party.

The night was one of the best in my baseball-viewing life, but it came with a price...the Bocachica Price.

Got a favorite heckling story or memory?? Leave a note here, or shoot me the story via E-mail at


Aubrey said...

How about the always fun, and sure to draw attention, "hey (insert player name her), how's your wife and my kids?!" I remember somebody (I think Dizik) sayin that to Aramis Ramirez once at a Tigers/Pirates game. Ramirez def. heard cause he gave a glare like I've never seen before...

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