Educated Yelling: The Portrait of a Heckler

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 28, 2008)

Creative heckling is one of the more interesting features of a baseball game. Fans yell things at many sports events, but baseball’s timing and pace make it more congenial for heckling than do other team sports; so does the focus on the individual performance. Creative heckling—educated yelling—can be entertaining, even an art form.

True, some people find heckling obnoxious, and it often is. There are drunken fans, who tend not to be amusing and often just embarrass themselves. There are fans who get their kicks showering verbal abuse on the rich and famous from the relatively safe setting of the grandstand seats, as though belittling others were the path to taking pride in themselves. There are fans who have nothing interesting to say and fans who are inarticulate, unimaginative, and just plain wrong—I’m often ashamed by the “Yankees suck” chants of some of my fellow Red Sox fans. Other fans aren’t malicious but just enjoy being loud and attracting attention to themselves. A truly clever heckle, though, can cause even the most dour and disapproving of fans to crack a smile. And for people like Robert Szasz, heckling offers engagement and involvement in the game as well as interactions with players and other fans in a way that’s just plain fun.

As a fan in Boston, watching the 2003 Red Sox road telecasts from Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay, I kept hearing this one loud voice from the crowd every time Sox second baseman Todd Walker came up to bat. It took a few at-bats for me to realize there was a pattern here: Some motormouth was unloading nonstop every time Walker—and only Walker—came up to bat. I found myself looking forward to Walker’s next at-bat. I called my 12-year-old son Emmet in from the other room. He’s no baseball fan, but he. became highly amused at the patter, and it became a bit of a ritual: Next time the Sox were in Tampa Bay, when Todd Walker was due up, I’d call in Emmet to get ready for the heckler. He was hard to ignore. You could hear him loud and clear. After a couple of games, the Red Sox TV cameras focused in on him, and this anonymous front-row fan in a Devil Rays jersey became a minor celebrity during NESN broadcasts back to New England from Florida.

Come 2004, and the first telecast from Tampa on May 18, there he was again—the Tampa Bay Heckler—this time giving the bearded Sox center fielder Johnny Damon a hard time. I wanted to know more about this guy and, thinking there might be a story there, I telephoned the Devil Rays to learn more about the Tampa Bay Heckler. Needless to say, they knew right away who I meant, and they gave me Rob Szasz’s phone number.

Szasz is a land developer and builder in the Tampa–St. Petersburg area. He grew up in Toronto but came to the United States back in 1984. He’s been a baseball fan since 1977, when the Toronto Blue Jays came into major-league ball (and when hockey was indisputably the biggest show in town). The move to the Tampa area brought about a change in loyalties, and Rob now roots for the Lightning instead of the Maple Leafs, and for the Devil Rays instead of the Blue Jays.

He was one of the Devil Rays’ first season ticket holders, having seen a newspaper ad that ran in the mid to late 1980s when efforts to attract a major-league franchise to Florida got under way. Rob responded with a $100 deposit on two seats. He was one of the first thou- sand people to put some money down, and drew number 113 when a lottery was held among those charter applicants. He went down to the Trop and chose a couple of seats. A few seasons later, there was some mix-up and he complained to ownership; they sent him a letter saying he could sit wherever he wanted, and he took two seats in the front row, behind home plate, just to the visitor’s side of the tunnel that is directly behind the plate.

“All the tumblers fell into place, and so it worked out,” he says. He was drawn to the two franchises he saw from their birth—the Blue Jays and the Devil Rays—in part because of the underdog status they inevitably held as new teams in the majors. “Being now somewhat a Tampa Bay native and seeing what the Lightning have done and also what the Buccaneers have done, it makes me that much more of a fervent fan.”

Szasz has his priorities. “I hit about 80 percent of the games. I go to a lot of games. The only games I miss [are] generally when my kids have their own events—be it a soccer game or a Little League baseball game or something at the school. I’ve got three boys—5, 7, and 9. I always miss the games for the kids.”

How did he become a heckler? Was he always this way? “I’ve always been boisterous and supportive of our team. The Blue Jays, too. When I was a kid, I just remember people would stand up and just yell things out. To your own team, not to the other team. Things like, ‘Come on, you can do better than that. What kind of throw was that? You’re not supposed to throw that pitch when you’re behind in the count.’ Educated yelling. I do the same thing to these guys—the other team. ‘What’re you reaching for? You’re not going to hit the ball out there. It’s going to be coming inside on you!’ Of course, then they pitch outside and strike him out.

