I was sitting five rows behind the Toast Man and had already caught one piece of toast that I placed in my cup holder, when I got spattered by another, burnt beyond repair, that burst into a million pieces somewhere over my head.
“Hey! Cool it with the burnt toast!” I shouted, shaking pieces of toasty charcoal out of my hair.
There was a strapping, young redhead sitting with his friend behind me, making me wish I was thirty years younger. He tapped me on the shoulder. “You know, I’ve never seen a female drink Cracker Jack from the box before.”
“You haven’t lived,” I said, extending my Cracker Jack to him. “Care for a sip?”
“No, thank you,” he laughed. “I’ve got my beer. That’s all I need.”
I was hit on the back of the head with another piece of toast.
“I thought I already dealt with you!” I yelled, turning around.
“Don’t eat the toast! You don’t know where it’s been!” began the chant, repeated three times before everyone turned back to the game.
Just another evening among friends.
“It isn't Mr. Toast, it's Toastman!” Wayne kept telling me. The more he corrected me, the more I insisted on doing it my way. Toastman = Mr. Toast and no matter which name I chose, he was definitely missing in action Friday night. Not only Mr. Toast, but all the powers that be: coal, fire, air and water. Oh. And Mr. Baseball too. Gone. All gone. I couldn't imagine a Power game without them. I brought a friend with me, Annie, and with the main distractions missing, I was worried she wouldn't have fun or “get” my three year-long romance with Power baseball and Charleston WV.
The irresistibility of the Power held its own, however, even with the painful absence of Mr. Toast and all the mascots. There was an abundance of hecklers, especially on the party deck, many with horns and megaphones, and two Lexington strike-outs to toast and ridicule, which we managed to do even without Mr. Toast's expert leadership, and tons of fan enthusiasm as always, and plenty of games and races with spectators as participants, mostly children, that took place on the field during every lull, every inning change. When the game finally ended, we oohed and aahed our way through a dazzling fireworks display. Annie was blown away. “There's so much life here,” she kept saying. She was quite moved as we walked out with the crowd singing Country Roads along with John Denver who was crooning from the scoreboard like he always does after a game. And this was my first Power win, to boot. Sweet.
Annie totally got the Power thing. And after a drive down the river to the Capitol, and a walk up and down Capitol Street, with stops at Taylor Books, Ellen's Ice Cream, Delfine's Jewelry Store and Capitol Market, she totally got the Charleston thing, even after only a day's worth of honeyed Southern hospitality. Next weekend I'm dragging another northerner/Pittsburgher (Best-writer-friend-Brenda) down to Charleston for another visit, with a regatta and riverfront fair on the agenda, and we'll see if she gets it too. One thing I know for sure, there are no citizens anywhere in the United States more devoted to their home state than West Virginians. They are terrific role models for all of us. Thank you, Charleston. See ya next weekend.
Finished? Good. Let's move on.
Almost everything is perfect. Friend has been procured, tickets have been purchased, hotel room has been booked, house/pet sitter has been bribed, transportation is serviced and ready, and all I need is Mr. Toast, whom I've emailed and whose attendance is iffy, since he has a family reunion that weekend, which makes me feel a little suicidal. Setting those urges aside, I look forward to whistling Country Roads as I wind my way down I-79, on my way to my one-and-only 2008 Power game, an annual mandatory summer tradition for this Northern girl. So, if I miss Toast Man this year, he'll just have to make it up to me next year. The trick is getting him to commit to that. 8 pints of Graeter's ice cream from Cincinnati, Ohio says I can do it. I'll keep you posted.
My seat was only one row away from the Toastman, so I had a perfect spot for hearing insults and viewing burnt toast being hurled whenever an opposing batter struck out.
I was trying to figure out how much of the game I had missed, when a deep Southern voice drawled in my ear, "Is that an Omega Constellation?"
The scoreboard informed me we were at the bottom of the first inning. We were losing 0-1. I turned. Handsome, blue eyes, salty brown hair that curled over the forehead, and reading glasses riding low on the nose. I looked at my camera. "Sony," I said.
"No," he laughed. "I meant your watch!"
"Oh," I said, pulling up my sleeve to examine my dual-toned watch. How in the world had he seen it?
