Joe “The Brow” Diroff kept opposing teams on edge, and fans rolling in the aisles, in old Tiger Stadium.

The spirit of Pete Adelis* was present in the Metrodome today. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Adelis, he was affectionately known as the Iron Lung of Shibe Park and thrived as the preeminent heckler in Philadelphia, causing no end of psychological turmoil to the Phillies, the A’s, and anyone who happened to come their way. I’ve read of Adelis with great interest, especially since I used to think the art of heckling has gone the way of Shibe Park… nothing but a memory.

Personally, I miss what I imagine were the ear-wringing noises of Ebbets Field’s Hilda Chester, Adelis (when he was nice–see below), and, of course, Tiger Stadium’s Joe “the Brow” Diroff, who I got to witness with my own eyes (and ears–he screamed as part of his routine… scary.)

However, I am also pleased to report that heckling thrives at the Metrodome, at least for one day. For a change of pace, I decided that I was going to sneak into the sweet seats this afternoon, as opposed to my usual binocular view in upper right. Sneaking in is easier if you’re a season ticket holder. With that package your advantage is a little card that states that the party in question is a season ticket holder. This gets you past the old lady guarding the “down” staircase (the gateway to the prime seats) on the assumption that you’re going to enjoy stale popcorn and slices of greasy prime rib in that barely-finished basement room which serves as a members-only club. This also gets you access to the entrances to the lower deck.

There, I circled around until I found that weak-kneed college student guarding one entrance, a youth who looks as if he’s been bullied a lot as a kid. Serendipitously, today one of these lads was guarding the entrance between the first base sections 117-118. Nonchalantly, I joined the vast crowds, walked right on through and camped myself in the top row of 118, right below the suites, with a perfect view of the game. Perfect.

It was an interesting day for a ballgame. The Twins are looking especially good as of late, and this game would have wrapped up a sweep over a team that is supposed to be one of the division’s toughest, perhaps their prime rival. Torii Hunter was given his Gold Glove beforehand, and in a move I thought particularly touching, kindly handed it over to first base coach Terry White in thanks for all the latter’s coaching of the centerfielder. The sunlight was waxing and waning through the teflon, and young Seth Greisinger was on the mound in front of a modest audience.

All of this was made even better in the sweet seats. Not just the view, which is of course great, but hot dog vendors stop by. You get a choice of beer, the cheap stuff hawked by the usual vendors, or the imported stuff by the guy wearing a cheap tuxedo vest and crisp white shirt, and the vendors here are great entertainers, shouting “Celebrate with a beer!” after every Twins run. Best of all,  heckling is great in the good seats, and man, did I discover a genuine heckler.

The noise began in the third. You could hear a couple of “C’mon’s!” eminating from one of the suites above me, and then came the applause: the guy threw the hand-thunder around like Zeus on a hot day. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard such noise emanate from a pair of human hands, a whip-crack sound of wet leather against skin, more sonic than the hundreds below him. I bet it resonated down to the first base coach.

As you might guess, it was an ump that got our man started. With the score tied at 1-1, the Royals Andres Blanco laid down a bunt and reached first on what, from our angle, looked like a close out. We all groaned to ourselves, but the Heckler Emeritus, hereafter known as Charlie, flew into hysterics. “How much were you paid for that?” he shouted, leaning out of the window and shaking his fist like an old-fashioned stump politician. Nothing too original, but loud and like a missile. Jesus.

This was the first I saw of him: Charlie wore a camoflage vest over a wrinkled pink shirt, a granite-colored five o’clock shadow, and a look of thespian fury, less like he was truly angry but more like the top ham at a community theatre. He also had the misfortune (or good fortune) of looking almost exactly like Moe from The Simpsons. “It was right there!” he rang, with a voice as clear as a jet engine. “My eyes are good. Real good. But I’m not paid off! How much were you paid?”

Down below, every head turned, many in disgust, others chuckling, most stunned that he had breath left in him to continue. Now it was time to hit the players. “Number One is scared!” he bellowed. Blanco wore #1. “Number one is scared! Coach is scared! Terrified! He’s not going to make it to second, not going to make it to second. Got five bucks says he doesn’t make it to second!” By now, I swear Blanco flinched slightly at every word, and at one point, he was almost picked off, distracted by Charlie’s raging.

Blanco successfully stole second on what looked, again, like an out. “Number one gets two outs?! Nice job, they’re payin’ all the umps!” And it went on from there. You might say that this is just the kind of guy we want to keep out of baseball, but he was the peaches as far as I’m concerned. First, he wasn’t drunk (or even drinking: in fact, he was guzzling Mountain Dew like it was the last in the park), he wasn’t swearing, was just, in fact, trying to rile up the players. And everyone around him, including, I’m happy to say, me.

In fact, over the next two innings, people were laughing, standing, and starting to shout right along with him. Including yours truly. I got some blood into the old lung tissue, really laying it into the batters, who seemed to leave the bat on their shoulders a bit much for my taste. Seeing’s how I wasn’t a hundred feet from the first baseman, why not? I’m a payin’ customer, right? I got a right to beef, and Charlie’s yelling made me feel like beefing even more than I usually do, which is to say, hardly at all.

The guy behind me, whose son admired Mike Sweeney (“You know he has scripture written on his shoe?”), began to goad the Twins for striking out, and his lungs weren’t soft and pink, either, much, as he admitted, to his surprise. “I haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” he said with a chuckle. A greasy-haired old man began to screech in front of me, a couple of nerdy teenagers began their own caterwauling and the guys to my left were taking bets on how long Charlie could last.