“I was always making a lot of noise. Fans are getting closer to the players than ever before. You’re really close to the players, so. they really pick up what you’re saying. And now with the cameras and the microphones everywhere, even the media pick you up a lot too. The proximity of where I sit, with the players right there, and the microphones there—people pick up on what I say. I think that’s what got me the attention.

“What got me really going on it was last year [2003], there was a series early in the year. Anaheim was in town. The first game of the series, Brad Fullmer was at third base and there was a very close play, and he was sliding into home plate to the catcher, Toby Hall. Somehow, as he was sliding home, he tried to slide around the tag and touch the plate, and he missed the plate. Toby reached over and touched him and the umpire called him out. He’s a big guy, and he just jumped up and he was screaming. He was just going out of his mind, crazy, yelling at the umpire. They threw him out of the game, and a couple of players had to come out and literally drag him off the field. So the very next game, he was back in the game again and I just thought I’d have a little bit of fun with him, and say, ‘Don’t touch that plate, Brad. It’s really hot’—in my really loud voice. I could see that he was hearing what I was saying, and everybody was kind of laughing about it. So I kept going off with a lot of little fun stuff like that. In between innings, I was sitting in my chair and my phone rings. I was there with my son and a couple of friends. My wife had called me on the phone from home and she said, ‘You know, you’re on TV. They have you on TV, yelling at Brad Fullmer and they think it’s funny. They’re really enjoying it.’ I said, ‘Really?’

“The next game I go to, people in the crowd are encouraging me, because it’s kind of funny. I said, sure, what the heck. You’re sitting here the whole time, listening to [other] people yell things. I’ve never lowered myself to the level of yelling nasty things or cursing. That’s not me. I don’t curse. I really try to keep it funny. I’ve often got the kids with me, too. I remember being a kid, yelling at the players. You yell at your own players to get their attention. I remember Dave Stieb, who was one of our pitchers for Toronto when I was little. A bunch of us would get together and go, ‘Hey, Dave!’ really loud. People would look over and we’d go, ‘You’re the greatest!’ Nobody ever said, ‘You suck! You stink!’ I never heard that before when I was a kid. To hear it today, well, it’s pretty childish when people just get drunk and yell stupid things like that. I don’t do that at all. I just thought, I’ll have a little bit more fun with it, and, from that time on, people come to the stadium actually looking for me to do this stuff. It’s hilarious.

“Last weekend, we had Fan Appreciation Day and I went down there early, because it’s for season ticket holders and I always get some autographs. One of our pitchers, Rob Bell, said to me, ‘Man, I loved your line on Ken Harvey, the 90210 line.’ They know all my lines. Ken Harvey, who plays for the Kansas City Royals, he went to Beverly Hills High School. So when he comes to bat, I always say to him, ‘How’s Mr. 90210, Hollywood Harvey, can you get me an autograph from Tori Spelling?’ All sorts of Beverly Hills jokes like that. It was really getting to him too. It was really funny. Strictly humor. All the players from the Devil Rays, they know all my lines for all the players. It’s pretty funny. They all listen to it all the time, and they get a big kick out of it.”

Does Rob ever heckle a Ray?

“No, never heckle a Devil Ray. It doesn’t matter how bad they are, what kind of mistake they make. I might say something under my breath, bite my lip, but I totally support the team 100 percent. I support the organization. Because they know what I’m about—the organization— they don’t ever tell me to stop what I’m doing. They never frown upon it, and they actually protect me.

“You might have heard the stories about when the Yankees were in town. It was last year and I was heckling Raul Mondesi. This was shortly before he did that walking-off-the-team routine and they booted him off the team. I did some research on him and I found that, for some reason, he used to have one of the worst averages in baseball with runners in scoring position. So I was all over him about that. He came to bat a few times with the bases loaded. Nothing. All the base hits he got were with nobody on base. It was pretty funny. It really came through, just like his numbers had shown. So I was heckling him, and during one of the games—I think it was the second game of the series—I was all over him, and it was in the third or fourth inning. I was there with my son and I see this guy come down the tunnel right next to where I sit. He’s standing there and he has a pager on his belt, and it has a Yankees logo on it. Within a minute after he shows up, the head of the Devil Rays security shows up—who I know because I always see him down there also—and a couple more security guards show up, and they’re there just sort of talking over by the side. They’re there for the majority of the game.

