By Bob Socci
During a recent reunion with a lifelong friend, conversation – as it inevitably does whenever we get together – turned to baseball.
Between us, we’ve invested more than 30 years of our professional lives in the game. Mine mostly in broadcasting; his primarily in scouting.
Granted, we occupy different seats in the ballpark and employ our powers of observation for different purposes. One of us notes for the record if a pitcher throws a ball or strike. The other evaluates if that pitcher does it with the stuff of a major leaguer.
Even so, our eyes are fixed on the same spot. And though what we’re looking for may differ, our jobs require the same thing. Essentially, we’re both people watchers.
We’re also storytellers. We better be.
An announcer has to hold a listener’s attention when a game becomes relatively inactive. The scout must stay sane through all those nights on the road chasing prospects and finding mainly suspects.
So a broadcaster relays anecdotes and a scout spins yarns. Sit them at the same table and serve each a drink – meaning they’re off-air and off the record – and the stories flow long after the glasses run dry.
In our case, there’s little point to talking baseball if there are no punch lines. Oh sure, we’ll find room for healthy debate and take time to discuss the baseball business. But overall, we’d much rather recount the unforgettable characters of the game that we’ve both come across.
Without exaggeration, there are enough to keep us laughing the rest of our lifetimes. Most are in uniform; many populate the stands. On this particular night, we focused on the latter, recalling some of the most fanatical stadium fixtures we’ve seen and heard in our recent travels.
It must be said, emphatically, that both of us totally appreciate and are indebted to the fans. We’re paid to do what we do because of what they do: from buying tickets to tuning in their team.
Chilly April weeknights, or humid August afternoons, it doesn’t matter. They take their seats, proudly wearing their allegiances on caps, jerseys and jackets. Whatever the outcome, they’re back the next day. They form both the backbone of the game and give it a heart in communities across the country.
They always have.
Baseball fandom has produced some of the most memorable figures in the sport’s history. Nowhere, it seems, were the colorful more bountiful than in Brooklyn, before the Dodgers went West and Ebbets Field crumbled beneath a wrecking ball.
Their beloved ‘Boys of Summer’ featured Pee Wee, Duke and Campy; Jackie, Preacher and Skoonj. They included the likes of Letty Allen, who legendarily never missed a home game for a half century, and Hilda Chester, who devotedly rang her brass cowbell from the bleachers as if signaling a religious rite.
A handful formed the Sym-Phony Band, the famous Ebbets Field troupe. Some, like Henry Fleischman, created a single-handed cacophony. In The Last Good Season, author Michael Shapiro wrote of Fleischman, a father of three:
“He beat a steady tattoo on the drainpipe that blocked his view of home. He used a rolled up newspaper, as was traditional for the people who believed that by beating this drainpipe for the entire game they could summon the spirits who would make the Dodgers win.”
Years later, a long-haired, shaggy-bearded cabdriver was lifting spirits – reportedly the ‘King of Beers’ – and leading cheers in uptown Baltimore. Wearing cut-off jean shorts, a t-shirt and straw cowboy hat, “Wild Bill” Hagy first roared from Section 34 of Memorial Stadium. In time, he was rallying the faithful from atop the home dugout and contorting his body to spell out O-R-I-O-L-E-S.
Today, who-knows-how-many other originals like Hilda and Wild Bill root, root, root for their home team; wherever it happens to play. In my own hometown of Auburn, N.Y., several years ago the local NY-Penn League club, the Doubledays, gave away bobblehead dolls.
Not of a player, but of a fan. The D-Days honored “Dancing Bill” Jayne, a local known for high-stepping routines to songs like Thank God I’m a Country Boy.
In fact, it wasn’t too far from Dancing Bill’s stage where my friend and I sat, swapping stories about this fan or the other. He had recently scouted the Minnesota Twins Triple-A affiliate while covering a series at one of my favorite ballparks, Rochester’s Frontier Field.
It’s where Fred Costello tickles the organ, just as he did at old Silver Stadium as long ago as 1977, yet also where you can buy a cup of Starbucks to go with your crepes. Yes, crepes. And where, as told by my buddy, one voice was heard above all others about four times a game, four or five days in a row.
