Sunday, Jun 17, 2018
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Batters, pitchers alike feel strikeout pressure

Toft’s Ice Cream Strikeout Player of the Game a tradition in Toledo

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    Nellie Rodriguez on the scoreboard during a baseball game between the Toledo Mud Hens and Columbus Clippers at Fifth Third Field.

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The moment the speakers at Fifth Third Field ring out the first notes from “The Entertainer,” Toledo Mud Hens fans know something big is about to happen.

Those strains from a calliope indicate the “Toft’s Ice Cream Strikeout Player of the Game” is stepping to the plate.

The premise of this long-time promotion is simple: If a Mud Hens pitcher can strike out the designated visiting player, a row of fans at the ballpark receive Toft’s Ice Cream. Strike him out twice? Two rows are rewarded, and so on.

While the premise is exciting for Hens fans, it does not resonate with the team’s pitchers.

“That’s the most important out in my entire day,” Toledo pitcher Drew VerHagen said when asked about the strikeout player of the game. Then he smiled and told the truth.

“I hear the song, but I don’t think about it.”

That was the consensus of the Mud Hens staff — although several pitchers admitted they knew about the promotion because it turned a quiet ballpark into a maelstrom of noise.

“I was pitching during a kids’ game last year, and I heard that music,” Matthew Boyd said. “It had been quiet, but suddenly all I could hear was ear-piercing screams.

“All I could do was laugh. It had gone from totally quiet to a Taylor Swift concert.”

Not every pitcher is able to ignore the moment. Former Hens pitcher Alfredo Figaro, who joined the team in 2010, pitched as if he was expected to strike out the strikeout player.

More than once Toledo coaches would laugh about having to settle down the right-hander from the Dominican Republic, who almost would hyperventilate on the mound while psyching himself up to get the strikeout.

Batters sometimes have had the same trouble in dealing with being named the strikeout player.

The best example of that came in 2001, the final year the Hens played at Skeldon Stadium. That year a hot-shot Phillies prospect, Eric Valent, played for Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre, and the day after a three-hit performance against the Hens he was chosen as the strikeout player.

Valent clearly was affected by the pressure, and the young outfielder struck out twice and was hitless in four at-bats.

The next day, a clubhouse attendant came up to the press box. It turned out several Red Barons had enjoyed seeing their brash teammate get knocked down a peg — and asked he be named the strikeout player for a second straight game.

While Valent handled the pressure a bit better, he again went hitless with another whiff.

How does a player get chosen as the strikeout player? There are no set rules, although a player in a slump or with a high strikeout total often becomes a prime target.

Former Mud Hens who return to Fifth Third Field almost are certain to be chosen at least one day when they return. Highly regarded prospects also often have a target on their backs when it comes to being selected.

That’s why current White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier often was the strikeout player when he was with Louisville from 2009-12: He was the top prospect in the Reds organization at the time, and his older brother, Jeff, had played with the Hens.

Todd Frazier played the role of ice cream villain well. One time, after swinging and missing a pitch to strike out, he tipped his cap as he returned to the Louisville dugout.

Another time he overcame the pressure and slugged a home run. After he had circled the bases, he yelled at fans behind his team’s dugout, “Go to Baskin-Robbins if you want ice cream. You’re not getting any from me!”

Former Mud Hen Mike Hessman was a prime target in visiting ballparks because of his high strikeout totals. But as the franchise’s all-time home run leader, he rarely was chosen at Fifth Third Field.

That one exception came in 2013, when the Hens decided to tempt the fates and chose Hessman as the strikeout player in a game against Louisville.

In his first at-bat, Hessman lofted a high fly ball down the left-field line that just stayed fair for a home run. The second time, Hessman slammed a no-doubt home run over the scoreboard in left.

Then came a first: The Mud Hens chose a different strikeout player before Hessman batted again, causing the entire Louisville dugout to stare up at the press box. The Hens offered a peace offering to the slugger, sending a batting helmet full of ice cream to Hessman in the Bats clubhouse along with a note of apology that read in part, “We never should have doubted you.”

Current Mud Hens hitters say they try to not let it affect them when they are chosen as the strikeout batter in foreign ballparks. But they also admit that concept is easier said than done.

“I tend to be more aggressive than usual,” Toledo first baseman Efren Navarro said. “But I’ve also learned I can’t get away from what I do. …

“It’s fun and games. You just have to learn to deal with it.”

But Toledo batters also confirm there are times it is no fun to be the strikeout player.

“That becomes your walk-up song for the entire game,” Hens shortstop Brendan Ryan said. “I get really aggressive, because I want to ruin the hopes and dreams of every kid who covets the free ice cream.

“I’ll be [darned] if someone is going to get free ice cream because of my failure.” 

Contact John Wagner at: jwagner@theblade.com, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.

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