Of course, someone had to complain. Sadly, one of the Twins goons came over, arms folded, and asked our man if he was having a good time. “Yeah,” Charlie said, “and I ain’t drinking, either.” “Good,” management said. I was sweating now, worried he’d ask me for my ticket and send me one story up. But he was interested in the heckler, and making sure Charlie knew he wasn’t wanted. With a wicked grin, the guard said, “Just want to make sure you’re having a good time.” With that he walked away, and Charlie retreated into the suite, silent.

Charlie’s dismissal made everyone sour and quiet. I turned back to my scorecard, duly recording plays in my playbook, lips tight and irritable. At least the game was close. Greisinger pitched well, keeping the score close, working a decent count most of the time. He gave a homer to Joe Randa in the fourth, then threw the ball away trying to throw out Tony Graffanino, scoring Kelly Stinnett, who’d singled off him earlier.

With this gaffe, which put the Royals up 3-2, every head turned to look for Charlie. But he was nowhere to be found. I was about to cry out in dismay at Greisinger, call him a bum, but I didn’t have it in me, not without the heckler. Our whole section was dead, simply eating, scoring, waiting for something to happen.

The Twins did nothing in their half of the fourth, and the Royals went down 1-2-3 in the top half of the fifth. Then, shockingly, the hitless wonder Luis Rivas sent a hard single into left, stole a base, and then reached third when an error sent Offerman to first. I swear the guys around me were aching to stand and let out a cry, but we just did the usual clapping. Then Corey Koskie stepped in and quickly struck out. Jacque Jones came up, dug in, and waited. He took a strike one. I looked up, sad to think that old Charlie had been made to feel unwelcome, had crawled back into the rear of his suite, probably a gift to the guy (it definitely didn’t seem like he was a regular to that box).

I stood, shouting the usual dimwitted “Yeah!” and nothing else. Jones belted a foul, for strike two. Guys on first and third, two strikes, two outs. There was some muted applause, but that was all. The pitcher readied himself, worried about the runners. I wanted to jump out of my skin. Jacque waited, the pitcher checked the runners. Suddenly, I heard a distant roar and Charlie bounded out from the rear of the box and almost threw himself out the window of the suite, shouting, whistling, and roaring “Yo Pitcher! Charlie’s Back!” with such force that I swear the pitcher seemed to falter as he threw. Jones crushed it into the center field gap for a double, scoring Rivas and Offerman.

The whole stadium erupted, but our section came alive, cheering both for the game and the return of our man Charlie. Everyone, from the back row where I sat, on down to the seats right behind the visitors dugout, began to heckle right along with him, full throated and spitting venom.

Charlie got even better. In the next inning, when Juan Gonzalez was hit by a pitch, virtually the only threat the Royals managed the rest of the game, Charlie kept on with one of the greatest tools at a heckler’s disposal: incomprehensibility. “Honey,” he screamed at Gonzalez. “Don’t forget the milk!”

Don’t forget the milk? “Oh, yeah, Juan, don’t forget the milk!” and so on, three more times while the pitcher actually tried to pick lead-footed Gonzalez off. Then he shouted my favorite: “Hungry babies want their milk, Juan!” He praised the ump for making an easy call, whistled, kept on with a frenzied cry to the Royals pitching, urged the Twins to steal, shouted Lew Ford’s name, over and over, and probably covered everyone sharing his suite with a thick film of spittle. Gonzalez got the worst of it, a jazzy riff on the subject of… milk. Apparently, Juan bought skim instead of whole. “How many times the wife gotta call, Juan!” And then louder, which we didn’t think possible. “Juan… DON’T FORGET THE MILK!” B

ut we were all in on the fun: The old guy and his Sweeney lovin’ son were on the umpire as well, and one little girl even had some barbs for KC’s first base coach. As the Twins lead widened, we began to applaud for Charlie and all his colorful remarks. Except for some of the fuddy-duddies who obviously would like it to be as quiet as their softball grounds. But they could go to Hell.

As the game wound down, and the Twins were locking it up, the mood slipped into the pleasant boredom that comes when the home team is going to win. “Lotta game left, KC,” Charlie shouted down to the kid who loved Sweeney. “Don’t let ‘em down!” That was nice. “I’m not going to sit until the Royals score a run,” he said, and that was the seventh. Charlie stood the whole time, and at the end whistled and applauded Sweeney, who went 0-4.

Charlie vanished before I could get a really good look at him, or say thanks. As I left the park, out into the windy day, whose gusts can’t even be heard inside, I thought to myself that baseball needs more guys like Charlie out there, to bring in some their own natural bluster, get the guys like me to start shouting.

I come to a ballpark to yell and scream, but frankly, I’m too damned timid to do it without guys like Charlie. That’s what good hecklers do. Sure I cheer when something good happens. But by shouting beneath the roar of the heckler, I was complaining at every play, between every play, even between innings. By the ninth, my throat felt like I’d drank a glass of Lava soap, but I was happier then I’d been at the Metrodome in ages.

If I had my druthers the Twins would hire Charlie, have him roam throughout the stands, give him a bullhorn when he’s in the nosebleeds. But then again, they’d probably co-opt him, make him quieter, get him into Twins corporate gear, and lose that goofy vest and pink shirt. They’d take the edge away, make him one more cog of the great baseball machine. Instead, he was his own man, and he changed the game for everyone within earshot. That’s a real heckler in my book.

*Pete Adelis, whom you might know as a character in my book The End of Baseball, was a real life character who would have been one of the great colorful characters in the sport, like Hilda Chester of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had he not been hired by the Phillies to really lay it into Jackie Robinson, and any other black ballplayer who came through town, using the worst racial slurs. That aside, he did pen a charming piece for The Sporting News, his legendary “Rules of Scientific Heckling.”

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