PITTSBURGH — Clubhouse clowns have been around about as long as, well, clubhouses.
These characters, baseball players by profession but comedians by nature, provide valuable comic relief for teammates who sometimes forget they are just playing a game, not formulating Central American policy.
In the Dodger clubhouse, where the mood-altering effects of a losing and controversial season occasionally have made for intense situations, Mickey Hatcher has played the clown in order to inject some needed levity and to promote camaraderie.
How else could you explain some of Hatcher's stunts?
It was Hatcher who collared a priest after a solemn Easter morning service and persuaded him to sprinkle holy water on the Dodger bats. Footnote: The Dodgers won, 9-1.
It was Hatcher who originally goaded teammates into reviving the "rally caps" ritual, in which players turn up the bills of their caps and sometimes even turn the hats inside out in order to conjure a few runs. That has become almost a nightly occurence.
And it was Hatcher who instituted the "Bust Your Butt" award, given nightly to a Dodger player. The player receives a mounted photograph of Hatcher mooning the cameraman. There is no inscription on the plaque; the picture says it all.
Despite those and other pranks, the Dodgers still are only 36-41 going into tonight's game here against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
All right, so laughter may not be the best medicine. But it's often cheap, and you can get it without a prescription. Imagine what a dreary place the Dodger clubhouse would be without Hatcher.
On the field, the Dodgers also might be worse without Hatcher. Jokes aside, Hatcher, 32, has become the Dodgers' most versatile player. He has played third base, first base and right field and is batting .292 in 48 games as a Dodger.
Good utility players are easily obtainable. But the Dodgers acquired Hatcher in April, after he was released by the Minnesota Twins, as much for his attitude and loose manner as for his ability.
And in times when even jokes won't lighten up a situation, Hatcher's leadership ability surfaced. He reportedly was the Dodger who first restrained Pedro Guerrero from attacking teammate Mike Marshall a few weeks ago and then calmed the Dodger slugger.
"I need guys like Hatcher on my team," Manager Tom Lasorda said.
The Dodgers knew what they were getting in Hatcher. They caught his act in his first four professional seasons before trading him to Minnesota for Ken Landreaux in 1981. It didn't take Hatcher long to get comfortable back in his old haunt.
You know which locker is Hatcher's because a cut-out photo of a bulging-eyed Rodney Dangerfield stares at you. You half expect the Groucho glasses and mustache and maybe a water-squirting flower to be next to his glove and hat. After all, that might be part of his act.
"I always try to make people relax," Hatcher said. "My main goal is for everybody to get better. I try to find a way to help a person get motivated. There are certain things I like to do. I grew up with a lot of positive, successful people. . . .
"What I do, like the 'Bust Your Butt' award, it's just trying to change everything around from being so negative to being positive.
"I don't really remember many of those pranks. I really should write some of that stuff down. I look ahead to the ones I'm going to do."
Some of Hatcher's most notorious pranks seemingingly are unforgettable.
There was the time, during his first Dodger tenure, when Hatcher and a few teammates locked a pig in Lasorda's office. Hatcher says the only thing he remembers about that is how difficult it was to remove the pig, who apparently felt at home in Lasorda's dwelling.
"Yeah, I was in on that, but it was a team effort," Hatcher said. "But I also tried to get the pig out. Lasorda was standing on his desk, and the pig was snorting at him. Of course, he (Lasorda) got his revenge later."
Then, there was the time Hatcher got his revenge on Lasorda and the Dodgers for trading him to Minnesota.
One spring training, when the Dodgers traveled to Orlando, Fla., to play the Twins, Hatcher furtively entered the visiting manager's office and cut a gaping hole in the seat of Lasorda's pants. Later in the spring, when the Twins came to Vero Beach, Fla., to play the Dodgers, Lasorda shredded Hatcher's pants and ran them up the stadium flagpole.
There are other incidents that bear repeating, even if they make Hatcher grimace in foggy remembrance.
Like the fancy Thanksgiving dinner several years ago during the winter season in the Dominican Republic, when Hatcher made a big splash by climbing to the roof and doing a belly-flop into the swimming pool.
"I've been pretty much the same way my whole life," Hatcher said. "I like to joke around. The great thing is, the players don't take me seriously. They always laugh. The thing is, some other guy might do the stuff I do and he'd get in a fight. I don't know whether it was a gift I got or what."