"Hey ump! You're a potato head!"
"Hey ump! You're a potato head!"
It's Friday night at the Bluefield Blue Jays' home of Bowen Field, and Henry "Double Out" Belcher is in peak form. He's holding court in his usual grandstand location: sprawled out in the eighth row, proudly wearing his Blue Jays cap and personalized jersey, legs dangling over the seats directly in front of him. And he's yelling. If there's a game going on, of that you can be sure. Henry Belcher will be yelling.
"Hey ump! We all know you spent four years in kindergarten. You failed the sandbox four times!"
Belcher's voice, raspy yet booming and prone to the occasional high-pitched squeal, echoes throughout the entirety of Bowen Field. Over 1,500 fans were in attendance this evening -- a good crowd within this intimate Appalachian League environment -- but Belcher had his entire row to himself. This is because sitting in close proximity to Belcher would be damaging to one's eardrums; he's the loudest fan in the Appalachian League, maybe the loudest fan in Minor League Baseball.
I spoke with Belcher -- whose "Double Out" nickname references his preferred term for a double play -- approximately 90 minutes before July 1's ballgame against the Kingsport Mets. He had arrived at the ballpark in the early afternoon, hours before the gates opened, allowed by sympathetic team staff to simply sit and, quite literally, watch the grass grow. Bowen Field is Belcher's favorite place and always has been, going back to a childhood spent in "the coal fields of McDowell County, West Virginia."
"Since the late '50s, I've been coming here," said Belcher. "My father used to bring me up here on the weekends for Friday nights, Saturday nights and Sunday games. I just fell in love with it."
A pivotal moment for Belcher occurred in 1959, when he had a memorable encounter with future Baltimore Orioles star Boog Powell (Bluefield was a Baltimore affiliate from 1958 through 2010). Powell was only 17 years old at the time, having just begun his professional career.
"You can ask Boog Powell about this. You might not believe me, but this is what actually happened," said Belcher. "It was a hot summer night…. Boog Powell was sitting down [in the stands]. Why he was sitting there, I'll never know, but he was. He saw me walking by with a soda, that's back in the days when the Coca-Colas came in those nickel glass bottles. He saw me walking up and said, 'I wish I had one of those things.' I said, 'I'll get you one, sir.' I reached in my jean pocket and pulled out a ball I had caught the weekend before. He signed it and I went down there and got the soda. I guess he was gonna pay for it, but I took my ball cap off and said, 'It's on me, sir.' You know how tall Boog Powell is, and I was just a kid at the time. That's what really turned me into a baseball freak."
Belcher served in the military between 1972 and 1982, when he "was out of the country and never got to see a game." Since then, however, he has been a ballpark staple -- and a particularly loud one at that. When asked whether he had always been a vocal presence at Bowen Field, he said "Yes" and then let out a long, loud high-pitched giggle.
Through the years he has developed an arsenal of oft-repeated, full-throated exhortations.
"When our guys are at-bat I yell, 'Hit the trees!' or 'Over the wall!' said Belcher. "And when they're playing defense, I holler for a double out. Or 'Go Blue Jays! Strike 'em out.'"
And there never have, nor will there ever be, plans to turn down the volume.
"Only one time has someone told me [to stop yelling]," said Belcher. "Some good friends of mine told them to be quiet. They said, 'This is the only game you've ever been to, and he comes to all the games.' I buy season tickets and try to come to as many games as I can.
"It's a lot of fun. I just love Minor League Baseball."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.