Baseball's ardent fans bring on the antics
As the postseason gets into full swing this week, some sports enthusiasts will take their passion to the limit.
New York — In baseball there are fastballs, curveballs, and … oddballs – fans so involved with their teams that they become part of the lore.
At Wrigley Field in Chicago, Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers hopes to unleash one of his famous hair-raising "woos" while wearing his Cubs uniform – as he has for at least 3,000 games.
At Yankee Stadium, Freddy Schuman, aka Freddy Sez, will be walking around with his frying pan and a spoon letting fans bang away, in hopes of inspiring the Bronx Bombers.
And in Boston, heckler Charlie Gifford will try to get under the skin of opposing players with well-timed volleys about their hair, their physiques, or gossip he turns up.
Yes, as baseball's postseason gets into full swing this week, fans with a capital F will fill up ballparks from Boston to Los Angeles, New York to Phoenix, and Denver to Chicago. And before the commissioner of baseball hands out any trophies, the fans
will have their say. It is a reminder that baseball is still the national pastime attracting the passionate – and the extraordinarily passionate.
"We concentrate on the performers, but the fans are the game just as much as the players," says Ed Randall, host of the "Talking Baseball" radio show.
The phenomenon has roots in the early 20th century. When the Brooklyn Dodgers romped around Ebbets Field, Hilda Chester banged a frying pan with a ladle, starting in 1930s. Eventually, she used a cowbell and became a favorite of manager Leo Durocher. Today, baseball historians refer to her as possibly the most famous fan of all time.
She could be charming in a Brooklyn sort of way. "You know me. Hilda wit da bell," she would say from her bleacher seat.
The bleachers – usually the cheapest seats – seem to be a breeding ground for the most passionate. This week, in Cleveland, John Adams will be in the back row at Jacobs Field with his bass drum and mallets, trying to stir up the fans and players. He's been there since 1973 and even met his wife in the stands.
The Indians even created a "bobble arm" toy in his honor, and he'll throw out the first pitch today.
"You get to meet people. At a baseball game, you get to solve half the world's problems, and you get to solve the other half the next day," he says.
Some fans don't need much to get pumped up. That's the case for Boston's Mr. Gifford. In Fenway, he can be found near the opposing team's on-deck circle. By the sixth inning, he says, his creative juices are flowing, and he likes to think he can affect the game. For example, he was harassing Yankee Alex Rodriguez about dyeing his hair blond. "A-Rod, what's up with the frosted tips?" he yelled. At the plate, he saw Derek Jeter giggling. "Jeter then hit into a double play, and I was quite pleased with myself," he says.
Earlier this year, Gifford was yelling at San Francisco's Barry Bonds. By his third at bat, Bonds couldn't take it anymore. He pointed to Gifford's wife and yelled, "Isn't he too old to act like a child?"
It was during Mr. Schuman's childhood that he used to go into "mama's" kitchen on New Year's Eve, banging on the pots and pans to wake up the whole neighborhood. Then, in 1988 when the Yankees were in the middle of a long slump, he suggested to the team management that they let him roam the stadium with a sign to encourage fans to make some noise and possibly inspire the players.
The first year, he mainly got children interested in banging his frying pan. But by 1996, after plenty of television coverage and newspaper stories, he says, "I was on the map."
On the map is an understatement. In 2000, Rudolph Giuliani, New York mayor at the time and a longtime Yankees fan, brought the World Series trophy to the hospital when Schuman was ill. Mr. Giuliani took him to Arizona on a chartered jet for the 2001 World Series. He's been in World Series parades. He has a frying pan in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame. The former truck driver, who was once homeless, has written a book about his first five years as "Freddy Sez" and is included in a MasterCard commercial.
"I am just a quiet guy," he says.
The fans generally adore Schuman. Longtime Yankees fan Bruce Garrison remembers banging Schuman's pan and then watching Darryl Strawberry hit three home runs in one game. "Freddy's always got a positive message," says Mr. Garrison.
Mr. Wickers's story can be equally inspiring – especially since he has not had the support of the Tribune Co., owners of the Cubs, the same way the Yankees have supported Schuman.
Wickers traces his love of the Cubs back to his love of teddy bears: The baby bear in the Cubs' logo is close enough. "Teddy bears bring people together. They will always be your friend; they will always be happy," he says.
Wickers has been a fan despite enduring seven long Chicago winters as a homeless person. That may be why he loves going to Wrigley Field, "because there is always so much joy at the ballpark," he says. "People want to enjoy life."
Tim Bannon, writing for View From the Bleachers, a Cubs fan site, asks, "Is anyone a bigger fan and optimist than this man?" His long profile of Wickers gives some insight into what makes him tick. His final conclusion is that Woo Woo's heart is in the right place and it bleeds Cub blue.
Sometime soon, a wider audience might be discovering more about Wickers. Documentary maker Paul Hoffman is putting the finishing touches on "WooLife," a biography of Wickers in the making for seven years. "Ronnie represents hope, passion," he says. "It rubs off on everyone around him."