The Art of Heckling

Like politics, professional sports — the true pastime of most Americans — are increasingly undemocratic. Choice seats go to corporate accounts. Security guards summoned via text swoop in at a moment's notice, removing you, without rights or recourse, for the slightest of slights. And the metal detectors that are now de rigeur in most public places in post-9/11 America alert authorities to bags of cannabis (what the flying “I-thought-this-was-a-recreational-state” fuck, Coors Field?!).

As in politics, to speak — and to have a voice heard — requires money when at a professional sporting event. But at least in Major League ballparks, the ability to speak — and to be heard — does not require a minority stake in a television station or a Twitter account with tens of thousands of followers. It only requires the price of admission: a ticket. And at baseball games, speaking — as in speaking directly to the players attempting to play a game for public enjoyment, with the sole goal of mocking them to distraction — is part of a long and proud tradition: the democratic, American institution of heckling.

Heckling is, by its nature, an individualistic pursuit, and thus an American one. In Europe, thousands of fans wearing the same colored shirts rain down abuse via song, all in unison; such borderline–Nuremberg Rally behavior should be abhorred.

Both humorist and demagogue, the heckler can, by him- or herself, inject doubt into the minds of the professionals attempting to work, and, just as easily, levity into the lives of the other working people in earshot. (Those who doubt that the hoi polloi's opinions have an impact on the players' psyches should Google “Johnny from Burger King.”)

To heckle well is an art. The right remark, rightly timed, can raise the spirit of the crowd around you and enhance the enjoyment of the event.

To heckle poorly, however, is to be worse than an annoyance, like the whining child or the casual spectator asking to have the basics of play explained over and over again. To heckle poorly is to be a boor, a lout, a human car alarm: without use and improving the lot of others only when silenced.

Thus, more than a loud voice, the courage to use it, and a schoolyard-worthy observation are needed to be a heckling folk hero. There are a few maxims to remember to keep the crowd on your side (and the hired goon squad from ejecting you prematurely).

The heckler does not speak for the benefit of the players or the game, but for the people around him. Oftentimes, the remark will not carry all the way to the field. (If it does, you are likely in the company of “fans” whose net worth rivals the players, and therefore not in a proletarian environment.) Keeping the people on your side means you may be able to lead the people around you in your taunt of choice.

The audience is the audience. This requires a keen sense of the moment. What is the current focus? That must be the target of your heckle. This could be the reliever warming up in front of you — what the hell kind of name is “Boone Logan”? — as easily as the first-base coach's paunch, but it must be something easily grasped.

Awareness of the situation on the field as well as the mood of the crowd must be maintained. Paying attention to the game is helpful, but so is observing the tide of opinion around you. If you're in the bleachers at the Coliseum in Oakland, you are among working class fans with appreciable baseball knowledge. Some high-minded nonsense won't cut it. If you're in the club seats at AT&T and everyone around you is on their phones, pithy observations about Clayton Kershaw's patchy beard will be lost.

The heckler must have a sense of the absurd and the unexpected. The above rule comes into play here: To hear a red-faced man with a beer in his hand bellow, “Kershaw! Turn around, look at me!” belies expectation. It may arouse curiosity in the target; what is there to look at? But above all, the unexpected slips through the usual defenses. “What did he say?” is a momentary distraction, and a loss of focus means you're in his head — the heckler's greatest accomplishment.

The heckler must have command of language. The heckler should seek what a poet friend of mine calls “a laconic economy of words.” And poetry and heckling are not far removed. To say less is to say more; each word, clearly heard, carries more weight than an unintelligible scream. And this is not a traffic altercation: curse words should be left at home, with your significant other or children. At least nobody but the neighbors will know what a simpleton you are.

The heckler must know his target intimately. An exception to playing for the crowd around you. Do you know of a detail that would strike like a dagger into the very being of the player in ear or eyeshot? Here, you must not stoop to low blows like personal tragedies or schoolyard taunts about whose matriarch did what. But is the first baseman a vegan? Aha! Offer a steak. Is he a Mormon? He must have… lots of wives? Clown heckle, bro. Try harder.

The heckler should be ready to use media. A well-placed sign with a pithy, catchy remark is worth a hundred shouts — it can be seen from across the ballpark, be easily read (even by baseball players), and can indeed end up on TV.

All rules requiring economy of language still apply. Here, the innovative Mets fans who greeted Hunter Pence with absurdist signs must be commended (for the creative use of time while watching their season implode, if nothing else).

In sum: Be cutting, without being mean-spirited. Knowledgeable but not arcane. Accessible but not simple. Heckling is a delicate balancing act, but when mastered, can lead to a lifetime of eroding pro athletes' perceived senses of superiority. Or, maybe, season tickets.

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