By day, Rod Blackstone is the assistant to Charleston, W.Va., Mayor Danny Jones. But by night, or at least nights when the West Virginia Power have a home game, he morphs into Toastman.
And while you might think that being the right-hand man to the mayor of a state capital is pretty prestigious, Blackstone's "alter ego" has far more fame and notoriety in the world of Minor League baseball.
Last week, I was chatting with Kinston Indians manager Mike Sarbaugh and happened to mention I was going to be heading down to Charleston to see the Milwaukee Brewers' South Atlantic League farm team.
His eyes immediately lit up.
"You're going to see Toastman!" exclaimed Sarbaugh, who managed the Lake County Captains in the Sally League in 2005 (he was also a hitting coach in the SAL in 1995-96).
Well, Blackstone wasn't the reason we scheduled the trip, but rest assured, he ended up being one of the highlights of the visit to Appalachian Power Park (you can see all of those highlights on the Around The Minors video show that airs Wednesday, Aug. 9).
How can I explain Toastman in a nutshell? (Or a crust, I guess). Diehard fan doesn't begin to describe it.
A season ticket holder, Blackstone holds court in the front row of Section 107, in the aisle seat just to the visiting dugout side of home plate (the better to rag on the visiting players in the on-deck circle).
He's really hard to miss because, among other things, he has a TV table set up in front of him which holds an electric toaster with piles of freshly made burnt toast (he deliberately burns it so no one will eat it).
When an opposing batter strikes out, Blackstone will lead the fans in a chant of "You are toast! You are toast! You ... are ... toast!" and fling pieces of toast into the stands.
He also sports an impressive collection of handmade signs that include individualized cheers for each member of the Power as well as taunts for the opposition. He's rarely at a loss for words, be they caustic for the visitors (though never quite bordering on personally insulting) or encouraging for the home team.
He is the consummate heckler crossed with the fanatical fan. Love him, hate him, you've gotta admire him.
Toastman was born (or harvested, I guess) in 1990, when the city's home team was the Charleston Wheelers. It was August, the team was gunning for the Sally League title, and Blackstone and a friend got caught up in the Minor League spirit for the first time.
They began leading fans around them in cheers when Blackstone made an interesting discovery.
"We suddenly realized that people will follow you and say what you want if they know what to say," he said. "So we started coming with signs."
In 1991, they spontaneously added the "You are toast" chant one night when an opponent struck out. And it was so well received that it became a part of their cheer lexicon. One night, the team owner let them in on a little secret.
"He told us, 'You know, there's an outlet on the other side of the wall there,'" Blackstone recalled, referring to an electrical outlet that was actually on the playing field side of the backstop. "'You could plug in a toaster there.'"
And that, my friends, was the genesis of Toastman.
"We started waving around the pieces of toast so the opposition felt really good about striking out," Blackstone explained. "The batboy would plug the toaster in for us and in the 14 years that we were at the old ballpark (Watt Powell Park), no opposing player ever unplugged it, though they could have."
One year, however, when the Greensboro Bats were a Yankees affiliate, two players stuffed bubble gum into the outlet in an attempt to sabotage Toastman. Coincidentally, Blackstone had just happened to bring some extra burnt toast slices from home that day.
Blackstone is more than just a guy who waits for the strikeout and pops the lever on his T-Fal. He does more homework than an honors student, able to hold forth on every negative statistic or embarrassing gaffe a visiting player may have made at any time in his career (though, of course, preferably against the Power), to single out (loudly) a player's slump or weak point.
"It's all about trying to get the opposing team to think about me, if only for a second, so they're not thinking about the next pitch or the next play," he said. "Quality heckling is about distraction. The usual shouting isn't going to do it. I like to think we're more creative here."
In 2005, the team moved to brand new Appalachian Power Park with a brand new name -- the West Virginia Power -- and a new affiliate, the Milwaukee Brewers.
When the new park was designed, the owners agreed to place an outlet on the seating bowl side of the wall, right by Blackstone's seats so he could be self-sufficient (and this was before he was a municipal employee).
Mayor Jones has the seats right behind his assistant, and though he will indulge in a bit of heckling, he has yet to become Peanut Butter Man or Jelly Man.
My own introduction to Toastman was memorable:
The Power were hosting the Columbus Catfish (Dodgers) in the first game of a homestand following an eight-game road trip. The temperature topped 100 degrees, yet the club still drew an impressive crowd for a weekday evening.
Toastman's table was piled high with stacks of frozen bread that was thawing pretty quickly. As we chatted, he kept up a steady stream of chatter and a steady progression of four slices into the T-Fal. Up pops the burnt toast, four more slices into the T-Fal (he ended the night with a lot of unused toast, however, as even with ace Will Inman on the mound, the Power fanned only five batters).
After a local woman sang the national anthem (she does not get heckled), it's Prime Time for Toastman. Infielder Ivan DeJesus led off for the visiting Catfish.
"Welcome to Charleston, Ivan," Toastman calls politely as the strains of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" play over the PA system. Inman quickly gets two strikes on DeJesus, the son of the former Major Leaguer who also, coincidentally, managed in the Sally League with the Lexington Legends (Astros).
"Smell the toast, Ivan! Surely, your dad warned you about the toast!"
But DeJesus flied out and the toast had to wait.