“Taco…taco…taco!” someone yelled. “TACO…TACO…TACO!!!”
Supposedly, the chant continued, over and over and over again, coinciding each night with every at-bat by a specific player on the visiting team. That batter was designated before the game as the K-Man. If he struck out, then ‘lucky’ fans won tacos from a national chain.
Hearing it told, there was great intensity in the fan’s voice and unwavering concentration on his face. He was totally enraptured with the possibility of one man’s failure filling the cravings of others. Another’s empty plate appearance might put a taco on his plate.
I smiled as the scene in Rochester was being re-created, while thinking of my own experiences overlooking Frontier Field when the introduction of the K-Man elicited similarly passionate pleas. In those moments, defined by tacos and tortillas, The Flower City once again becomes The Flour City.
Similarly in neighboring Syracuse, tacos are in fare play. Meanwhile, for International League foe Toledo, ice cream instead hangs in the balance when the K-Man comes up.
Admittedly, the promotion mostly amuses me. But there’s also a rub. And by that, I don’t mean what seasons the meat. Confessing that I’ve observed this phenomenon only from the visiting booth, and thus might be extra sensitive, I’m bothered by one thing: it entices fans to root against rather than for someone.
So, if I could consult with clubs around the minor-league map, I’d ask: How about turning it around and promoting more positively? Instead of wishing for an opponent to be a goat, why not implore a home teamer to be a hero? As an organized pursuit sold to sponsor, wouldn’t that be a nobler endeavor?
Borrowing from another sport, there are basketball teams who also give tacos away. They do it when the home team scores so many points, usually a hundred. Not when the visitor fails to reach fifty.
That doesn’t, in any as-long-as-it’s-not-obscene way, mean that paying customers aren’t entitled to express disfavor for the opposition. If Philadelphians, for example, feel they know enough to boo J.D. Drew after all these years, power to those people. Or if A-Rod remains persona non grata in Boston, far be it from anyone else to stop the Fenway faithful from telling him like it is.
At Wrigley, it’s perfectly understandable for Cubs fans to return the ball to the playing field after a visitor’s deep fly clears the ivy. And it’s understood that the Phillie Phanatic’s tongue is firmly in his beak when he’s putting the whammy on an opposing pitcher.
All I’m asking for is a small change; switching from the top to the bottom half-inning and officially trying to facilitate the ‘pro’ as opposed to the ‘anti.’ Let’s root, root, root for the home team. If for no other reason, it might create good karma.
I’m quite certain that’s exactly what took place last month in yet another sport.
The Vancouver Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals with the NHL’s best regular-season record and seeking their first-ever title. Leading their quest was a volatile goalie and two sets of twins – one pair known as the Sedins and the other as the Green Men.
Henrik and Daniel are generally high-scoring forwards from Sweden. Force and Sully are two Vancouverites concealed inside fully-body, neon-green suits. For much of the year, until the league judged that enough was enough, they were given free reign inside Rogers Arena to taunt opposing players confined in the penalty box.
Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins got to the Finals only after out-grinding and out-gritting Montreal and Tampa Bay in two seven-game series. As one of the NHL’s Original Six, they summoned legends like Rene Rancourt (their 30-year anthem man) and banner-carrying Bobby Orr (enough said) to pump up the TD Garden. Even when the B’s fans gave the Canucks’ a hard time, you could argue they were providing a service; like reminding the troubled netminder of his last name, “Luongo, Luongo!”
In Game 6 the Garden shook from the thunderous spontaneity of 17,565. In Game 7 the Green Men sat inside Rogers, silenced in their spandex. Boston avoided a 40-year championship drought. For Vancouver, it’s now 40 years and counting.
If that’s a stretch, it’s only as far as cotton, not polyester. But if what goes around comes around – whether it’s a taco, an ice cream or a championship trophy – then teams should turn it around.
Become actively pro and they just might uncover the next lovable Wild Bill. Stick with the con and they soon could be opening their gates to hecklers clad in Lycra.
That’s something none of us cares to relive.
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Bob has called Norfolk Tides games since 2006, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit http://www.bobsocci.com.