The Toast of Charleston
It’s a Monday afternoon, Labor Day, the final day of the 2010 minor league regular season. The West Virginia Power have a 7-3 lead against Hagerstown in the top of the ninth inning. Justin Ennis is on to pitch, needing just one more out. You wouldn’t have to look at the scoreboard to know Ennis needs one more out. A guy standing in the first row holds up a sign saying “One more out”, with the crowd behind home plate chanting along. Ennis quickly gets a two strike count. The guy with the sign flips it around, now reading “One more strike”. The crowd chants along.
The next pitch by Ennis is a strike to end the game. The guy in the front row grabs a handful of toast, from a toaster sitting in the aisle by his seat, and waves it at the opposing batter, while the crowd chants “You are toast”. The guy then celebrates by tossing pieces of toast to the crowd, who are all too eager to get a slice of their own. The guy’s name is Rod Blackstone, but in Appalachian Power Park, he’s more affectionately known as “The Toast Man”.
Every home game, The Toast Man has the same routine: lead the cheering behind home plate, taunt the opposing players with every opportunity, prepare toast beside his seat, wave that toast at opposing hitters when the home team records a strikeout, and distribute that toast to the crowd to celebrate the strikeout. This isn’t something new. This is a tradition that has been going on since the early 90s.
Rod started attending minor league games in West Virginia in 1990, and noticed the lack of cheering by the home crowd. At the time the Cincinnati Reds had their low-A baseball club in West Virginia, and were in the middle of a championship run. Rod came up with an idea to create signs, figuring that if people knew what to say, they would say it. The idea, which is also popular in college football atmospheres, caught on.
But what about the toast? In 1992, someone in the crowd stood up and yelled “You are toast” after an opposing player struck out. The phrase caught on, but the actual toast came later. Dennis Bastien, the club owner at the time, informed Rod that there was an electrical outlet in the front row, and that he could make toast during the game.
It’s now 2010, and The Toast Man has been holding up signs for 20 years, and making toast for 18 years. Despite the long tradition, the best years for Rod have been the last two seasons. The Charleston-based franchise has undergone many organizational changes. They were with Cincinnati from 1990-1998, Kansas City from 1999-2000, Toronto from 2001-2004, and Milwaukee from 2005-2008. The last two seasons they have been the low-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Toast Man started going to games in Charleston because they were the local team. That wasn’t his original local team though. The Toast Man originally grew up outside of Pittsburgh, as a Pirates fan. So it’s probably safe to say that, for the Toast Man, the Pirates taking over the franchise was the best thing since sliced bread. Rod wasn’t just a casual Pirates fan. He had eight tickets to the 1992 World Series, and still isn’t over the Francisco Cabrera incident.
The Pirates are concentrating heavily on rebuilding through the minors, which literally gives The Toast Man a front row seat to witness the rebuilding efforts. Rod follows the Pirates prospects throughout the organization, and even keeps in touch with some of the former West Virginia players. It’s not just West Virginia players that remember him. Rod also is remembered by opposing players, such as Jared Hughes, who Rod met while the Altoona pitcher was charting pitches, and still keeps in touch with today.
Not every visiting player has a positive reaction to the heckling. Only a series before the final game of the season, an opposing player flipped off the heckling crowd. So how does The Toast Man react to those incidents? By making more toast.
“I tell people ‘Never acknowledge a heckler,'” Blackstone said, regarding the incident. “‘If you acknowledge me and shout back at me then that means I’m getting to you.”
This isn’t just simple heckling. There is research involved. While the Power are on the road, Rod researches the upcoming opponents, looking for ammunition. If a player makes the final out of a recent game, with runners on second and third, and his team down by one, Rod will simply remind the crowd of that fact as the player approaches the plate. He also will play on the names.
West Virginia’s victory on Labor Day was against Hagerstown, who have players named Mills Rogers and Destin Hood. As Rogers came up to the plate for the first time, Rod explained this to the crowd, then explained that Hagerstown had “Mr. Rogers” and “Neighbor Hood”, which started a “Mr. Rogers Neighbor Hood” chant as Rogers was at the plate.
You’re probably thinking, how does The Toast Man find the time for all of this research? Aside from being The Toast Man, Rod Blackstone holds another important role in the City of Charleston: the Assistant Mayor. Rod was hired in 2003 by Mayor Danny Jones, who played a big role in getting the new stadium built for the West Virginia franchise. Mayor Jones hired Rod knowing his ballpark persona, and possibly to help get the new ballpark in Charleston.
