Wednesday, August 6, 2008

You Are Toast

Over the past two nights, I’ve had the best possible seat for the wackiest, wildest, most stupefyingly hilarious show in all of baseball.

You won’t find it in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit or even Pittsburgh. All you need to attend is $8, the cost of a reserved seat at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston, W. Va. Ask for a spot in Section 106, 107 or 108.

The star of this theatre-worthy performance is one Rod Blackstone, the assistant mayor of the Mountain State’s capital city. But while he may play understudy to Mayor Danny Jones during the day, when the South Atlantic League’s West Virginia Power is in town, Blackstone is truly lord of his front-row manor.

Around the four-year old ballpark on Charleston’s East End, Blackstone is better known by his one-of-a-kind alias, the Toastman. And while every sports team has its share of “superfans,” I’m rather confident in saying the Toastman has no peer.

The name comes from his decade-plus habit of tossing out actual pieces of toast to nearby fans after a Power pitcher records a strikeout. That in and of itself is pretty funny and definitely unique in the quirky realm of ballpark behavior. That, however, is just one facet of his pleasingly zany gametime persona.

Start with Blackstone’s method of toast production. One might guessed that the longtime season-ticket holder chars his slices of Wonder bread at home, in a kind of heckler’s pregame ritual. On the contrary, he brings the bread to the park and prepares it in a family-sized toaster that the Power allows him to store in the press box between games.

As the smoke from the intentionally-scorched slices wafts into the evening air, the Toastman uses one of his many signs – I’ll get to those in just a bit – to fan the smell of the burnt morsels into the nostrils of opposing hitters, especially those in the on-deck circle conveniently located just a few feet from Blackstone’s seat.

Since the fortysomething Toastman does all his cooking on the spot, he saves his free time during the summer months for opposition research, or more accurately, opposition failure research. You see, the toast show is almost secondary to Blackstone’s relentless needling of enemy pitchers, hitters and, yes, even coaches on their every statistical blemish and/or character flaw. A voracious fan of the game and a man willing to do whatever is necessary to give the home team a psychological edge, the Pittsburgh-born and -raised Toastman scours the Internet for anything he can use to the Power’s advantage.

For instance, while Delmarva Shorebirds Tuesday night starter Nate Nery came into his appearance against the Power with a respectable stat line, the Toastman dug deep and found a nightmare outing in Lakewood, N. J., to report: “DO YOU REMEMBER THE LAKEWOOD GAME, NATE NERY? BECAUSE I DO! YOU GAVE UP NINE RUNS IN THREE INNINGS JUST A FEW STARTS AGO! I KNOW YOU’RE THIKING ABOUT IT!”

As one would expect, the visitors don’t always take too well to the incessant and damningly accurate ribbing from a mustachioed man they’ve never seen before. From the irritable young pro ballplayer, there is typically one of two reactions: death stare or feigned disinterest. Either way, the Toastman knows he’s getting through.

By the final game of their team’s stay in Charleston, though, the initial ire begins to erode in favor of begrudging appreciation, and in some cases, actual affection for the passionate heckler trying to pry his way inside their heads.

After all, it’s impossible to deny the Toastman’s dedication to his craft. I briefly mentioned his vast collection of signs above – placards that help him lead encouraging chants among the Power faithful, e.g. “Cline Drive” for infielder Matt Cline and “Deep Fryer” boosting catcher Eric Fryer. Did I mention nearly every sign is in full vibrant color and features distinguishing fonts and flourishes? This isn’t a hobby; it’s a vocation.

I worked as an intern for the Power last summer, and it was during my time as the on-field between-innings MC that I met the loquacious legend. Upon conclusion of a midseason contest, the Toastman introduced himself through the screen behind home plate and complimented me on my ad lib work. I eventually found out he was a Syracuse graduate and earned his degree in journalism with the intention of being a newscaster. It’s probably a combination of that plus his confession to being a rabid Pirates fan that caused us to immediately hit it off.

Anyway, since my fiancée works in the Power front office, I can essentially sit wherever I want when I attend a game at Appalachian Power Park. The choice is simple.

One last story: While he was preparing to pack up his paraphernalia and leave Monday’s game, a convincing victory for the first-place Power, the Toastman noticed Delmarva shortstop Pedro Florimon battering the dugout trash receptacle to hell after a poor performance. Segue to last night, when during Florimon’s third at-bat, Blackstone came striding down the aisle with, incredibly, a concourse garbage can in his hands. Ridiculously brandishing the oversized bin, the Toastman questioned the shortstop at high volume, “WHAT DO YOU HAVE AGAINST GARBAGE CANS, PEDRO? WHY DID YOU TAKE OUT YOUR FRUSTRATION ON THIS INNOCENT INANIMATE OBJECT?!”

Florimon never had a chance to see the uproarious display in his honor, as he briskly walked on four pitches. No matter. As the Toastman will readily tell you, his act is all about getting the fans involved. If he happens to throw a Power opponent or two off his game in the process, all the better.

In the often-grueling marathon that is minor league baseball, one man in Charleston, W. Va. keeps it fresh and energized.

For a minimum of 70 nights a year, Rod Blackstone shouts down ballpark boredom with three short words: “YOU ARE TOAST!”

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