'Toastman' a ballpark icon in West Virginia
Whenever a member of the visiting team strikes out at the West Virginia Power's home of Appalachian Power Park, a fan named Rob Blackstone gets so emotional that he immediately stands up and makes toast.
Rod Blackstone is the "Toastman," a West Virginia Power ballpark icon who can be found sitting in a front-row aisle seat in section 107 during each and every game. From this homeplate vantage point, he leads the section in cheers, displays homemade signs made in honor of each position player and, most memorably, throws pieces of toast to the crowd after every visiting batter strikes out.
The toast isn't pre-made, either. Blackstone brings several loaves of bread to the game and toasts them on-site using a toaster set up on a small metal patio table. The electrical outlet he uses was installed by the team, specifically to accommodate his nightly toast-making needs.
I visited the Toastman and his motley crew during Saturday evening's game against the Class A Rome Braves. It was the bottom of the first inning, and he was leading the crowd in a chant of "Strong manly foul! Strong manly foul!" He chants this whenever a member of the home team hits a foul ball of any kind. Visitors, meanwhile, are met with "Weak piddly foul! Weak piddly foul!"
I sat across from Blackstone -- the toaster between us -- and simply observed him in action while waiting for an opportune time to conduct an interview.
"Our Chris Diaz is better than yours!" he shouted at Rome Braves pitcher Chris Diaz, in reference to the fact that, yes, the Power also have a player named Chris Diaz. Then, after Diaz threw a pitch at shoulder level, he shouted. "High! Just like your ERA in the ACC Tournament!"
When center fielder Austin Meadows came to bat, he led the crowd in a call and response "Austin Powers" chant. Why? "Because Austin has the powers!"
Deputy Charleston mayor Rod Blackstone, better known as "The Toastman," throws smoking toast after strikeouts. (Rod Blackstone)
The Toastman is nothing if not prepared, and nothing if not passionate.
Blackstone, a Pittsburgh-area native, is, by day, the deputy mayor of the city of Charleston, West Virginia's capital city and the home of the Power. But night is when his partisan tendencies really become apparent -- he roots for the home team and derides the visitors with fanatical passion and unyielding precision. He traces the origin of his "Toastman" persona to the 1990 season, when, at a friend's recommendation, he began attending Charleston Wheeler games at the team's old home of Watt Powell Park.
"The Wheelers won the South Atlantic League championship that year, and I thought 'Why aren't more people getting into the game?' Because this is a lot of fun," he said. "I just started leading a few chants for some of our players, and maybe a year or so later somebody in our group said 'You are toast!'
"So we started chanting 'You are toast,'" he continued. "Then, in 1992, the guy who owned the team said 'Ya know, you can make toast at the ballpark. You can plug in a toaster at every game and wave it at the bad guys when they strike out.' So that's what we've been doing ever since."
Mocking the visiting team with toast is the most distinctive element of Blackstone's operation, but he supports the home team with equal fervor.
"Everybody on [the Power], when they come up to bat, we greet them," he said. "We try to tell them that, no matter what happens, we're supporting you -- no matter what the score is, no matter what the standings are. You're our team and we're going to cheer for you every time you come up to bat."
Thus, the homemade signs. Each position player on the Power has one.
"'Obi-Wan JaCoby' [for shortstop JaCoby Jones] -- that's my favorite sign this year," said Blackstone. "'Reese McGuire, Bats On Fire' is another fun one. I don't have an exclusive claim to creativity, so what we do when we get the roster, we'll go over it with a bunch of regulars: 'Okay, what should we cheer for this guy? What should we cheer for that guy?' We just have our creative session, we call it 'Cheers and Beers.'"
Blackstone's attention was soon diverted toward the game. Power pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas had recorded two strikes on Rome's Tanner Krietemeier, meaning it was time to prepare for a strikeout.
"When I say 'power up,' you say 'the toaster!'" screamed Blackstone. "Power up!"
"The toaster!" section 107's hardy group of regulars screamed in return.
Krietemeier managed to foul off the next pitch, immediately leading to chants of "Weak piddly foul! Weak piddly foul!"
"Hey Jim, this is Tanner!" yelled Blackstone to one of his section 107 comic foils.
"Tanner, I didn't even know her!" Jim dutifully responded.
Krietemeier struck out on the next pitch.
"Yes, he did. Yes, he did. Yes, he did!" yelled Blackstone, hurling fresh pieces of toast into the crowd. "You are toast! T-O-A-S-T. You are toast, you are toast, you are toooooast!"
This led to a chant of, "Don't eat the toast, you don't know where it's been." Blackstone then asked the crowd "Well, what do we do if we're not gonna eat it?" and this summarily led to chants of, "We save it to wave it!"
And so it goes. Every pitch, every out, every ballgame -- the Toastman never lets up.
"We feed off of each other and do all sorts of silly stuff," said Blackstone. "It adds to our entertainment and I hope it adds to other people's entertainment as well. That's what it's all about, having fun at the ballpark."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.