“Then when the seventh or eighth inning comes along, I have to get my son home for school the next day, so I get up and leave. As I walk up the tunnel from where our seats are, when you get to the top of the tunnel, off to one side is the Devil Rays locker room and on the other side is the visiting team’s locker room. When I get to the top of the tunnel, all of these security people just followed me up the tunnel. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. One group of Yankees security people walks off to one side and our guys disperse.

“As I finished walking up the tunnel, the head of our security comes up behind me and asked, ‘Do you know who that guy was?’ I said, ‘No, who was that?’ ‘That’s the head of Yankees security.’ I said, ‘No! You’re kidding!’ ‘Yeah, your heckling was getting back to New York and Brian Cashman got the word to send down the security guard to shut you up. When we heard about it, we came down here to say that no one’s going to come into our house to tell our fans what they can or can’t do.’ It was coming across on the YES Network really heavy back in New York, and they didn’t like it at all. I don’t know if it was Steinbrenner or what, but Cashman called down for the head of Yankees security to come down and shut me up.

“That was pretty big. It was on the Internet. It was in the paper when it happened. But the organization’s always been there to back me and . . . they treat me well. I get a lot of little perks around the stadium. They put me in a commercial for the Devil Rays during the off-season with Rocco Baldelli, our center fielder. A lot of little fun things. They like it. They know that I’m good for the team. They think I’m good for baseball. Doing my thing, the fans kind of rally around it. They get a little more into the game. They’re not doing great right now. The crowds aren’t the biggest, so I guess, if you have a few enthusiastic fans who give out a positive attitude, I guess they like that.

“I think it’s very poor taste to go to someone else’s park, just to be loud and make trouble there. People call me the tenth man on the field at the Trop. I just know that we have a winning record at home, and we have the most atrocious road record in baseball. If I do help at home, that’s great.”

Did Szasz ever have a player go after him?

“Not like what happened in Oakland. I’ve had a few players get pretty upset with me. Bret Boone. Where I sit, you look right into the visitor’s dugout. One series last year when Seattle came to town, one game he struck out twice, three times. His fourth time at bat, he actually made contact and hit the ball out to center field. Rocco Baldelli caught it and he was out. As he was running back into the dugout, I’m just harassing him all the way back into the dugout as I sometimes do, and I said, ‘Nice job, Bret. At least this time you made contact.’ I was just working him all the way back into the dugout. He gets to the dugout and he throws his helmet all the way across the dugout, towards the box that holds the helmets. He comes racing down towards the end of the dugout, which is close to me, and he’s just yelling all kinds of profanity at me and he throws me the double bird. So he was pretty upset about that. He wasn’t too happy.

“Terrence Long from Oakland, he came over and stood on the edge of the railing and he did the old slashing-the-throat routine. He tried to get the usher to throw me out, but the. usher was just laughing at him. He wasn’t too happy about it.

“That was last year. Most players this year know me and they all smile at me and laugh. None of them get that upset with me. This last weekend, Toronto was in town. Generally I go after Eric Hinske. He’s been one of my favorites the last couple of years. They gave him a day off and I was trying to figure out who I would play with a little bit.

“I don’t get personal, I don’t get nasty. I’ve had so many players come up to me Somebody from one of the local news channels supplied me an NESN tape from when Boston was in town last time and I was wearing the Johnny Damon disciple beard. They supplied me a tape of Remy and the boys having a good time with it. There was one play when I was doing the thing with Johnny and he struck out, and he’s looking back at me with a big smile on his face just laughing. That’s good. He struck out, but he’s a professional. He knows what I’m about. He knows it’s part of the game. He’s just laughing. It’s not the end of the world.”

What about Todd Walker?

“Todd Walker was a great sport. He came into town, it was shortly after that series with the Marlins. I got onto him because he tagged up and tried to score when you guys [Red Sox] were winning like 20–1. It was a bizarre score. A total blowout. It was a pretty big deal at the time. I called him the ‘Tag ’em Up Kid.’ It was funny. He came into town and he was batting very well, like .320 or something, so I was heckling him and I don’t think he got a hit the entire series. I was going ‘0 for 1, 0 for 2,’and so forth. By the time he left town, it was like 0 for 15 or 0 for 16. At the very end of the season, when he came back, he’d been hitting home runs a lot. I used one line on him, and he actually had to back out of the box— I got a laugh out of him—I went, ‘You got Batman, you got Rod-man, now we got Todd Walker Superman, hitting home runs like he never did before!’ He backed out of the box and started laughing. He had to compose himself. One of his last at-bats—he was on deck— I called over and said, ‘Hey, Todd, you’ve been a great sport this year. Good luck in the postseason.’ He turned to me and tipped his cap and said thank you and then went back to doing his business. He was a very good guy. “I appreciate a player who understands what I’m doing.

