Power's 'Rowdy' fans preach tough love

Appalachian Power Park full of unique characters like 'Wheeler Bob'

The "Rowdy Alley" includes a variety of folks from the community, including Steve Barker (blue shirt). (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | August 15, 2014 10:30 AM ET

What do an engineer, professor, bank compliance officer, UPS operations manager and an FAA employee all have in common?

In normal life, probably not too much. But at the ballpark? Plenty. The above individuals, and many others, are all part of an informal West Virginia Power fan group dubbed "The Rowdy Alley." Rowdy Alley headquarters are on the third-base side of the concourse at West Virginia's Appalachian Power Park, consisting of a couple of picnic tables and a custom-made banner which bears the greeting, "Welcome to the Island of Misfits."

These misfits root for the home team, heckle the opposition, surround themselves with goofy fan paraphernalia and drink lots of beer. If that sounds up your alley, then why not join the club? The only requirement for Rowdy Alley membership is to show up at the ballpark and buy a round of drinks. No wonder the Rowdy Alley is always at its most lively on Thirsty Thursday.

The Rowdy Alley has existed for the entirety of the Power's 10 seasons at Appalachian Power Park, with its roots going back to the franchise's previous home of Watt-Powell Park. Seeking more info on this irreverent group of South Atlantic League super-fans, I conducted a short interview with Rowdy Alley "ambassador" Steve Barker.

"Unless you're doing something different, people don't pay any attention to you," said Barker, the aforementioned UPS operations manager. "Not that you want attention, but sometimes you come here and there's 1,000 people in the ballpark and not 4,000. You have to pump the team up and make the other team feel bad, so we had to come up with something to get everyone to scream and yell at the same time."

Yes, "making the other team feel bad" is a big part of the Rowdy Alley experience.

"These are all kids, and a lot of them have never been booed before," said Barker. "But that's part of the growing-up process. Once you get paid to do this, you better be ready. We're helping them -- tough love."

"There's a lot of tough love in this group!" shouted someone in the Rowdy Alley peanut gallery, which, on this evening, numbered around a dozen.

"Yeah, we'll be tough lovin' 'em all night long," responded Barker, to general laughter from the group. "I never thought of it that way, but, yeah, that's good."

Truly, it's all in good fun. Barker reports that, on occasion, Rowdy Alley members have taken opposing players out to dinner after the game. The visiting club is also invited to postgame tailgating barbecues that are regularly held in the stadium parking lot. During the game, meanwhile, a goofy spirit prevails. A stuffed monkey is made to dance every time the Power score a run, for example, and on the night I attended, one fan was wearing a team-logo towel as a cape.

"These are all kids, and a lot of them have never been booed before. Once you get paid to do this, you better be ready. We're helping them -- tough love."
-- Steve Barker, Power fan

"That's Power Man," explained Barker. "He's able to drink a full beer in a single drink."

The Rowdy Alley is proof that no matter old who you are or how you make a living, there's always room for silliness at the ballpark.

"We're all old and have a good time. That's all it is," said Barker. "That's what baseball is supposed to be, I think -- a good time. Some people take it way too seriously."

Meanwhile, roaming the aisles…

If you've been to a Minor League Baseball game in Charleston, West Virginia, at any point over the past 40 years, then chances are that you know a man known to one and all as "Wheeler Bob" (real name: Bob Friedman). He's been selling souvenirs at the ballpark since 1973, first at Watt-Powell Park -- where the team owner bestowed him with the "Wheeler Bob" nickname -- and now at Appalachian Power Park. But he first learned the art of the sale as a young man making a go of it in the Big Apple.

"I was a peddler on the streets of New York, and I would set up and sell with a Charleston Charlies T-shirt on," said Wheeler Bob, a West Virginia native. "And it was a good thing. I would take a snack tray, and put a piece of cardboard over it and a black piece of cloth and sell 'real' Majorca pearls. There's no such thing, as Majorca's a synthetic made from the dust of a real pearl."

With this experience under his belt, Wheeler Bob returned home.

"Actually, I tried to buy the souvenir stand from the Charleston Charlies, and they wanted more than I had. Or still have," he said. "So I said, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em,' and I've been here ever since."

Wheeler Bob has sold all sorts of items through the years, "mostly stuff that they want to get rid of." On the night in which I was in attendance, he roamed the aisles selling hats, balls, T-shirts and mini-bats.

"The bat I'll hold up and say, 'It's for your mother-in-law.' It's a joke," said Wheeler Bob. "And then I'll say 'Your mother-in-law's on TV tonight. Did you ever watch Swamp People? She makes you root for the alligator."

And the hits just keep on coming.

"Sometimes I'll hold up a bat. 'Oh, my God, it was made in North Korea!'" he continued. "Or, selling a seat cushion, 'One size fits all.'"

It's routines like these, performed night after night, that have made Wheeler Bob a ballpark legend.

"It's a legacy for me," he said. "You go to church, you expect to see the preacher. You go to a ballgame, you expect to see me."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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