The next batter was first baseman/DH Jason Mooneyham, who was reassigned to Columbus from Class A Advanced Vero Beach in early May, despite hitting .279 at the time.
"Mooneyham," Toastman calls to him in the on-deck circle. "You were hitting .279 at Vero and you're sent down? What is wrong with that picture?"
Mooneyham's lips definitely twitched as he tried not to laugh.
There are individualized barbs for each Catfish batter, but not one strikes out against Inman in the first inning and the toast sits there -- cold, burnt and neatly piled.
In the bottom of the first, signs were raised for fans to chant for their hometown heroes while Toastman and company are simultaneously getting all over Columbus pitcher Marlon Arias for the fact that he's given up a South Atlantic League season-high in home runs.
They decided to change his name to Jack in honor of the "jacks" he'd allowed and dubbed the night "The age of Jack Arias."
Their timing couldn't be more perfect as West Virginia catcher Angel Salome ("Hark the Herald Angel Swings," read Toastman's homemade sign) went deep off Arias to take the SAL RBI lead.
Toastman's disciples have a few witticisms of their own, though he might also want to give a course in Heckling 101 with a lesson on how NOT to heckle.
Example: We've all heard the singsong chant "pitcher has a big butt" from the movie "Rookie of the Year" too many times to count. But one young fan felt the need to sing the ditty to Arias several times. At 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, Arias practically disappears when he turns to the side. The pitcher had NO butt.
Son, you're in the presence of a master. Sit, listen, learn.
Excitement grew as outfielder Lucas May's turn in the Columbus batting order approached. This may have been one of Blackstone's more creative potential heckles.
May came into the night with 107 strikeouts. Blackstone printed up a few dozen bright yellow signs that read MAY K and distributed them to everyone sitting in Section 107. When May came up, they all waved them in the air.
The plan was that if May fanned for the 108th time, everyone would hand their sheets over to the folks in the NEXT section for the rest of the night, and so on. Sadly for the fans, and happily for May, he did not strike out that night or the next night.
I assume fans are still sitting there in Section 107 with their MAY K sheets waiting for him to be toast.
In the second, however, Adam Godwin finally gave Power fans a chance to get their burnt toast as he struck out swinging at an Inman offering. Frisbee-slung burnt toast slices flew around Section 107 like ... well, like toast at a Power game.
In case you were wondering how hard it was to be creative, innovative and original, we found out that it's not all spontaneous when newly acquired Power shortstop Ryan Barba came to the plate for the first time.
Signed by the Brewers in July as a non-drafted free agent out of New Mexico, Barba started the season in the Arizona League and joined the team on its recent road trip, so this was his first Appalachian Power Park appearance.
No signs, no nickname, no chant was ready, though they tried.
At first, Blackstone tested a call-and-answer with the fans to "I say Barba, you say Q," but it didn't really work. At least, not at first. Bet you by the end of the homestand Ryan Barba has a nice catchy phrase all his own.
As it turned out, we were really seeing Toastman in fine form that night.
"I'm not usually saying something about everyone on the other team during every at-bat, though our cheers for the home team are that regular for every at-bat," he explained later, apologizing if he seemed too harsh on the "bad guys."
"I had the benefit of an eight-game road trip following the end of church softball season that added to my preparation time for this team. Quite honestly, I'm usually not quite that comprehensive."
And truth be told, not every visiting player suffers the barbs ... or Barbas ... of Blackstone's unique version of heckling. At least one player was spared. Temporarily, anyway.
When catcher J.R. House came through the South Atlantic League in 2000 with the Hickory Crawdads (Pirates), even Blackstone couldn't quite bring himself to turn the Pittsburgh prospect into toast.
A local high school football hero from the Charleston suburb of Nitro, House had set all sorts of national records as a quarterback. And in case you hadn't heard, they're pretty serious about their high school football in West Virginia.
House's first appearance in Charleston that season happened to coincide with a primary election night party that Blackstone had convinced his boss at the time (the governor of West Virginia) to throw at the ballpark.
"He struck out in his first at-bat, probably a little anxious with so many family, friends and football fans in the stands," Blackstone recalled. "I pointed and shouted, "You are ... J.R.!"
The Charleston players later gave him some grief, but, as he told them, "He's more popular in the town than I'll ever be, and you have to know your audience."
Later that season, Blackstone met with House and explained to him that to save face with his home team, he was going to have to "toast him" eventually.
"He understood, and I finally did toast him when he struck out that night in what was a close game," Blackstone said. "He looked up at me heading back to the dugout and I said, 'This is hurting me more than it's hurting you.'"
As much as Toastman is known for his roasting of opponents, it's more important to him that his Power boys know he and the other fans are supporting them every step of the way (he's even a host parent to players during the season; don't ask what they have for breakfast).
Power outfielder Lorenzo Cain (his sign is "Raisin' Cain!") understands that.
"I can hear him ragging on the other teams all the time," he said. "I'm just glad he's on my side."
While some players and field staff have reacted angrily (he's been flipped off more than a few times), others understand that it's all in fun. Perhaps the most creative response came from, not surprisingly, Asheville Tourists manager Joe Mikulik, who got his own share of notoriety earlier this season when his on-field histrionics earned him an ejection, suspension, fine and airtime on most of the national morning talk shows.
"Last year, one of our guys struck out against them in a key situation," Blackstone recalled. "Mikulik had his guys throw toast out of the dugout."