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Art of the heckle

Master heckler reveals his secrets

ST. PETERSBURG -- The man has had Bret Boone swear at him, Vernon Wells scold him for being late and Alex Rodriguez dedicate a next home run to him.

Rob Szasz, however, is not a rookie pitcher trying to make friends with the big boys.

He's a heckler. Rather, he's The Heckler.

"I'm trying to show people that heckling should be done the old-school way and be done right, and become a positive role for the way the fan-player interaction should be, not how it has been in the past," he said. "Baseball, more than any other sport, screams for fan-player interaction."

Szasz, whose seat behind home plate is considered the closest in all of Major League baseball, is known throughout the league to fans and the media as the authority on good heckling. He recently put his verbal witticisms on paper and into a book. "The Happy Heckler," essentially an encyclopedia to clean heckling and published by Booksurge, is now available.

"You could look at heckling as a sport," he said. "The sport of what should be, not what it has been. Baseball should go back to its roots. I make it a sport. I make it enjoyable. I make it fun."

Monday night, when the Rays play host to Boston at Tropicana Field, is officially Heckler Day, and the first 5,000 fans will receive free megaphones. Szasz will be signing books at the Devil Rays Dugout Store in Westshore Plaza Mall July 30 at 11:30 a.m.

Szasz has been heckling since he was a young boy going to Toronto Blue Jays games with friends. When the Devil Rays came to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area eight years ago, he continued his friendly verbal abuse, and about four years ago got serious.

"I'm just doing my thing and the local media picked up on it, showed it on television and ever since then it's kind of been snowballing and gotten to the point where I almost can't not do it," he said. "Even when I'm making my way into the stadium, people are yelling at me, hammering me, 'Who's it going gone be, what's it gonna be tonight? My friend's coming to the field for the first time tonight, told him all about you tonight.' It's this tremendous pressure."

Two events propelled Szasz, who owns a construction company, into the limelight. First there was the infamous chair-throwing incident last year between the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics. Then, Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers stormed the seats in Detroit in April to go after a fan.

After both times, Szasz found ESPN calling him for comment.

"They said, 'The reason is that when it comes to heckling, you're the first person that comes to our minds. You're the authority on good heckling."

Szasz, who doesn't drink, considers himself a "guardian" of his section at Tropicana Field and often tells the rowdy fans to settle down. He has yet to have a physical confrontation with either a fan or player.

"I never fear that because I don't cross the line. If it isn't appropriate for one my young sons to hear, you won't hear me say it."

Thus follows Szasz's "Heckling Guidelines:" First, he does not use foul language -- Szasz sees baseball as a family affair and that the kids -- not their parents -- are the most important fans. Second, he makes sure all the statistics are correct; he assures he does not make mistakes. Finally, and perhaps most important, whatever Szasz says must, well, be funny.

Days before a team visits Tropicana Field, Szasz, who believes a "team's best critics are its fans," will scan fan forums and message boards. He then settles on a reputable player and hark on him from his front-row seat for the series.

"I'll try to find a trend and try to find the one person," he said. "Once I find the one player I look for what I call the hook. Once I get the hook the rest of it is like water flowing through the faucet; it just goes."

Szasz got creative when he discovered Ken Harvey of the Kansas City Royals graduated from a Beverley Hills high school, and shouted things about the popular teen drama, Beverly Hills, 90210.

Example: "Hey, can you get me Tori Spelling's autograph?"

Heckling throughout the game would not only defeat the purpose, but also be disturbing to others. His favorite part is how it messes with a player's head. When players come to Tropicana Field, they walk anxiously to their first at-bat, waiting to see if they are Rob's target for the night.

He has even gone after the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, who has a poor track record at Tropicana Field.

"Hey, A-Rod, what's wrong? 4-for-40 last time I checked. Worst stadium in baseball. What is it, your home away from home?

"Can't play in Florida, a dome, Astroturf?"

During games, Szasz is kind of like a starting pitcher in that he needs time to warm up before finding his strong fastball. He relies on a steady intake of Diet Coke, water, and candy.

"I might squeak a little bit at the very first at-bat, but once I get my groove, I'll be ripping into them pretty good," he said. "The sugar keeps it going, too."

"The Happy Heckler" chronicles Szasz's funniest and most bizarre heckling experiences, gives advice on good heckling, and highlights his criticism of the game of baseball. He shares his opinion on a game he has been a fan of since he was a young boy and traveled to Toronto with his friends to chide pitchers as a group.

"That's what baseball is about," he said. "You can go to ballgames, you can have a lot of fun, and you can heckle. You can cheer for your team, and do whatever want, but don't cross that line. Don't take it to that line and cross it and antagonize the players so that they'll do something back to you."

Szasz, who moved to the Tampa Bay area from Toronto 21 years ago, attends about 60 home games each year. He also holds tickets for the Lightning and Bucs.

He knows many of the top players in the league and discusses his relationships with them in his book. Toward the end of it, Szasz writes about the Yankees' Derek Jeter. In one conversation, he asks the All-Star shortstop how he feels about heckling.

"I think it's great, do what you want to do -- as long as you don't heckle me," Jeter told him.

Szasz, thinking Jeter wouldn't mind, still took a shot at him at the on-deck circle.

"I said 'Let's go, Jeter, I want to see that Visa.' He looks over to me and goes like this -- 'Shhh.'"

But if one of New York's Yankee pinstripers can't quiet the Happy Heckler, there is a small chance any of us can.

Jared S. Hopkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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