"I have one just like it. I love it. Don't you?" he asked, leaning closer, blasting me with a hurricane-strength explosion of stale beer that he had probably been perfecting all afternoon. Add 80°, full sunlight and tired sweat discharging from under-arms, chest, and back. The result was a nuclear cloud of second-hand alcohol, seeping from tissues and skin, oozing out of pores, staining the breath, and turning the mind into a slow-moving, well-meaning sponge. Oh, what a good-looking guy; and oh, what a stench.
"Yes, I do," I said, leaning away from him and turning my attention back to the game.
Power was batting. Ball two. I had assumed our conversation was finished; but alas, he continued, "I wear this one whenever my Rolex breaks. I've had it now for 17 years, and it's never stopped working."
"Why even bother with a Rolex, if it's always breaking?" I thought. I turned slightly in my seat to study him. He was smiling at me with his eyebrows raised, as if he was hopeful. Hopeful? Hopeful for what?
"How do I get out of this conversation?" I thought. Ball three. The crowd around us went wild. So I thought I would try, "Wouldn't it be awesome if we got on base?" I yelled it slowly, annunciating each word. "I've never witnessed a Power win before." It worked because he nodded, leaned back, turned his attention to the game, took a sip of beer, and cheered for Power, which ended up losing to Lexington something like 7-4, although we had a 2 run lead for several innings.
My new friend forgot about our matching watches, I forgot about his broken Rolex, and I still haven't seen a Power win. But I ate a mediocre bratwurst that I pretended was the best ever, laughed at a variety of relay races and games, saw several strike-outs and toast-throwing incidents, saw some great plays, sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as loudly as possible without making a scene, oohed and aahed over fan-appreciation fireworks, witnessed a man win a Ford SUV, watched a movie in my hotel room, woke up on Saturday morning and saw a parade that snaked through downtown Charleston, and visited all my favorite places like Taylor Books and the Capitol Market, before hitting the road home and wandering away from the interstate to savor the beauty of the West Virginia and Pennsylvania mountains, fields and farms.
With this weekend trip, the end of my summer was a special a treat, as sweet as the most fattening, forbidden dessert, a present I gave to myself to help me with a sometimes difficult transition. I'm home now, a new week has started and summer is over. I think I'm actually looking forward to fall.
Copyright © 2007 Louise Yeiser
I used to date a salt-and-peppered Southern gentleman with a smooth tongue and charm that could be sliced any which way you pleased and still retain its essence. The romance may have ended; but my love affair with Charleston WV had only begun. Charleston has two things the other Charleston doesn't have: West Virginia Power Baseball and the Kanawha River whose banks are dotted with elegant homes that have their own piers and docks. One of my favorite resting spots is Taylor’s Books on Capitol Street whose tree branches form a canopy, turning the busy business district into a sheltered forest glen, despite a fair share of foot traffic. Power Baseball is no less engaging, the home of Toast Man, whom I call Mr. Toast, a fan like no other. Each Power game is jam-packed with cheers and burnt toast that he more than abundantly supplies. Other amusements include dancing, singing, relay races, give-aways, guessing games, prizes and puzzles; and, of course, there is jumping to Van Halen’s Jump, while the videotaped images of screaming, bouncing heads and waving arms are viewed on the giant scoreboard in the outfield. The Power experience is as old-fashioned and patriotic as hot dogs and apple pie. The fans show up in all shapes, ages and sizes, carrying mitts, hats, smiles and $1 beers. They exit the ballpark listening to John Denver, playing his guitar and singing "Country Roads" from the scoreboard.
I'm driving off in a few hours for my third annual pilgrimage (for 2005, click here and 2006, here), and can hardly wait. I get to sample yet another piece of the past that has spilled over into the present. One of my favorite presents. So on that note, “Take me out to the ballgame!” and would somebody please pass the Cracker Jack?
"You’re where?” Sylvia asked?
I gulped, feeling like a naughty child. “I’m in Charleston.”
“As in West Virginia?” she asked incredulously. I knew I should have skipped Sylvia and just called Annie.
“The same,” I replied, looking out my Embassy Suites window at the parking lots, empty streets, and electrical power station below, and the green hills that spread beyond them. It was 7:00 Sunday morning, and I had been up since 6 am, watching the sky grow light much later than it did in Pittsburgh.
