“Kids Don’t Belong in the F’n Ballpark!”

When the Atlanta Braves hired Roger McDowell as their pitching coach, I was surely not the only one wondering how soon before the vaunted Atlanta pitching staff — not known previously as a comic lot — would master the fine arts of hot feet, upside down uniforms, orange shag wigs, perhaps exploding baseballs, and other assorted rituals of practical joking. Once upon a time, McDowell had been the undisputed king of comedy, maybe close enough to being baseball's version of Keith Moon (though he's never been accused of playing the drums), as a New York Mets relief specialist with a murderous sinkerball and a prankish plot between every inning.

The problem now is that the dustup that has made McDowell's name a household word all over again last week — and got him a two-week unpaid vacation from baseball government — is about as funny as the proverbial screen door on the submarine. And the part that should have had the most discussion, and provoked the most outrage, is getting very little of it thus far.

It's bad enough that McDowell evoked unpleasant memories of John Rocker's socioeconomic observations of New York City by rejoining a trio of heckling San Francisco Giants fans, during pre-game batting practice, with, "Are you a homo couple or threesome?" Having less than complete comfort with homosexuality, as many people do, is one thing, but expressing it so confrontationally anywhere — never mind in New York, as Rocker did; or, in San Francisco, where homosexual tolerance is thought by some to be something close enough to an official city religion — is something else entirely.

But when an adjacent fan, Justin Quinn, attending the game with his wife and twin 9-year-old daughters, challenged McDowell's companion crude hip and bat gestures (yes, I have a pretty fair idea of what those gestures were intended to simulate or imitate; no, I'm not going to translate that idea here) with, "Hey, there are kids out here," McDowell reportedly shot back the words which may yet mean the end of his baseball life, in Atlanta, anyway: "Kids don't belong at the f'n ballpark!"

Someone must have forgotten to give that memo to an infielder for the team with whom McDowell once starred. Or McDowell wasn't where he could see Mets third baseman David Wright endearing himself to Braves fans, and perhaps every baseball-loving kid in these United States (not to mention no few of their parents, perhaps), when he tossed an errant between-innings ball into the box seat, a young fan tossed it back to him, and Wright engaged the fan and his companions in a friendly game of catch before the inning got back underway.

It was easy enough to understand why video of Wright's friendly little game of fan catch went all but viral for a day or so after that game. Every child who grew up playing catch with his or her father, who dreamed of tossing even one ball back and forth with a baseball favorite, got to see a few fortunate kids in Turner Field doing just that with a player — even if he was wearing enemy fatigues (c'mon, fellow Met fans, didn't you grow up going to Shea Stadium hoping to have a little stands-to-sidelines catch just once with, say, Willie Mays, or Henry Aaron, or Sandy Koufax, or Ron Santo, or Mike Schmidt?) — whose reputation remains as one of the best people playing the game.

"Kids don't belong in the f'n ballpark!"

Any man who would say and mean that probably doesn't belong in the ballpark, f'n or otherwise. That's a terrible thing to have to say about a man whose playing days featured offering such entertainments (to kids in the f'n ballpark and otherwise) as walking onto the field with his uniform on upside down. To say nothing of the man who instigated what remains, arguably, the all-time in-game hotfoot.

I don't think anyone could improve on Jeff Pearlman's retrospective (in The Bad Guys Won). Not even me, and I watched the game during which it happened. The Mets were playing the Cincinnati Reds in Riverfront Stadium in May 1986. The game was scoreless after one and a half, with the Reds taking a feeble turn in the bottom of the second and Mets first base coach Bill Robinson relaxing at the end of the bench waiting to return to his post on the first base coaching line:

* * *

With the blessing of his teammates (but without [manager] Davey Johnson's knowledge), McDowell climbed under the bench and on elbows and knees crawled the twenty feet to Robinson's dangling cleats. In one fist, McDowell held a single Marlboro cigarette and a roll of gaffer's tape. In the other, he had a fully loaded book of matches. Exercising the dexterity of Spider-Man, McDowell, lying at Robinson's feet, removed the staple from the matchbook, wrapped the book around the cigarette, and taped the two together. Then softly and gently he stuck the device on Robinson's left cleat. As soon as the inning ended, McDowell lit the cigarette and crawled back to the other end of the dugout.

"There are a lot of complications," McDowell says. "You have to time the cigarette, and you also have to make sure there's enough air between the match and the cigarette so it doesn't die out. It's pretty intense."

Usually, when a hotfoot ignites, it takes anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds, and the result is a burning sensation and a small, manageable flame. This was no ordinary hotfoot. Robinson left the bench, took his post next to first base, watched the pitcher warm up, traded a few words with a fan, and clapped and yelled encouragement to Darryl Strawberry. As Gary Carter, the next hitter, stepped into the box, Red manager Pete Rose noticed the smoke oozing from Robinson's foot.

Unable to contain his laughter, he called his entire bench to join him at the end of the dugout. On the Mets' side, McDowell told Bill Webb, the director of WWOR's televised broadcast, to keep a camera on first base. The count was one ball, one strike on Carter. Suddenly, whooooooosh! An inferno exploded and flames shot up Robinson's leg as if he were the guest of honor at a Hawaiian pig roast. Robinson began jumping up and down, screaming in pain. For McDowell, it was perfection.

"It was like NASA just launched something," he says. "The greatest hotfoot ever. And Bill, to his credit, never got mad. He just said, 'You won't get me anymore. I'm done with that.' To me that was like when you're a kid and someone says, 'Don't call me that!' What are you supposed to do?"

The answer was obvious. McDowell, along with partner and technical adviser Howard Johnson, lit Robinson's shoe no fewer than 15 more times [in 1986], including seven or eight in August and September alone. At season's end Jay Horwitz, the Mets' PR whiz, incorporated a section on hotfoots into the team's highlight video, including McDowell and Hojo demonstrating their step-by-step approach.

Before a game against the Cardinals on August 17, Robinson was sleeping on a couch in the Shea Stadium clubhouse when he felt yet another burning sensation. This time Johnson and McDowell were especially ambitious — both of Robinson's shoes were ablaze. "I grabbed the shoes to get 'em off me," says Robinson, "and the plastic from the laces burned the shit out of my hand." Robinson took his ashen right shoe and flung it at McDowell's head, missing by a couple of inches.

* * *

Before commissioner Bud Selig's office handed him that unpaid two-week vacation, McDowell probably hoped a shoe flung at his head would be the worst punishment he'd face. The Braves put him on "administrative leave" (the politically correct term for "suspended") about a day before Slig's office pronounced sentence.

But we should have hoped that, if McDowell was to be punished, it should have been less for merely being crude and lewd toward actual or alleged homosexual fans than for being foolish enough to say something McDowell the prankish pitcher, whose antics entertained a generation or two worth of kids (in and away from the f'n ballpark!), would never have said even at gun- or heckling/outraged fan-point.

Once upon a time, McDowell was thought to be a big kid playing a kid's game. Today McDowell might be thought of as a kid who forgot to finish growing up before his memory lapse, and his concurrent opinion that kids don't belong in the f'n ballpark, came this close to costing him his job.

Comments and Conversation

May 4, 2011

Kevin:

He needs to be fired immediately. the longer the man is on the Braves payroll, the worse I feel about being a life long Braves fan

May 4, 2011

John Doe:

I’m glad they didn’t fire him, he’s a good pitching coach.

May 10, 2011

Joe Randy Queen:

This guy has got to go. He is making Atlanta look bad, not to say our poor Atlanta Braves. A loser.

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