A couple weeks ago, I planned a weeknight getaway down to Anaheim to watch the Angels play against their closest rival for the division crown, the Oakland A’s. We took the Metrolink train down from Union Station and stayed at a hotel within walking distance of the ballpark (incidentally, being a pedestrian in Orange County is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. The hostility you feel from passing drivers is about what you’d expect were you to walk around town wearing a “Registered Sex Offender” t-shirt. I’m surprised they even bothered to put in sidewalks when they built the roads).
We were treated to a thoroughly entertaining game, which the home team won 5-3 after a 3-run rally in the bottom of the eighth, capped with a home run that flew over the right field wall and landed not more than a hundred feet away from our seats. The only detraction from the experience was the faithful A’s fan nearby who wasn’t the least bit shy about using his penetrating voice to hurl catcalls at the Angels venerable slugger Vladimir Guerrero. It’s bold to invade an opposing team’s stadium and throw insults at their star player, and I certainly wouldn’t do something like this at Dodger Stadium, but in Orange County, it’s pretty safe to say whatever you want. Out of a perpetual dread of civil litigation, you can rest assured that nobody’s going to do anything except maybe yell back at you. Honestly, the guy’s loudest challenger was actually a nine year old kid. Being an Orioles fan, I didn’t have a dog in the fight, so his heckling didn’t bother me except in the sense that it was completely lacking in originality.
Heckling is an art. And when it’s done well, it can bring about that which is every dedicated fan’s true dream — to affect the outcome of the game in his team’s favor.
In 2006, in a must-win game against USC, fans from UC-Berkeley managed to ensnare USC’s starting guard Gabe Pruitt in a devilishly clever hoax. They created a fictional UCLA student named “Victoria” who traded racy messages and photos with Pruitt and promised to meet the lusty player after the game. When Pruitt took to the court against the Golden Bears, the delighted Cal fans began chanting “Vic-to-ri-a” as well as Pruitt’s name and his cellphone number. Pruitt, visibly embarrassed, collapsed and shot just 3-of-13 from the field and committed six turnovers, helping drag USC down to a 71-60 loss. Does what the Cal fans did cross a line? It does, but only just barely, and only because Pruitt is a college athlete that’s not being paid to play. The ultimate goal of a heckler is to affect your opponent’s play, and it’s impossible to deny that the Cal fans managed to do exactly that; they got inside Pruitt’s head and broke his game into a million little pieces.
In a sport like baseball, concentration is everything. Consider how golfers are treated to utter silence while swinging, and then remember that the ball is sitting perfectly still when they’re hitting it. And they still manage to shank it a good percentage of the time! Think about how much tougher it gets, even to just make contact, when the ball is flying at you at ninety miles an hour. As a heckler, it is your sacred mission to do everything within reason to make ballplayers start thinking about something — anything — other than baseball. The instant you succeed, that ball becomes infinitely harder to hit. Lame, repetitive two-syllable chants like “Daryl … Daryl … ” are useless — they’re easier to tune out than the noise from a passing airliner. You need to make it personal, to penetrate their consciousness in such a way that takes their mind of the game of baseball for that split second that will cause them to swing late, lose track of a bouncing ball, or throw the ball just wide enough to draw the first baseman off the bag. Here are a few ways you can do this:
1. Do your homework. Preparation is vitally important for an athlete, and it’s also key for any dedicated heckler. You need to know where you’ll be sitting, and who the closest players will be. Every single thing you can learn about them can be used. Learn personal details about the players, like their hometown, college, and particularly the low points of their career. If their father was an athlete as well, use it. Tell them (as I often fantasize about having the opportunity to say to GWB, face to face), “You’ll never be as good as your father was.” (And yes, I’m still talking about baseball.)
2. Follow the money. Every ballplayer is acutely aware of his position within the financial hierarchy of both the team and the league. Players who are being paid a high salary need to be reminded that they don’t deserve it (last weekend we saw Andruw Jones, who is being paid $18 million by the Dodgers this season, strike out five times in a single game). Players who are being paid less need to be reminded that some of their teammates (who are not always better) are making more. Players that are making the league minimum should be the lowest-hanging fruit of all. And of course, it never hurts to remind any player that someone somewhere else in the league is making more money for playing the same position.
3. Pick your spots. The point of heckling is for the players to hear your individual voice and for your comments to ricochet around in their empty heads long enough to affect their play. If they can’t hear you, you can’t hurt them. Not many people shout for a living, so you can expect your voice to deteriorate throughout the course of the game. Don’t holler yourself hoarse by the end of the first inning; save your voice for when your team needs it most. And it’s vitally important to use the periodic silences in ballgames as best you can to make yourself heard. This isn’t just so that the player can hear you — it’s so the surrounding crowd can hear you as well.
4. Make them self-conscious. Remember how humiliated you were in the third grade when the new girl you’d been teasing for weeks paid you back by pouring a thermos full of apple juice over your head at lunch and everyone surrounded you, laughing and pointing? Remember how hot the back of your neck felt and how the blush that filled your cheeks redefined the color crimson? Yeah, well as an adult it sucks too. If you can find some way of putting a player down, however infantile, that gets this kind of a reaction from the crowd, it will put a dent in their concentration. Tell them that their glove/chain/bandana makes them look like a dork.
5. Sow discord. Having a heckler yell insults at you is one thing. Having an entire section of fans booing at you is worse. And having those same fans laughing at you is rougher still, but the ultimate in humiliation is when your own teammates are laughing at your failure. A few years ago a friend of mine, in the audience at a Clippers game, witnessed the newly acquired center for the Suns, the Australian-born Luc Longely commit two cheap fouls within the first few minutes of the game. As the coach pulled Longely from the game in disgust, my friend called down “Longely … it’s Australian for ‘suck!'” Imagine Longely’s humiliation when his own teammates were unable to contain their laughter at his abject failure.
6. Don’t Hassle the Man. One of my favorite anecdotes from Jim Bouton’s Ball Four was of a player who made the mistake of calling an umpire a “motherfucker,” which is the one thing you simply do not call them. “All right,” the umpire replied, “you’re gonna be sorry you said that.” And the player was. From that point on, he had to swing at every single pitch thrown his way, because they were all strikes. Pitchouts, balls that bounced in the dirt five feet in front of the plate, it really didn’t matter. They were all strikes. My point is, a crowd can’t work a baseball umpire the same way they can work a basketball referee. Leave them be. Yelling at them won’t help your team.
7. Keep it clean. Cursing detracts from the sparkle of your witticisms, and pisses off everyone who’s brought their family. And it adds nothing. Imagine the following tirade, unleashed in an unrelenting stream against a player who’s attempting to bat:
“You’re not a very good baseball player! Other players at your position are better than you! You have bony girl-arms! You have bad breath! Your teammates wish you would wear more deodorant! Your mom wonders why you don’t call! Your wife only married you for the money! Your ears stick out from your batting helmet and you look ridiculous! You’re an embarrassment to Canyon Springs! “
Take enough swings and soon enough you’ll get a hit. And if nothing else, you’ll start to annoy them, and once that has occurred, you’ve accomplished your mission.
8. Don’t throw things. Throwing things onto the field is only okay at football games, and only if it’s the playoffs, and only when the referee makes a criminally terrible no-call, and only if the thing you throw is an empty whiskey bottle (we’ll address that this fall). Enough said.
(To watch this video, right-click and hit “play”)
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