September, 2008. I’m up with the Padres, in the bullpen, playing the Dodgers at Dodgers Stadium. The relief core and I are pinned down in the small bunker-like section of the visitor’s pen, like marshals behind a boulder in Box Canyon surrounded by the rifles of bandits.
It’s a Thirsty Thursday—a common tradition to start the weekend a day early by drinking booze—and the place is packed. Five decks of agitated blue and white, all out to support a Dodgers club making a run for the postseason and very few staying sober while doing it. Fights have broken out on the second and third deck, down the right-field line. Teams of cops are pushing through the throbbing mobs while ushers beg everyone to sit and watch for projectiles hot off the field.
An officer grabs a brawler, spins him and slams him into a seatback. As the cuffs come out, beer streams down on the pair from the deck above, then the empty cup that poured it, then wads of trash and more beer. A radio call from the shoulder of the cop sends another law enforcement team down into the crowd on the deck above. I supposed a five-layer stadium is novel to everyone except the police.
"This place can get pretty crazy on a Thursday," says a fellow reliever, feet up in the bullpen, adding that the police were "going to earn [their] money tonight."
“There aren’t going to be any fans left by the time this game is over,” says another reliever, noting that tossing beer and trash has become contagious down the left-field line.
The door to the bullpen restroom kicks open, and another fellow mop-up arm comes ambling out, waving his hand to clear up any traces of smoke that may remain after his mid-game nicotine fix. As the steel door clicks shut behind him, a four-drink carrier comes pinwheeling down from above, missing its mark but heralding a hail of empty bags and wrappers.
The bathroom reliever sidesteps the hail, backs up far enough to look up to the stands above without breaking his neck and shouts, “Hey, show some class!”
“Why? You play for the Padres!” comes the slam. High-fives are passed around as approbation. Then another fan shouts, “Hey, hey, I got your Dodger Dog right here!” with a two-handed chop to his pelvis.
“Really?” says our freshly smoked reliever with an upturned eyebrow. “A foot long, and you’re still rolling with that chick?” he asks, gesturing to the woman next to the heckler.
Anarchy ensues. Swearing. Trash. Threats in multiple languages. The reliever sidesteps it all and follows up with, “You guys suck at throwing. You sure you’re baseball fans?”
“You suck at life!” comes the response. “At least we don’t play for the worst team in the league.”
“Oh, okay, yeah, so what big league team do you play for, again?”
“You suck, bro.”
“No,” says the reliever, “what sucks is paying to see a team in the playoff hunt, then getting thrown out of the game in the fifth inning for being a jackass.” Just then, a stadium usher accompanied by a cop show up behind the group of rowdy fans and demand they leave. “Thanks for coming out tonight folks,” says the reliever, mock saluting them, “and go Dodgers!”
Turn pro and you will get heckled. It’s a fact of life in baseball. Heck, some fans show up just to do it.
Before I go any further on the subject, we need to make two things clear. First, if you’re a pro player, heckling should never bother you, at least not outwardly. You’re going to get made fun of, ripped on, insulted, slurred and otherwise mocked—you knew that coming in. If you can’t take it, you’re in the wrong profession.
Unfortunately, in today’s sports landscape, it’s not going to stop once you leave the field. Your detractors will find you in your social media feed, your website, your email, your home address…some folks will go out of their way to tear you down. Don’t let it get to you. Instead, remember that to deliver these insults, the person making them has to dedicate a portion of their day to attempting to ruin yours. You’re in control, so don’t lose it.
Second, there is rarely ever a time when you can’t “eject” from the encounter by either tuning out, heading back into the dugout, ignoring your Twitter feed or calling down an usher (or police officer if you’re at Dodger Stadium on a Thursday) and having the fan removed or warned.
Of course, you’ll need a reason. Block a guy for mocking you, and it screams “thin skin.” Have a fan who’s screaming “you suck” thrown out, and you look overly sensitive or—if you actually do suck—dishonest.
The problem with going straight to an ejection is that it spawns other hecklers. People think it’s unfair that you can have them removed from a game. If you block them on Twitter, they’ll tweet all their friends, and soon you’re blocking an entire posse of angry digi-trolls and having a whole section thrown out.
Here are a few words to remember when it comes to handling hecklers: Befriend, Ignore, Entertain, Eject, or BIEE, for short.
Befriending is a great solution to getting heckled because it can take a person already overly concerned with what you’re up to and turn them from a potential enemy into a friend.
In Lake Elsinore, California, the High-A affiliate of the Padres, our team sat directly below the beer garden. Booze makes every fan a little more courageous when it comes to mocking the players. It’s also one of the ways men bond, over a beer. When a group of college-aged kids started in on the Lake Elsinore pen, one of our guys stood and walked over to the beer garden and asked, honestly, what the heckler was drinking.
“Bud, bro. You want one?”
“Yeah, if you’re buying.”
Not many fans are prepared to hear a player request a beer while he's on the field, but in the bullpen, you can get away with stuff like this.
