Filed under: Practical Jokes and Mischief, Pranksters
Baseball’s Pastime: Pranking
by Scott Cacciola
The Wall Street Journal
August 9, 2011
How Ballplayers Use Practical Jokes to Police the Clubhouse; Mr. Laird, You’re Under Arrest
Late in Thursday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Elliot Johnson sought to put his spin on one of baseball’s time-honored traditions. It had nothing to do with throwing around the horn or stretching in the seventh inning.
Instead, he rimmed the bottom of a paper cup with a big wad of bubble gum and set about affixing it to the top of third-base coach Tom Foley’s helmet—which happened to be sitting on Foley’s head.
Unfortunately, the cup came tumbling off, ruining the gag. But Foley understood the value of a good clubhouse prank, dating to his own playing days, and thus felt obligated to do his part. So he reattached the cup to his helmet, voluntarily becoming the butt of the joke. The scene was broadcast on television, and Foley said he got a text from his daughter: “You look like an idiot.”
Baseball pranks are a tradition nearly as old as the game itself. They run the gamut from innocent to extreme, a usually unseen facet of baseball that remains an essential thread in the sport’s fabric. “Listen, the game’s predicated on failure,” Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee said. “If you can’t laugh at yourself and enjoy yourself with teammates, it can be a long season.”
Pranks come packaged with their own set of guidelines—prank etiquette, so to speak. For example, McGehee emphasized an important rule of thumb: Never mess with someone who has considerably more resources than you do. By resources, McGehee meant time and money. Starting pitchers are notorious pranksters because they often have both. “If you’re making the league minimum and go after someone with a huge contract, it’s really not a tree that you want to go barking up,” McGehee said.
Will Ohman, a reliever for the Chicago White Sox, paid a steep price for violating that rule when he was playing for the Chicago Cubs in 2005. After Ryan Dempster, a veteran starter, left Ohman’s shoes in a freezer, Ohman made the ill-advised decision to retaliate. He got into Dempster’s locker and went to town, supergluing the fly of Dempster’s pants, removing the laces from all his shoes and putting eyeblack on the inside of his baseball cap. “Standard stuff,” Ohman said. “And I thought it was over.”
Three days later, Ohman was walking to the bullpen before a spring-training game when he noticed a camera crew was trailing him. He found this curious, but teammate Mike Remlinger assured him that it was for a piece on journeyman pitchers. Ohman bought it—for about 20 seconds. When he reached the bullpen, an opposing pitcher shouted at him through the fence: “Hey, is this your wheel?” Sure enough, Ohman spotted one of the wheels to his pickup truck. “My heart sank,” he said.
Everyone was in on the joke—teammates, coaches, players from the other team—and it was all orchestrated by Dempster, who had removed the truck’s wheels and scattered them around the ballpark. There was one in the clubhouse shower, one of the coaches’ bathroom, one in the dugout.
“The sad thing is, I was scheduled to pitch that day and I’m going around the stadium collecting my wheels,” said Ohman, who found that his truck kept veering to the right when he finally got the wheels back on. “I had to get the alignment fixed. I left the bill in Dempster’s locker. He still hasn’t paid me.”
Relief pitchers also have a reputation for irreverence, though they tend to pick on their own kind. These kerfuffles takes various forms. Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Evan Meek said one prank with staying power is loading up an orange with shots of Anbesol—an oral numbing ointment—and waiting for an unsuspecting teammate to consume it. Hilarity ensues. How much Anbesol, exactly? “Not a lot,” Meek said. “Just a few squirts here and there. Enough to numb your whole mouth.”
Steve McCatty, the pitching coach for the Washington Nationals, said pranks are an important part of clubhouse camaraderie—always have been. (He once pulled an all-timer on Billy Martin, lighting his shoes on fire during a game against the White Sox in Chicago.) Now, he said, he worries that “political correctness” has diluted the fun.
“These days, a lot of this stuff would be considered ‘hazing,’ ” he said. As a result, he said, pranks have gotten watered down. It’s almost cliché now that a shaving-cream pie in the face will follow a game-winning hit.
Then again, some of what the old-timers did was downright dangerous.
Former New York Yankees pitcher Goose Gossage said he once made the mistake of falling asleep on a team charter. He awoke to a burning sensation. His shoes were on fire—mid-flight. “That’s the last time I ever fell asleep on a plane,” said Gossage. Another time, Ryne Sandberg reached under a bathroom stall with a match and set Gossage’s newspaper ablaze. “Gosh, that was a good one,” Gossage said.
Certain teammates got it worse, Gossage said. How about the day someone nailed another reliever’s $500 cowboy boots to the clubhouse floor? “Ruined ’em,” Gossage said. Is there an etiquette to stuff like that? Gossage, clearing his throat: “He probably deserved it.”
Which leads us to another point of etiquette: If you disfigure or destroy someone’s personal property, compensate them. But it can still get tricky. “I saw someone shred a suit that turned out to be a gift from a late relative,” Pirates outfielder Matt Diaz said. “Yeah, not good.”
Above all, veterans have long used pranks as a way to police the clubhouse. Jerry Hairston Jr., a Brewers utility player and a third-generation major leaguer, said that was the case in 2007, when a younger teammate with the Texas Rangers was “popping off” at spring training. (Hairston declined to identify the player, but Gerald Laird, now a backup catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, confirmed through a team spokesman that he was Hairston’s target.)
Hairston arranged for two friends with the Surprise, Ariz., police department to show up in the clubhouse—with manager Ron Washington’s blessing—and issue a warrant for Laird’s arrest on charges of unpaid child support. It was a total fabrication, of course. No matter. Laird practically went into a catatonic state when the cops handcuffed him at his locker and led him outside. It was essentially a perp walk in front of his teammates.
“He was newly married at the time, and he’s saying, ‘What am I going to tell my wife?'” Hairston said. “Oh, man—he was in tears in the back of the squad car. I’m telling him, ‘Listen, I’ve got buddies in L.A. who are lawyers. Give them a call; they’ll help you out.’ And he’s thanking me, thinking I’m a good guy for giving him these numbers.”
Hairston finally caved and delivered the truth, along with a lesson: Don’t tick off the wrong people. “He was a good soldier after that,” Hairston said.