One of baseball’s time-honored traditions, pranks usually are perpetrated on unsuspecting players and coaches out of the public eye. But every now and then, a prank will cross the line — literally — onto the playing field for all to see.
Such was the case Monday night at Cashman Field, where 51s pitching coach Frank Viola unwittingly walked to the mound in the ninth inning of Las Vegas’ 9-3 win over Round Rock with a paper cup stuck to the top of his hat with chewing gum.
Pitcher Jack Leathersich kept his composure during Viola’s visit, but first baseman Brandon Allen had to cover his face with his glove to hide his laughter.
“You’ve got to enjoy the game. It’s part of the game,” said Allen, an 11-year veteran. “That was the best (prank) I’ve seen so far.
“You get guys on the top step of the dugout, but to get the pitching coach walking out there, that’s classic. It’s always in the dugout.”
As Viola headed back to the dugout, the crowd of 2,989 snapped pictures of the former Cy Young Award winner and gave him a rousing reception.
“The fans were clapping for him. He didn’t know what was going on,” said 51s manager Wally Backman, who said he should have stopped Viola from walking onto the field like that. “I’d forgotten they put it on. I never would’ve let him go out there with that on.
“(Viola) said, ‘I gotta go talk to (Leathersich), and I said, ‘OK.’ He got up a few steps, and I said, ‘Oh, (crap).’ ”
Las Vegas already had clinched its division title and had a big lead in the late August game, making it prime time for a prank.
“It keeps the team loose and adds some fun to the game,” second baseman Danny Muno said.
Even Viola found it funny. A little bit.
“It was funny. Funny until it went on the field. There’s a pecking order,” he said. “It was cute. They got me.”
While Backman said Viola laughed it off, “Sweet Music” had his pitchers arrive early Tuesday for some rare fielding practice.
“It was awhile ago the last time we did that,” catcher Kai Gronauer said.
Said outfielder Anthony Seratelli: “Some people definitely get mad. You can take it too far. That happens, but they’ll get back at them, and that’s it. It’s all fun.
“That was one of the funnier things I’ve seen on the field in a long time.”
Viola, who checked his hat for foreign objects while walking to the mound Tuesday, got off easy compared to Tom Signore — who was the interim 51s pitching coach this season until Viola returned from open-heart surgery in June.
Signore suffered a concussion during an early May game in Tacoma, Wash., where he was hit in the head by a ball while playing catch.
When he returned to Las Vegas, he was presented a fake letter from the Pacific Coast League composed by a member of the 51s staff instructing him to wear a batting helmet at all times at the ballpark or else he and the team would be fined up to $10,000.
From that point on, Signore wore a helmet whenever he was on the field. For almost a month. Everyone was in on the gag and would often remind him, “Don’t forget to wear your helmet. You don’t want to get fined.”
In fact, Signore still might be wearing a helmet every day at Single-A Brooklyn, where he reported after leaving Las Vegas.
“I don’t think anyone told him before he left,” first baseman Allan Dykstra said. “It’s all fun and games.”
Backman has been pranked many times by players who prey on his fear of snakes by leaving rubber snakes on his chair and elsewhere in his office. While the manager is usually startled when he sees them, he was terrified in spring training when a member of the New York Mets staff placed an actual snake in the grass near Backman as he was hitting infield practice.
“They put it right behind me on the infield,” he said. “I jumped.”
After Backman was ejected from a game at Cashman this season, he threw his batting helmet down the right-field line. It landed near the bullpen, where 51s pitchers left the helmet untouched and built a virtual shrine around it until an umpire finally picked it up in the ninth inning.
A photo of Backman getting ready to throw the helmet was blown up into a poster and hung on the wall outside his office in the clubhouse.
Seratelli’s hobby is producing videos, and he filmed one with the team this season entitled, “Five dollar bill on a string,” in which he and several teammates pranked passers-by at the airport by pulling the money away at the last instant.
Likewise, Seratelli said a fun prank is to put a baseball on a string above the dugout and pull it away as fans reach for it.
“Then you throw them a ball,” he said.
Some other popular pranks include a bubble gum bubble on a hat and a hot foot, which is a timeless classic and Backman’s personal favorite.
“The real way they used to do a hot foot was they’d roll a couple books of matches around a cigarette. They’d light a cigarette and push it up, and the cigarette’s still going to burn,” he said. “They’d stick it on your foot with some gum right on the heel, and you’d walk around with it and never know it’s on. Until that cigarette burns just far enough to catch those matches.”
At which point most victims would jump around and/or yell hysterically. Backman said notorious prankster Roger McDowell, his teammate on the 1986 Mets title team, got everybody with the hot foot — including himself, first-base coach Bill Robinson and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who was furious.
“He went out to talk to the pitcher, and that thing went off right when he got to the line. It was comical,” Backman said. “Bill Robinson was out there coaching first base and that thing goes off, but Mel was the one guy who got pissed.”
Viola can relate.
“He was pretty mad,” Muno said. “But he’s a good sport.”
■ NOTES — Kevin Plawecki hit two home runs and Noah Syndergaard struck out nine in 6 2/3 innings as the 51s (80-60) beat Round Rock 8-3 in their regular-season home finale Wednesday at Cashman Field. They reached 80 wins for the fifth time in the franchise’s 32-year history.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.