Friday, January 21, 2011

MiLB LIFE: Dealing with Heckling Fans

I love a rowdy crowd. Nothing takes my game to the next level like an onslaught of Boo's and insults. The fans are simply showing that they care, marking their territory, and trying to give their team the edge- all while having a good time and sharing some laughs. I can appreciate that. It's more fun for the players if it's fun for the fans.

But sometimes standing in that outfield grass it can feel like you're on an island with those fans- hundreds of fans just dying to see you fail, and doing their best to have a part in it. They're relentless, and it appears as though they're gonna bring it for a full nine innings. So what do you do?

As the title of the new Adam Sandler movie suggests, Just Go With It. Acknowledge their presence. React to their comments. You're both going to be there for three hours, you might as well have some fun together.

I get a kick out of these guys who are so serious- straight-faced the whole time, basically pretending the crowd doesn't exist and he doesn't hear their voices. It's ridiculous. I've found that the harder you try to ignore a heckler, the more he gets under your skin. The anger builds up inside you, and that's when you see players start yelling back at fans and challenging them to fist fights. The second that happens, the fan wins. You're distracted, you're thrown off your game, and the idiot in your ear is now your main focus- the baseball game has taken a back seat.

Loosen up- it'll make for a much more enjoyable experience for everyone involved. I'm not saying you have to play to the crowd, but appreciate the fact that their out there watching some baseball. They're looking to have some fun- give it to 'em.

Personally, my body language is what I use to communicate with a heckling crowd. Whether they're in the stands behind me, or to my left or right, they can all see my bodily reactions. I rarely look at them, and I never say anything- but still, we communicate.

Playing center field one game, a group in the right field grandstand was all over me. They were brutal, but I noticed they kept calling me '16.' I was wearing number 18 at the time so the next time they said 16 I put my hand up to stop them, and turned my back to them so they could see my full number and correct themselves. "Ohhh, 18!" They loved it. It's that interaction they're looking for.

If they ask a mock question, I'll jokingly nod or shake my head. If they mention one of my outfield partners, I'll look out at them at their position and give a fitting facial opinion. I'll give a thumbs up or a laugh when they make a witty comment, and I'll make a face or a hand gesture when they've crossed the line. My favorite is when they've been pretty entertaining all game and then they mix in a weak joke- that's when I make a 'shaky' gesture with my hand and make the 'Yeesh' face- a fan once sheepishly responded, "I know, I know, not my best." Classic. Never too serious- all in good fun.

Fans heckle players because they're looking to bring more amusement to the ballpark experience- they don't hate you (at the MiLB level, at least). They're just looking to interact with the players, and they love a player who's responsive to their comments. You instantly become a fan favorite- they see you as a person now, as opposed to the robot baseball machine that they can yell at for nine innings without a single reaction.

Modern technology has brought heckling to a whole new level. Thanks to online media guides, rosters, and, of course, Facebook, fans can customize their insults to fit each player. Interests, girlfriends, family members- nothing is spared.

I once had a fan call me "Picasso" for three innings, asking me to "paint him a picture." This one had me boggled. I could do nothing but look confused and throw my palms to the sky. Picasso? What? I later realized that the fan likely saw in my team's media guide that I attended the School of Arts & Sciences at my college. To the fan, this of course meant I was some type of art history buff or studio artist, and not the economics major that I actually was. Nope, he saw the word 'Arts' and knew exactly what I was- an artist, duh.

I feed off of the energy of the fans. They keep me loose, and unlike others who see them as a distraction, they keep me focused. The outfield can be a lonely place, and so inevitably your mind starts racing. By interacting with the fans, I'm relaxed and my natural instincts take over. So give me your best shot hecklers, and bring your A game- I promise we'll have a good time.

MiLB LIFE Series
Clubhouse Rules
Drug Testing
Being the New Guy
Fat Camp
My First Call-Up
A Typical Game Day [Part One]
A Typical Game Day [Part Two]
Being the 'K-Man'
A Taste of the Minor League Off-Season
New Helmets Issued, Players Respond: "Are You Joking?"
The Fines of Kangaroo Court
Kangaroo Court

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