It’s funny. Usually the second or third time around, it’s hard to heckle the same guy, because he’s expecting it. By that time, he’s already through it. The shock value is the best. When you can get someone when they’re not expecting it, then they have a hard time dealing with it. I think Todd, the first time, when I had the countdown, he didn’t know what was going on. When he came back and I was calling him Superman, I think he put one in the seats. He was with it. “I wouldn’t even try to touch Johnny [Damon] this time. I think he’d be so ready for it, it wouldn’t be worth it to try to go after him. Mark Bellhorn, I’m not going to touch him. I touched him the beginning of the season and it was. just so boring. You’re yelling at the guy and he doesn’t even move. He didn’t even acknowledge me. Just stands there with a baton his shoulders. He just stands there and dares you to pitch to him.

“My power was out yesterday, and I was going to do my research last night, but I think I’m going to go after Cabrera, the shortstop from Montreal. Maybe I can use my French Canadian jokes on him. ‘What do you miss most from Montreal? The French fries, the French toast, French women, oo la la!’

“There are certain people you can’t touch. I wouldn’t touch Manny [Ramirez]. He’s untouchable. He’s just a machine, a wrecking machine. I won’t even attempt it. A guy like him, he’s just untouchable. I heckled Barry Bonds when he was in town, during interleague. He didn’t do anything. He didn’t get anything when he was here. The first game, I think he got two walks but no hits. The second game, I think he got two strikeouts. I enjoyed that one. That was a little bit of fun going on with him. He gave me a smile.

“I don’t mind the challenge. I’ll go after the best of them if I can. Sosa would be fun. I want to see Pujols. I think I can get to him. It would be a challenge, but I think I could get to him. Definitely Sosa, I’d like to get onto Sosa. No question about it.

“Who won’t I heckle? If I have a lot of respect for a player, like I think he’s a really, really good guy, or he’s a local person from the Tampa Bay area who does a lot of charity work, sometimes I’ll have a little fun with them while they’re on deck, but I won’t actually heckle them in the batter’s box. There’s nobody I don’t heckle. Well, let’s put it this way. I won’t touch somebody who’s really controversial. Somebody who has a lot of controversy around them and there’s a lot of material there, I won’t touch it. Like with Giambi, before they found out about he had all the problems with the tumor that he had, they always talked about all the steroid stuff. This group was sitting at this game, yelling ‘Steroid’ and things at him. That’s something I wouldn’t touch. It’s not funny. It’s not humorous. It may be true or it may not be true. Who knows? But it’s the kind of thing that I consider to be taboo and I won’t address. I’ll stay away from something like that.

“Anaheim was in town late last year, and I was on Troy Glaus. He came out of the game and Shawn Wooten came in to replace him, so I was saying, ‘Taking Troy Glaus’s place’ and all this stuff like that. Afterward, there was an article about me in the [St.Petersburg] Times, and this reporter went in the locker room and asked if anybody heard me. Shawn Wooten said, Oh yeah—he heard everything I said. The reporter told me this afterward. I don’t know if you are familiar with Shawn. He’s a very short, stout player. Very, very short and stout. He said most people harass him because of his height and his weight. When I was harassing him, I never brought up anything about his height or his weight or his stature.

Because I never touched that, he said, he paid attention to what I was saying and he heard everything that I said. He said he heard everything; he thought it was pretty funny. They hear it. The players all hear it.

“With Toronto, I always have a good time with Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells. Two really good-quality players. Whenever they come up . . . usually a player I like, I’ll talk with them while they’re on deck. I’ll say, ‘Hey, Carlos, how’s it going?’ He waves at me. Same thing with Vernon Wells. I generally wouldn’t heckle them if I just had a little fun with them while they’re on deck.