“When did you decide this, and why?” she asked. I could hear the disapproval in her voice. I’d been taking a lot of road trips lately, not spending much time in Pittsburgh, and will be leaving again next week for the long Labor Day weekend in Naples.
"I’m going back to school tomorrow which means today is my last day of summer," I said. "I couldn’t let the summer go by without at least one Power game.”
"No, I’m perfectly serious.”
"Weasie, you just got back from your meeting in Reading. Are you telling me that you spent the night at your house on Friday, turned around, and drove to Charleston on Saturday just for an old baseball game?”
"I am," I said.
"Because I love Charleston and I love Power baseball, and a Power game is not just any old baseball game.”
And there it was. It wouldn’t have mattered what Sylvia or Annie or anyone else had said. I couldn't let summer slip away without a Power game, which I decided on a sudden impluse. And it was a smart move on my part because I had an absolute blast. Just like I knew I would.
There is something completely irresistible about Power Baseball and Power Park. It is the magic of oldtime baseball, the way it used to be, a family event. I cried (as usual) during The Star Spangled Banner, I got to watch my Mr. Toast, aka Toastman, aka Rodney Blackstone, assistant mayor, ridicule at least 4 players from the Lexington minor league team who struck out, I watched not one, but 4 mascots surrounded by laughing, wiggling children (representing four forms of energy, see illustration above), I got soppy over “Country Roads", sung by John Denver with the help of about 2,000 fans, I watched 3 bats split on impact, I saw 2 homeruns, I videotaped people competing for prizes in silly sideline games and races during timeouts that made me laugh, I swayed with all my neighbors and sang, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, I watched a player get thrown out of the ballpark, I made a best friend with one of the vendors, I became friends with a couple I met, Mike and Lynn, hopefully with whom I will sit during subsequent games next year, and I saw toast flying every which way. Like I said, I had an absolute blast.
3 Memorable Power moments in no particular order
Memorable moment no. 1: When a Lexington player yelled mean, hateful things to the ump and got kicked out of the game, Toastman was well-prepared with a doll-sized figure of Darth Vader that he waved in front of us, while he led our section in, “Vent! Your! Anger!!” that was followed by: “The Dark-Side / of-the Force!” When the unfortunate fellow walked off the field from the dugout, trudging around homeplate, past first, and then out of a small door in the back of the field, slowly and with his head lowered, obviously memorizing the grass beneath his feet, I watched a wave of fans move along in the stands next to him, taunting, booing, clapping. I have to admit, I felt sorry for the guy. It must have been the longest walk of his life.
Memorable moment no. 2: Outfielder Darren Ford broke the Power's single-game, stolen base record, and play was halted while he was presented with the base (2nd) he had just stolen. Then we waited a few minutes while the bag was replaced on the field.
Memorable moment no. 3: A man was randomly selected from the crowd, and with camera sending the image straight to the scoreboard, he was asked a trivia question about Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr., with the understanding that if he answered right, everyone at the game would be able to present their tickets to a certain local restaurant for a free bucket of chicken wings, with their dinner. I repeat, everyone in the stadium. There were at least a couple thousand people in attendance that night. This offer was extended twice with two different participating restaurants. This underscores the incredible community support behind Power baseball.
I think I said it best last summer when I wrote “The Toastman Prophecies”. Joe Mock, of baseballparks.com, liked the piece so much that he featured it on his webpage for quite awhile. What can I possibly add, except to assert that I will always love Power baseball. Which could explain why I’m kicking myself all over the field for only going to one game this summer. Maybe next year, I can buy a series of tickets and sit right behind Mr. Toast, the Toastman. I could even catch a piece of toast. That would be almost heaven.
How can I best describe Toastman? When friend Wayne and I first arrived at the brand new Power Park, home to the West Virginia Power, and made our way to our seats, I noticed that in the first row, directly behind the catcher, a loudmouthed guy was holding up signs and leading cheers. There was no way to ignore him, with all his yelling. I was confused. Why were these public outbursts of drunkedness allowed? And yet, he was bright-eyed, unslurred, and had quite a following going on around him. Holding a sign that read, “No way, Jose!” he stood and yelled rhythmically to those behind him, “I say ‘No way’, you say, ‘Jose!’”. He punched each syllable to create an easy cadence. To my surprise, the fans participated, kids and grownups alike, chanting the cheer three times, and acting quite enthusiastic about the whole thing. Was it fun, or kind of obnoxious? I decided on the latter.
