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It was an otherwise unmemorable game in Salt Lake City involving a player no longer in the NBA on a team whose nickname and logo exist only as part of a legal settlement.
But when Peja Drobnjak went to check into a game for the Sonics in 2003, a Utah Jazz fan said something that made it unforgettable.
“Hey Peja, try soap,” he yelled.
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The heckler’s aim was perfect. Drobnjak was perpetually unshaven, hunched his shoulders and was known among teammates for an apparent disinterest in applying deodorant.
Even the delivery was spot on, waiting until the crowd noise had lulled during a stop in play and then the insult arrived both loud and large. Drobnjak heard it. So did everyone else on that side of the court.
It remains a golden example of heckling. Loud and funny, pointed but not profane. The kind of moment that takes an otherwise meaningless game and makes it memorable long after the player — and in this case the whole franchise — has moved on.
It was like a rose blooming amid the manure of abuse that pours out of the stands at sporting events. Most of it is absolute garbage, often obnoxious and at worst profane. It can make parents plug their children’s ears and fans look for other seats. That’s no fun for anyone.
“Ninety-nine percent of it is just pure bile coming out of people’s mouths, which is really unattractive,” said John Wetteland, the Mariners’ bullpen coach and a former major-league closer.
It’s that other one percent we’re talking about here. Those instances when a bellowing voice is combined with good humor and great timing. There’s an art to good heckling. Done well, it is something that can get the crowd laughing and even earn a nod of acknowledgment from the player.
A good heckler can scale that barrier between observer and participant, bringing the crowd near him along for the ride, a unique part of watching a game in person. No one attends a play hoping it’s sufficiently bad to warrant boos. People don’t jeer a neurosurgeon in the operating room because of his sutures. But in sports there is an inherent antagonism between the home crowd and the visiting players. The problem is that antagonism seldom translates to effective heckling.
“Most of the time, it’s annoying,” said Brandon Morrow, Mariners pitcher. “Not even hurtful, it’s annoying. They’re trying to be funny or trying to be mean, and it just comes off as annoying to anyone out there.”
Done well, heckling draws smiles from everyone, even the target. Done poorly, it elicits eye rolls and groans, souring the experience of those sitting nearby. Some tips:
1. Aim properly
The target must be able to hear you. This is nonnegotiable. Yelling at the opposing quarterback in a football game is asinine. Same for hollering “Hey blue,” at the home-plate umpire while sitting in the left-field bleachers. Not even Aretha Franklin has pipes sufficient to carry that kind of distance.
Football is a great place to scream your lungs out, but it’s the worst sport for heckling because the distance and helmets get in the way. Even the coaches on the sidelines are wearing headsets and are immune from abuse.
The intimacy of a basketball gym makes it the best choice, the laid-back pace of baseball makes it No. 2, with the prime location being the bullpen, located in the outfield. The pitchers are a captive audience there.
As a general rule, a paycheck is a prerequisite for getting heckled. College students get a pass when it comes to jeering college opponents, but it’s overall very poor form for an adult to take aim at amateurs.
2. Have the right ammunition
There is nothing more boring than regurgitated taunts. Everyone’s heard someone scream, “HE’S A BUM!” That was funny. Once. But that was in like 1956.
Shouting, “You [stink]!” is even worse. They [stink], really? That’s why they’re playing professionally?
Come on. You’ve got to do better than that. Learn something about the player’s history, his recent performances or minor-league resume. Better yet, take a moment to take stock of the appearance and get creative.
“Come on Frodo,” one fan yelled at guard Luke Ridnour in his rookie season with Seattle when he was curly-topped and could have passed for 16. It’s a well-known truth: Hobbits = hilarious.
“Frank-o-potamus” was a particularly good nickname hung on slugger Frank Thomas at Safeco Field back when he played for the White Sox during the 2000 playoff series against Seattle.
Wettleand remembers a game 20 years ago when he and Ray Searage were teammates for the Dodgers warming up in the bullpen at Candlestick Park.
“All of a sudden, some guy goes, ‘Ray Searage. You look like raw sewage,’ ” Wetteland said. “Both of us stopped throwing, looked at each other and started laughing. It stopped us in our tracks.”
3. Keep it clean
There’s a reason tickets to sporting events don’t come with parental-advisory stickers: The soundtrack needs to be kept clean.
Profanity can be a crutch for those who lack creativity. It is also the surest way to get kicked out of a game. Foul or abusive language and/or gestures are No. 1 on the Mariners’ list of verboten behaviors in their code of conduct to keep Safeco Field a place where all fans can enjoy the game.
Besides, you really think that cursing is going to shock or appall professional athletes? Not likely since they’ve spent more than a few years in that most foul-mouthed of environs, the professional locker room.
4. No family references
No jokes or sarcasm about this subject. It’s just not funny. Telling a pitcher he’s got the arm of a snake is acceptable heckling. Cracking wise about his children or his wife is absolutely not.
5. Seriously, no family references
We mean it.
6. Let it rip
Janet Rayor is a singer and stilt dancer in Seattle, who gives voice lessons and is a little reluctant at the thought of helping hecklers improve the velocity of their pitches.
“I hope I’m not helping people who are real jerks,” she said.
So be warned. Use her lessons for good heckling, not for evil or obnoxious behavior.
“What you want to do is lift your upper chest,” she said. “Not in a weird way, lift it like an umbrella.”
Think of it like an accordion being expanded, filling up with air. The key is pushing out from way down deep in the stomach.
“People think it’s from the diaphragm,” she said. “But you want to go from the lower belly.”
Some people like to spread their mouth wide, like a smile, but that doesn’t focus the sound. Put your lips forward if you really want to turn your mouth into a megaphone.
7. With great volume comes great responsibility
A heckler isn’t on stage, but he has an audience: the folks sitting within earshot. Always mind whether the material is working. Heckling, at its best, enhances the game experience and gets people laughing and embracing the natural rivalry that exists in any sporting competition. At its worst, heckling makes fans look for either an usher or different place to sit.
Heckling doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a stadium filled with plenty of other fans who paid money for their tickets, too, and don’t deserve to have their experience wrecked by someone who refuses to recognize the following signs that their heckling is neither funny nor appreciated:
1) A lack of laughter is the first clue.
2) Rolled eyes or whispers are a dead giveaway that you’re edging toward fan non grata.
3) If someone tells you to pipe down, it’s a good idea to just stop.
If your fellow fans are more annoyed than the target of your heckling, it’s a pretty sure sign to choose silence as the better part of valor.
If you ignore these signs, you could wind up being remember as that guy who irritated pretty much everyone within earshot. A good heckler would rather be remembered as that guy who heckled Peja Drobnjak so perfectly one night in Utah.
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org