Rattlers mourn loss of popular Calmes
To Wisconsin Timber Rattlers fans, these six words are far more than a rote recitation of concession stand staples. As bellowed by vendor Brock Calmes, they became nothing less than a 20-second, 12-syllable ballpark symphony -- a resonant baritone echoing from foul pole to foul pole, with the vowel sounds comically elongated, "licorice" barked at a staccato clip, and, finally, the jaunty sing-speak of "ro-ope!"
Sadly, this unique vocal composition will never be heard again at Fox Cities Stadium. Calmes, who had worked for the Timber Rattlers since 1999, passed away earlier this month from a blood clot. He was just 28 years old.
As tragic as it was, Calmes' death served as a life-affirming reminder that Minor League Baseball stadiums are more than just a way to spend one's discretionary income on a pleasant summer evening. They are also community gathering places, full of familiar faces who root together, laugh together and, yes, mourn together.
From humble origins
When Calmes first started working for the Timber Rattlers at the age of 16, he was, more or less, a concessions utility man. He'd help out wherever needed, running food from stand to stand and doing various odd jobs. But, soon enough, his true calling became apparent. And, literally, it was a calling.
"As the story goes, when Brock would hear that 'Da-da da-da da-da,' he'd run to the front of the stands and yell 'Chaaaaarge!'" explained Timber Rattlers president Rob Zerjav. "And the guys who were running our food and beverage at the time, they heard that and asked him, 'Would you be interested in hawking?'"
He was, of course.
But a loud voice is only part of the hawking equation. A schtick is needed as well, something that draws the fans attention and then creates a Pavlovian desire to reach for the wallet. And with Calmes, it wasn't what he said. It was how he said it: Peanuts. Popcorn. Cotton Candy. Licorice Rope.
"That tag line was legendary, and people came to know Brock as part of the entertainment." said Zerjav. "They'd stay in their seats, and wait until Brock got around to their section so that they could buy specifically from him.
"And in the Minors, this is something we always talk about," he continued. "We need to develop characters. You can't control what's on the field, so you have to develop what you have off of it. With Brock, that [idea] really worked for us."
And, indeed, Calmes was one of the Timber Rattlers' most recognizable characters -- and not just because of his booming voice.
"He was always a big dude, and he had his own jersey with the name 'Brock' on the back," said Zerjav. "1 1/2 was his number, and some people would say that was because he was 1 1/2 times the size of an average person. But his parents told us that, back when we were the Appleton Foxes, that's the number that the mascot wore. So, that's why he had it."
As any follower of Minor League Baseball knows, one of the ultimate forms of celebrity is to be immortalized via the bobblehead. Calmes certainly had hoped to be recognized in such a way.
"We do a 'Fan's Choice' bobblehead every year, and Brock was in the running a couple of years ago," said Zerjav. "Ever since then, he would always mention in passing, 'Boy, I'd love to have my own bobblehead.'"
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Brock was included on the list of this year's potential Fan's Choice honorees and, considering this tragic turn of events, it's now especially likely that he'll be the biggest vote-getter.
"Vote Brock," reads a comment on the team's Fan's Choice bobblehead press release. "His passion attracted kids to the park; he was taken way before his time. Let's honor him!"
A final farewell
Calmes died on May 14, and when the Timber Rattlers returned home two days later, a moment of silence was held in his honor.
"There were gasps throughout the crowd when we announced it," said Zerjav. "Even if you didn't know Brock personally, you still knew who he was. ... He just loved it at the ballpark. Being here was one of the highlights of his short life."
With this being the case, the team felt that they should do more to honor Calmes' memory. So, with the blessing of his parents, an open house memorial service was scheduled for the evening of May 23 (while the Timber Rattlers were on the road). More than 500 fans showed up, and the event was covered by the Appleton region's four major television stations.
What resulted was a poignant celebration, one attended by family, friends, fans and fellow gameday staff (one former usher flew in from North Carolina). Upon entering the ballpark, attendees came upon a concourse display featuring memorabilia from Calmes' life. This included his famous No. 1 1/2 jersey and, of course, the overloaded vendor's box that he carted all over the stadium at each and every ballgame. (Ringing the box was a semi-circle of cotton candy, a visual that, in this situation, was far more apropos than any floral display.)
As attendees made their way down the concourse, they met Calmes' family in a receiving line and then watched a video appreciation that played in a continuous loop on the videoboard and concourse televisions. The bar and restaurant area was open as well, providing an informal environment in which to congregate and share stories about the unique and unforgettable ballpark presence that was Brock Calmes.
The emotion was evident in Zerjav's voice as he reflected on the memorial, and what it said about Calmes, the Timber Rattlers organization and Appleton's community of baseball fans.
"Brock was a vendor who knew how to entertain the crowd, but at moments like these you realize that there's a greater purpose," he said. "We touched Brock's life, and then he went on to touch the lives of so many others. And it all happened because we're a little baseball team from Appleton, Wisconsin."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.