“This weekend, I was on this guy Guillermo Quiroz, some kind of Triple A catcher from Syracuse, for Toronto. I was having a little bit of fun with him, and he turned to me and says, ‘Kiss my a-s-s!’ I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ That hasn’t happened since Bret Boone last year, that someone would cuss at me. So Vernon Wells came on deck. I was yelling at him, ‘Hey Vernon’ and he looks at me and goes, ‘Yeah, what do you want?’ I said, ‘You got to tell your boy Guillermo to watch his language out here. He’s yelling and cussing out here. Doesn’t he know this is a family sport? You’ve got to tell him to watch his language.’ He says to me, ‘You tell him! I think he can hear everything you say.’ He starts laughing and goes back to swinging his bat.

“This guy Quiroz, I wasn’t even heckling him in the batter’s box. Just a little bit on deck, and he swears at me. Everybody starts laughing, and says, ‘Oh my God, are you going to let him get away with that?’ I said, ‘No way!’ So I was all over him every time he went to bat. I don’t think he’d ever heard of me—he’d just come up from Syracuse—so I gave him a bit of a welcome.

“I don’t think anybody truly hates me, but I have heard [that] people who come down and ask for tickets ask not to sit close to me. They don’t want to get the headaches and stuff. One of my boys—the middle one— gets kind of embarrassed by it, but the other two love it. The youngest one loves it the most. The older one, he just sits there and laughs about it and tries to feed me lines all the time. Little-kid lines.”

So does Szasz do research beforehand, for better-in- formed heckling?

“Absolutely. You have to know everything about these guys. You have to find the one button to tweak to get their attention. Without pissing them off, obviously, but you want to get their attention.

“A lot of people ask if I script my stuff before I get there. I never script it. It just comes to me as I’m sitting there. I’ll play off how they react and what they’re doing at the time. It’s impossible to script heckling. It’s really difficult to do.

“I get a lot of messages through the fan forum from other cities, that there are a lot of other people who try to do what I do. I got a message from someone in Oakland asking me if I’m going to come out and watch the Rays play out in Oakland, because they have their own heckler that they want me to see. I get that from people all over the place—Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Francisco. Everybody has their own hecklers that they want me to see.

“I don’t want people to think I’m doing this for attention, or doing it for this or for that. I didn’t go there looking to heckle. I go there looking to watch a baseball game. I’m there as a fan. I am a fan. I understand the game. I research my stuff, what I do. It’s part of the game.”

BILL NOWLIN is vice president of SABR and author of twenty books on the Red Sox. He wants to thank Gene Sunnen for providing some inspiration to take the study of heckling seriously.


Ten Commandments of Heckling

I. Thou shalt not use profanity.
Remember this one thing: baseball is still a family sport. Father and son, mom and dad, the whole family. Nobody wants to hear you spouting off a bunch of @#$&%!

II. Thou shalt not insult the mother.
This should be obvious. What good would come from saying something about someone else’s mother? Is that what we want? I don’t think so. Leave Mom out of it. We don’t need any of this garbage at our games. We want people to appreciate what we do, not resent us for it.

III. Thou shalt be intelligent.
Do I really need to explain this? Know what you are talking about. Remember, credibility lends respect to your task.

IV. Thou shalt love baseball.
Is there any doubt about this? Who in this great country would disparage America’s pastime? If you don’t love baseball, what are you doing here?

V. Thou shalt be aware of the people around you.
This is a really touchy one. Even though some of the funniest stuff you have may be about overweight guys or bald guys, the person next to you may not think it’s terribly funny.

VI. Thou shalt be witty.
Only one rule to remember here: if you are the only one laughing, it wasn’t funny.

VII. Thou shalt not overkill.
Listen, if somebody does something funny in the first inning, you should not keep ragging on it in the fifth. The more you say something, the less effective it becomes. You must be aware that the same stuff gets really old after a couple of games—especially in a series against the same team. Unless something is really working on one or two guys, put it away for a couple or three games.

VIII. Thou shalt be friendly.
The best way to make these guys listen to you and divert their attention from the task at hand is to be just as nice as you can be. When you look into the dugout, wave and say, “Hi guys!”

IX. Thou shalt not cross the line.
That line is the line of brutality. Look, the players know that heckling is part of the game. Don’t make it personal between you and the players. Remember, they have bats, you don’t.

X. Thou shalt remember the children.
No matter what you want to believe about role models, the children are watching and listening. They hear what you say and see what you do. Be aware of that when you sit in the stands. If you don’t know whether you fit the bill, just ask yourself, would you want your best friend’s kid sister or brother to sit next to you at the next ball game? Well, would you?

SOURCE: Chris Snead, The Bleacher Bible (Lubbock, Texas: Cotten, 1997)