Are Rally Towels Awesome or Terrible for the MLB Playoff Experience?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 10, 2012

Detroit fans had the rally towels out in full force over the weekend.
Detroit fans had the rally towels out in full force over the weekend.Jason Miller/Getty Images

Postseason baseball is a tremendous thing, especially when seen in person. Being at the ballpark for a playoff game is basically an out-of-body experience.

The good kind, mind you. Not the 2001: A Space Odyssey what-the-heck-is-going-on kind.

There is, however, a downside to postseason baseball. The playoffs are when MLB teams turn the gimmicks up to 11.

People aren't allowed to come to the park for just the baseball when the playoffs roll around; fans have to come for the sideshows too, and there always must be some sort of thing that ties all the fans together to make a pretty picture for the television cameras.

These days, the thing that teams resort to more often than any other is the rally towel. It's basically a prerequisite for teams to issue rally towels to the home fans before every postseason home game, and every fan who gets one has no choice but to wave it above his/her head when the urge strikes.

And when they're told, of course.

Case in point, you know how the first television shot of a postseason game always gives a panorama of a stadium full of screaming fans? And you know how these fans are typically waving rally towels?

That's not an accident. Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, who is busy covering Game 3 of the NLDS between the Cardinals and Nationals at Nationals Park on Wednesday, can vouch:

Pitch-perfect pregame ... until the PA tells the crowd to waves the towels for the MLB Network broadcast. Ugh.

— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) October 10, 2012

"Ugh" is right. I had the same reaction when the PA told the crowd to do the exact same thing in Oakland on Tuesday night. 

Excitement is fine. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I'm by no means an anti-excitement grouch. Especially not when it comes to playoff baseball. Playoff baseball without a few thousand adrenaline-loaded fans would be like a joust without lords and ladies. 

But we're not talking about excitement when it comes to rally towels and their place in playoff baseball games. We're talking about manufactured excitement.

That's different, and it's something that's totally not cool.

I'll grant that we're not talking about anything sacred. As far as baseball discussions go, an argument over whether rally towels are good or bad isn't quite as profound as whether the DH is good or bad or whether PEDs really make that much of a difference. I have no doubt that many of you are looking at your computer screens and saying, "Dude, who cares?"

I'll also grant that rally towels are, at the very least, a practical means for clubs to give their fans something to honor the playoffs. Fans aren't going to have any use for the towels outside of the ballpark, but at least they'll have a nice little keepsake to take home with them. 

However, the fact that rally towels don't do any harm is really the only argument that can be made in favor of them. You can't say "They're great." You can only say "They don't suck."

On the flip-side, I can argue quite vociferously that rally towels do suck, and that any baseball fan who waves one with glee in the middle of a postseason game is making a mockery of him or herself.

I'm admittedly very biased, but I've always had baseball fans pegged as being a little more genuine than fans of other sports. Baseball fans go to games not because the games give them a chance to tailgate, drink, scream and generally cut loose in ways that otherwise normal people prefer to cut loose, but because they actually love the game itself.

Granted, things are different now, as seemingly every new ballpark features a steakhouse, a nightclub or a big slide shaped like a Coke bottle to make sure fans are thoroughly entertained. Baseball fans are surrounded by more nonsense than ever before.

But this nonsense isn't what draws them. Just ask the Miami Marlins, whose spectacular new ballpark failed to meet attendance expectations the club had set for itself. Their situation goes to show that baseball fans really only need good baseball to be happy. Everything else is just fluff.

And herein lies my problem with rally towels. For the uninitiated watching at home, seeing all those people on TV waving all those towels could lead to some sort of conclusion that rally towels are simply part of the experience of being a baseball fan. Baseball fans must wave towels like matadors wave red sheets. Such is life according to what's on the television.

Though they're definitely widespread, rally towels are most certainly not a regular custom for baseball fans. They pop up here and there during the regular season, but for the most part they're restricted to the postseason. The plague of rally towels in Major League Baseball tends to coincide with the arrival of the month of October. 

What's worse is that somebody could sit at home and conclude that rally towels have roots in baseball. In reality, they don't.

No, rally towels are a football tradition. 

The outbreak of the rally towel virus can be traced back to the invention of the "Terrible Towel" in Pittsburgh in 1975. Local radio personality Myron Cope came up with the idea that all fans in attendance at Three Rivers Stadium for the Steelers' divisional championship game against the Baltimore Colts should wave yellow towels, and it struck a chord.

Next thing anyone knew, the rally towel spread from Pittsburgh to all corners of the union and to all sports, baseball included.

That the rally towel is essentially a ripoff of an old NFL tradition is something that shouldn't sit well with baseball fans. The NFL and football in general are, after all, always thumbing their noses at baseball. The fact that so many baseball fans are waving rally towels every October must please the football gods, who surely see it as a sign of football's mastery over the sports domain in this country.

Baseball has had plenty of its own gimmicks over the years, including plenty of bad ones. I still think the Angels owe the baseball world and the rest of the sports world an apology for popularizing thundersticks back in 2002. I also think baseball is largely to blame for the planet's overabundance of bobblehead dolls.

But the rally towel is different. It's a gimmick that MLB borrowed from its chief rival, and the only reason they've caught on as much as they have is because they're easy and cheap to produce and they look good on TV.

Rally towels are thus the absolute lowest form of gimmick. They are the very definition of the word "lame."

Baseball can do better.

In fact, here's an idea:

Why not just let people use their hands? I hear-tell they make a pretty cool clapping sound when forced together in an aggressive manner.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted.


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