"Can we sit somewhere else, away from that guy?” I asked.
"No. That’s Toastman. He’s part of the Power experience,” laughed Wayne.
“Why is he called Toastman?” I asked, taking the seat where he guided me.
"Just watch. You’ll see,” Wayne said. So I sat and watched. I was struck by the brilliant brightness and beauty of Charleston’s new ball park. There were old-timers, adults, children, and babies everywhere, swaying, laughing, cheering, talking; the stadium was filled with life and movement. Sweeping my gaze back toward Toastman, I noticed a bulky pile of poster-board signs with cheers written on them, leaning against the concrete wall by his feet. Each was painted a different color, and was filled with easy-to-read, large block letters. All shapes and sizes, he had a different cheer for every Power player and for every scenario. Some of his signs were foldable, so he could abbreviate certain messages or change them. I didn’t know what or who to watch―Toastman or the game. So I went back and forth between the two.
Suddenly, I was distracted by a burning smell that didn't belong in a ballpark. I looked around and couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. "Something's burning,” I said to Wayne. "I swear to God it smells like burnt toast."
"Our pitcher just struck someone out,” Wayne said. “Watch Toastman.”
I think Joe Mock, author of baseballparks.com tells it best:
In case you haven't heard, the Power has one of the most famous fans in all of minor-league baseball. Sometimes called the "Toast Man," Rod Blackstone is worth the price of admission -- maybe more -- just to watch his antics throughout West Virginia's home games.
He's called the Toast Man because he brings bread and a real toaster with him to games. The Power accommodated him by wiring an electrical outlet into the base of the backstop, right by his front-row seat. When a pitcher for the home team strikes out a batter (and believe me, when a hitter gets two strikes on him, the fans start buzzing in anticipation of this), he screams, "You are toast! You are toast You are toast!" Then he tosses slices of toast to eager fans in nearby sections.
Sure enough. As the unfortunate batter, who struck out swinging, plodded back to the dugout, studying his feet and kicking up dust, Toastman flew to his feet, addressed his audience, pointed to the retrieving batter, and began yelling, “You are toast! You are toast! You! Are! Toast!” The whole section roared right along with him, the sound reverberating throughout the stadium. Fists flew, fingers pointed. I kept waiting for the batter to turn around and give us the finger, but he didn’t. There probably would have been a cheer for that too. Toastman turned to face the crowd with his hands full of toast, mostly charred and burned, and one by one, tossed each piece out toward outstretched hands. People in the back rows were standing and yelling, "Over here! Over here!" Kids were scrambling up and down the aisles. One piece sailed through the open window of the announcement booth, and I watched laughing adults, laden with microphones and headsets, jostling about, eventually throwing it out into a row full of clambering children. I had never seen anything like this before, and I trust I wouldn't again. Except for here in Power Park. Why didn’t every baseball team in America have a Toastman?
The next morning over coffee, I was leafing through the 2005 summer edition of Charleston Magazine, to read that in addition to his role as Toastman, Rod Blackstone is Charleston’s assistant mayor. So as a representative of the town, he’s legit in every way. And according to Wayne, he doesn’t miss a single game.
But sometimes Wayne can be a real drag. “You know, not everybody thinks Toastman is the next best thing since sliced bread. Some think he’s fun for a game or two; but after awhile, he wears on the nerves. And some people even consider him an embarrassment to our city.”
“Well, they’re no fun at all,” I replied, although given my first impression, I could see his point. Even so, I can safely argue that if every baseball team in America had a Toastman like Rod Blackstone, major league and minor league baseball would be electrified with an excitement we haven't seen in 30 years. People would flock to game after game, much too busy to complain about the hot, humid summer weather because they would be talking about their favorite baseball team―counting wins and losses, calculating standings, imagining the possibilities, and enjoying the sheer fun of it all. Which is the way it should be, in my opinion.
Charleston has a good thing going. I can hardly wait for my next visit, when I can return to Power Park, kick back with a snack or two from the concessions, and watch Toastman do his thing. Oh, yeah. And it'll be great seeing my friend Wayne too.
Copyright © 2005 Louise Yeiser