Trying to wipe out the wave

It usually begins the same way, with one or two fans who stand up and holler at everyone around them. They want to start the wave.

If Greg Holland is sitting nearby, he refuses to budge.

"Man," he says out loud, "sure would be nice if we were paying attention to the game."

The longtime Texas Rangers fan has a problem with jumping up and down for no reason.

"The wave," he insists, "has nothing to do with baseball."

At any other major league stadium, his voice might be lost in the din, but a curious rift has developed among the crowds at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

Fans of a certain mind-set — especially those who visit Holland's website, stopthewave.net — have complained often enough that the team now shows a partly humorous, partly serious message on the scoreboard. It warns that throwing your arms into the air can cause muscle strains and should be confined to "pro football games and Miley Cyrus concerts."

On the other side of this ideological divide, a not-so-silent majority has risen to the challenge. Literally.

"There is a segment of people who see our sign and do the wave," a Rangers executive said. "It's actually going stronger than ever."

Among all the grand traditions of American sport, this one might seem trivial if not downright annoying. But do not underestimate the power of the wave.

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It isn't like the all those USC alumni flashing the victory sign when the band plays "Tribute to Troy." It isn't like the cowbells at Mississippi State or "the chop," in either its Atlanta Braves or Florida State incarnations.

Those traditions are connected to the action on the field. Those fans can make the argument they are rooting for their team.

The wave exists independent of home runs or touchdowns. It can be roaring along at the exact moment that misfortune befalls the home team — sometimes the crowd abruptly stops cheering, sometimes it doesn't even notice.

That puts the wave in a subcategory with beach balls in the stands at Dodger Stadium or droning vuvuzelas, the South African horns that made the 2010 World Cup sound as if it were played inside an enormous bee hive.

"How can it not be a distraction?" Holland asked.

His crusade dates back to a 2009 game when his team surrendered a late-inning lead while the crowd was focused on sitting and standing in unison.

"The Rangers ended up losing," he said.

Though not exactly the crusading type, the 29-year-old insurance company employee loves sports. Several years ago, with the Dallas Mavericks struggling on the basketball court, he created a website urging the team to fire then-coach Avery Johnson.

"It got some attention," he said.

So, after that frustrating baseball game, he went home and created a Twitter account to vent. Several hundred followers later, he upgraded to the website with daily postings and "Stop The Wave" T-shirts for sale.

"We're a vocal minority out there," Holland said. "But when you see something wrong, you've got to speak out."

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Complaints account for most of the wave-related calls and emails that come to the Rangers front office.

"Some season-ticket holders and other fans feel like a good baseball town doesn't do the wave," said Chuck Morgan, senior vice president of ballpark entertainment. "They feel like we don't want to be a place that doesn't know how to act at the game."

So why is this tradition so hard to kill? Go back to the beginning.

Depending on which urban myth you believe, the wave originated in a Mexican soccer league in the 1970s. Or at a University of Washington football game in 1981. Or with Oakland A's fans around the same time.

Regardless, experts on fan behavior are not surprised that it caught on because most people are drawn to group activities.

"It's a comforting thing to have camaraderie with others," said Ed Hirt, a professor at Indiana University's psychological and brain sciences department. "It makes you feel connected."

Television helped spread the word, cameras focused on masses of humanity undulating across the stands, commentators praising the crowd's spirit. In 1991, Fidel Castro was seen doing the wave at the Pan American Games in Cuba.

A dynamic known as "demand characteristics" had taken hold.

"Certain things about an environment can cue certain kinds of behaviors," said Rick Grieve, a psychology professor at Western Kentucky and member of the Assn. for Applied Sport Psychology. "Over the years, this is what we have come to expect when we go to the game."

Years become decades and the wave persists. In 2008, nearly 160,000 fans set a world record by doing it at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee.

As Grieve explains, "it has become ingrained in our sports culture."

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Even if the Rangers wanted to take stronger measures against the wave, it might not work.

In the mid-1980s, legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler pleaded with fans to stop. More recently, Australian cricket officials enacted a ban, but that doesn't seem to have worked either.

And those beach balls that are prohibited inside Dodger Stadium? They still bounce around the crowd.

"Some people have a sense of obstinacy," Hirt said. "If you tell me I can't do something, that makes me want to do it even more … especially in a crowd environment where I think maybe I'm more anonymous and I can get away with it."

Which might explain the reaction to the tongue-in-cheek messages at Rangers Ballpark. Experts say it would be easier to redirect all that energy, asking fans to do the wave only during breaks in the action.

The Colorado Rockies took this approach, producing a commercial this season in which several players summon a fan to the clubhouse to critique his performance. They like his purple Afro and his harmony on "Hey Baby," but there's a problem.

"Game's on the line," catcher Chris Iannetta says, "and you start the wave?"

In Texas, Holland understands that breaking old habits can be tough. He has heard fans call him a spoilsport.

"I do want people to have fun," he said.

So, if need be, he could live with the idea of doing the wave between innings. Or when a team is changing pitchers.

Just don't ask him to join in.

david.wharton@latimes.com twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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