At the time Mayor Jones was elected, there was no guarantee that a new ballpark would be built. The previous mayor had said yes to a ballpark deal, but was defeated, possibly due to the public opinion that the city didn’t need a new park. Mayor Jones led the charge to get the new park built, and finally got the park built in time for the 2005 season.
Rod’s position in the Mayor’s office isn’t constitutional, so if the Mayor stepped down tomorrow, The Toast Man wouldn’t take over. The Toast Man probably doesn’t need to run the city in order to make an impact. He makes that impact on the fans every night at the ballpark. In fact, Rod tells one story about a woman who brought him a ten year old piece of toast. The woman was on her first date with the man who would eventually become her husband, sitting in the stands while The Toast Man did his thing. She caught a piece of toast, the same toast she brought back ten years later. Why keep the toast? The woman said at that point she knew that she had found her future husband. Despite this story, the Toast Man takes no credit for being a match maker.
What is a normal night at Appalachian Power Park, sitting behind home plate with the Toast Man? When the home team comes to the plate, there is a specific cheer for each player. Prior to the season, Rod meets with a committee, known as “Cheers and Beers”. The goal of the committee is to figure out cheers for each player on the Opening Day roster. Phrases develop throughout the year, and every phrase gets a sign. On the final day of the season, Rod gives the signs to the players, as a memory of their season. So what were the signs for the players on Labor Day?
David Rubinstein – “Our Star. David.” The Toast Man chants the first part, the crowd responds with “David”.
Jarek Cunningham – “Slam, bam, Cunningham.” Everyone chants at the same time.
Evan Chambers – “Almighty Evan” A gold sign, where the Toast Man says “Almighty” and the crowd says “Evan”
Jose Hernandez – “Jose Can. You’ll See.”
Kyle Morgan – What else? The Toast Man holds up a Captain Morgan sign, and strikes the Captain Morgan post, while chanting “Captain” and getting the crowd to respond “Morgan”.
Rogelios Noris – Noris has two chants. The Toast Man holds up a sign that says “Our HeRo”. He then folds back the “Our” and “He” and reveals the “gelios” to spell out “Rogelios”. The Toast Man chants “Our Hero” and the crowd responds with “Rogelios”. The other chant is just his first name, with everyone drawing it out as “Roooooooogelios!”
Andy Vasquez – “The Andy Man Can”
Jairo Marquez – “Marvelous Marquez”
Elevys Gonzalez – The sign has “Elevys” in the center, and two flaps. The bottom flap is revealed first, to read “is the king”. The crowd chants “Elevys is the King” four times. Then the bottom flap is hidden, and the top flap is revealed to display “Long live” as the crowd chants “Long live Elevys”. When Gonzalez hits a home run, the crowd chants “Elevys left the building”. Both chants are a play on his first name, which is close to “Elvis”.
Marc Baca – “Chew Em Up. Baca” The sign has Baca in the middle, with “Chew” on the top, and “Em Up” on the bottom, making a play on “Chewbaca”.
There are other situational cheers. When an opposing fielder commits an error, the crowd starts a “Drop it like it’s hot” chant. The main event comes with the strikeouts. Throughout the game the Toast Man makes toast on a table in the aisle by his seat. When a West Virginia pitcher gets a two strike count on an opposing hitter, he holds up a sign that says “Power up the Toaster”. When the West Virginia pitcher records the strikeout, the Toast Man leads the crowd in a “You are toast” chant, waving the toast at the player as he walks back to the dugout, then throwing the toast out to the crowd.
The concept isn’t exclusive to West Virginia games for Blackstone. He also did the same thing in Pittsburgh in the early 90s, holding up signs that read “Fans Like Van Slyke”, “Invest in Bonds”, “Bobby Bo, Please Don’t Go”, and “Long Live the King” for Jeff King. However, the signs are better suited for a minor league environment, with 200 people in the section, rather than 2000 people.
West Virginia should have an exciting pitching staff next season. Top pitching prospects Zach Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, and Zack Dodson should make their full season debut with West Virginia. It’s also a good bet that 2010 first and second round draft picks Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie will end up in the West Virginia rotation by the end of the season. The amount of talent is exciting, but if you’re looking for a reason to go check out a game in Charleston, West Virginia, look no further than the Toast Man. Catching a game behind home plate with the Toast Man is worth the price of admission. Looking at West Virginia’s potential 2010 rotation, there will definitely be a lot of toast.
The Toast Man, Rod Blackstone, leading the crowd for the final out of West Virginia’s 7-3 victory on Labor Day.