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The Gentleman Heckler

No name-calling. No profanity. Robert Szasz does his research and cites statistics to grate on the nerves of Devil Rays opponents.

Published August 6, 2003

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Robert Szasz heckles one player per series. Jose Guillen gave the heckler a bat to stop the abuse.

Fan or foul?
What's your opinion on hecklers at ballgames?
They're great -- they make sports fun
They're OK -- so long as they keep it clean and not too loud
They're awful -- they ruin the game for everyone else

ST. PETERSBURG - Angels centerfielder Darin Erstad hadn't noticed the heckler. Nor had third baseman Scott Spiezio.

"I heard him," said first baseman Shawn Wooten, sitting at a card table in the visitors locker room, his back to Spiezio, before the second game of the recent Angels-Devil Rays series.

The guy in the white Rays jersey and green cap had been on Wooten from the moment he replaced the injured Troy Glaus in the third inning. The taunts came so fast, not all were intelligible.

But Wooten got the message.

"I got to pick up for where Troy left off," Wooten said.

Wooten was the latest of an expanding number of victims of Tropicana Field's very own heckler, whose volume and witticisms - and recall of statistics - have attracted national attention, though few know his name.

SportsCenter shows clips of his commentary on its highlights. Followers post testimonials on the Rays' Internet fan forum. Opposing players want to know what his problem is.

He's Robert Szasz, and he's not the typical boorish fan. Though loud enough to be heard on local television broadcasts, the 37-year-old from Clearwater refrains from profanity, makes sure his remarks aren't personal and respects those seated near him.

"I thought it'd be a long, hard season because I thought there would be fans who would get a bit hostile," said Chris Harris, an usher in the section where Szasz sits. "But you adapt to it."

Some fans even encourage Szasz (pronounced, "Sass"), seeking autographs, asking to be photographed with him and imitating him (poorly). Raymond, the team's mascot, recently fetched soft drinks to keep Szasz's voice in working order.

"He should be known as the 10th man here," said Gene Batronie, 29, of Brandon, a season ticket holder who sits behind Szasz.

For many, Szasz's enthusiasm and regular presence at games is a welcome change from the apathy surrounding a franchise in which opposing fans often outnumber Rays supporters.

"As long as we see him wearing a Rays shirt, we're fine," Rays third baseman Damian Rolls said.

The Trop can become so quiet during games, fans along the first-base line can hear conversations from across the field. From his seat behind home plate in Section 103, Szasz pierces the silence with his auctioneer's voice whenever his intended target appears at the plate.

Szasz limits his comments to one player per series, stays quiet when the Rays are at bat and keeps Sierra Mist and Robitussin handy to prevent his throat from getting sore.

"This team needs emotion," Szasz said. "When I go nuts, I hope they pick up some."

During Glaus' second-inning at-bat, Szasz razzed the third baseman about his 1-for-15 slump, rattled off the number of runners he left on base during a recent series against Baltimore, claimed his back foot was out of the batter's box and accused him of failing to live up to his billing as the MVP of last season's World Series.

Glaus acted as if he didn't hear the taunts, but the at-bat might have indicated otherwise. He struck out swinging.

"I got him on four pitches," Szasz bragged afterward. "That's not bad."

A developer who relocated from Toronto 20 years ago, Szasz owns season tickets to the Rays, Bucs and Lightning. He is loyal to all three teams but has become synonymous with the Rays since his voice (picked up by nearby television and radio microphones) became a staple of local broadcasts and he was included in the Rays highlight packages onSportsCenter.

After enjoying some success heckling Alex Rodriguez when the Rangers visited the Trop in late May (Rodriguez went 0-for-8.), Szasz fully committed himself to the effort after the Angels' Brad Fullmer erupted and was ejected after being called out on a play at the plate a few days later.

"Fullmer had so much emotion," Szasz said. "I thought, "This guy's crazy. I want to get this guy."'

Szasz usually directs his taunts at an opponent's top player. If the player is taken out of the game, his replacement inherits more than his spot in the batting order, as Wooten and Texas' Shane Spencer found out.