“Yeah bro, I’m buying if you’re drinking.”
“I’m 25 and still in High-A, I’m definitely drinking.”
And drink he did, after toasting all his new fans of course. Afterward, when the rest of the pen asked him what he was thinking drinking a beer during a game, he shrugged and told us, “the beer is so watered down here, I can’t feel it anyway.”
The key to befriending a fan is meeting him where he's at in a scenario that you can control. You don’t always have to drink with him, but talking about a common interest or simply taking interest in him—Where’d you get that shirt? Nice watch. How many games do you make it out too?—can go a long way toward humanizing you in his eyes and thus make you harder to insult wantonly.
Have you ever heckled professional athletes?
That said, trying to befriend a group of fans can easily backfire. They want your attention, and when you give it, there is the potential it will just summon more attention-seekers—especially if you pick a fight.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, home of the Triple-A affiliate of the Angels, the bullpens are down the foul lines, nothing more than plastic chairs lined up against the wall of the stadium’s seats. Essentially, fans can at any time reach over the wall and muss your hair or steal your hat or cover you with stadium french fries. They’re on top of you.
Because of the close proximity, talking smack is easy for them, and, in 2008, when the call came for one of our more easily angered pitchers to get loose, he took the mound to a rather cliched heckling from a bevy of human slide whistles.
Every time he threw a pitch, it was accompanied by the “whooooOOOOOP!” and every time the ball came back, it got a “WHOOOOOoooooop...” Our starter kept getting into trouble, then getting out of it, then getting into it again. It stranded our reliever on the bullpen mound, all his movements accompanied by cartoon sound effects.
“Ya’ll are a bunch of juvenile pricks,” said our reliever into the mob, who in return started making crying baby noises.
“Ya’ll think you’re f--king funny, huh? We’ll see how funny you are out in the parking lot after the game.”
“That’s awful!” cried an outraged mother—and there will always be an outraged mother. “There are children here; watch your language.”
“You’re a role model. You should know better than to act like that.”
“You don’t deserve to be a professional athlete with that type of attitude!”
Soon, it was our reliever versus the entire stadium section, with all of us relievers getting harangued by association. It didn’t help that it was a Sunday day game when most of the crowd members were churchgoers coming fresh from services.
“Oh, I’m the bad guy ‘cause I’m calling out all these losers?”
Yes, that's how it goes. Even if you aren’t the one being immature in starting it, if you let the immaturity coax you into flagrant anger—you, the guy in the gilded jersey of role modelhood, lose. If you know you’re prone to overreacting, Ignore. Always Ignore.
If, however, you’re the type of person who can handle a little ribbing, there is no law that says you can’t have fun with it. Make fun of yourself.
Later on in that same game, when another reliever got up to go in, the slide-whistle chorus started up again, fishing for another frustrated reliever to mock. This time, however, instead of delivering pitches in the rhythmic motion the previous pitcher did, there were stops and starts and fake pitches and faux movements that turned the slide-whistlers into a human beat box. With every one of your movements mapped to sound FXs, why not take a minute or two to entertain? After the call for this reliever came from the field, he took the ball and flipped it into the stands, and his orchestra wished him luck for it.
Unfortunately, there will be moments when you can’t win. When you don’t or can’t befriend a heckler, entertain them or ignore them on account of them saying things so perverse it’s essentially your duty to have them removed from the game.
In Dodger Stadium, things were already out of control. Fans should never be allowed to throw things at players and stay in the stadium; it’s classless and sets a bad precedent. Hell, you’d get called a bad role model if you didn’t have an issue with it.
If ushers don’t notice because they’re too busy noticing it elsewhere, alert them and then get your licks in. You’ve already got the high ground (even if they’re decks above you). So as long as you don’t lose your mind, you can drop your best comebacks on them. Hopefully they’ll have lost their mind by the time the stadium officials show up, effectively catching them red-handed. All you have to do then is salute while they get hauled out of the place.
While the BIEE method works well for 99 percent of the encounters you’ll have, on occasion there will be a scenario you have no idea how to deal with. For example, before I was called up in 2008 with the Padres, I sat in the pen back home in Portland with the boys in a Sunday game. A family ambled up to the edge of the stadium seats and the bullpen and called down to one of our late-inning relievers. They recognized each other instantly.
“Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, how are you? What brings you guys so far away from home?”
“We’re great. We’re just out here in Portland visiting some relatives and thought we’d come surprise you and say congratulations.”
“Oh, uh, well, it’s great to see you, but,” he turned his back to us, confused, “what are the congratulations for?”
“Susan’s pregnant! You’re going to be a dad!”
Turns out Susan was a girl this reliever had met during the offseason. They dated casually but he’d moved, citing her clinginess as a reason. He was now with another girl and getting ready to propose. All of this backstory underscored the color draining from our alleged new dad’s face as he subsequently collapsed into his chair.
If the point of heckling is to distract a player, well, that might have been the most effective form of the craft I’d ever seen.