Szasz also likes to pick on disgruntled or short-tempered players such as Fullmer, former Yankee (and current Diamondback) Raul Mondesi and ex-Red and Ray Jose Guillen, who recently was traded to the A's. A Yankees security guard asked for the Rays' head of security to silence Szasz after he ribbed Mondesi in late June.

"Too many outfielders! You're going to be traded!"

The Rays refused, according to Harris.

Guillen was so flustered, he asked Szasz what he had to do to get him off his back. They agreed on a bat, which Szasz gave to his oldest son. As soon as Szasz quieted down, the then-Reds outfielder hit a home run.

Szasz turned his attention to Adam Dunn, who immediately began an 0-for-12 slump.

"Want me to get his bat, too?" Szasz said Guillen asked him.

From his spot behind the plate, catcher Toby Hall has the dual privilege of hearing Szasz's comments and witnessing batters' reactions.

"People on other teams say, "Good God, who is this guy?"' Hall said. "He gets in their heads."

Backup catcher Javier Valentin said the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez grew weary of Szasz's taunts after a couple of at-bats.

"He said, "Again? I have to hear him again?"' Valentin said.

When Gonzalez homered in a Rangers win, Szasz bowed in mock adulation.

"He's the only one who's really been effective against me," Szasz said.

Szasz, who has two seats, usually accompanies his wife, Bonnie, or sons, Marc, 8, Jake, 6, or Brent, 4.

Marc once lost his voice for three days while trying to keep up with his father. A Rays coach who recognized him as Szasz's son playfully heckled him at a youth camp.

Bonnie Szasz isn't as comfortable with the attention. She keeps quiet, hides from the ballpark cameras and makes sure a security guard is close by to accompany her to the parking lot.

But she allows her husband to have his fun.

"He enjoys it," Bonnie Szasz said. "So that makes me happy."

He takes it seriously, too. Rather than stoop to name-calling, Szasz prepares for games by mining fan forums for information on upcoming opponents. And his work doesn't stop when the game ends.

Like a member of the team, Szasz leaves through a tunnel near the Rays' clubhouse and stops to congratulate players and coaches after victories.

"Way to go, guys," he said after a 3-2 victory against the Angels. "We're sweeping tomorrow."

Szasz sees his heckling as giving the Rays a boost. He would love for others to join him - "It'd be a great homefield advantage" - but only if it pleases the team.

"If our players ever asked me to stop doing it, I'd stop doing it," he said, "because I do it for them."

No one's asking.

"He's awesome," Hall said. "If we had more fans like that, it'd be great."

The Hit List

A series-by-series rundown of Tropicana Field heckler Robert Szasz's victims:

Alex Rodriguez, TexasRangers star and baseball's highest paid player Taunt: "Nice swing. How about a tennis racket? Maybe a golf club?" Brad Fullmer, Anaheim Angels, Called out after missing the plate while sliding

Taunt: "Don't touch the plate. It's hot."

Jose Guillen, Cincinnati Reds, Upset about playing time

Taunt: "How's it feel to be the No. 4 outfielder?"

Adam Dunn, Cincinnati, Guillen appeased Szasz with a bat

Taunt: Countdown ("O-for-1, 0-for-2 . . .")

Jason Kendall, Pittsburgh Pirates,Fought with Marlon Anderson

Taunt: "How's your anger management?"

Raul Mondesi, New York Yankees, Didn't produce with men on base

Taunt: "Bases are loaded, gotta get a hit."

Todd Walker, Boston Red Sox, Tagged up in blowout of Marlins

Taunt: "Tag 'em up, kid."

Juan Gonzalez, Texas, Vetoed trade to Expos Taunt: "Got a problem with french fries? French toast? How about a french kiss?" Shane Spencer, Texas, Replaced Gonzalez and struck out Taunt: "Just like Juan." Troy Glaus, Anaheim, Slumping World Series MVP

Taunt: "How many were left on base, nine or 10?"

Shawn Wooten, Anaheim, Replaced Glaus Taunt: "You get to pick up where Troy left off."

- Compiled by Frank Pastor.

[Last modified August 6, 2003, 01:33:00]

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