While the term bullpen has been used since Ty Cobb began bunting, nobody seems to know its true origins. Bull Durham tobacco? Possibly. The cordoning of late arriving fans? Another possibility. A place to reign in pitchers who are “shooting the bull?” Maybe.
Whatever its origins, the term implies a place to keep a raging animal. A cramped space, usually offering little room and few amenities, set off to the side in whatever forgotten nook deemed convenient, it is the environment sanctioned for relief pitchers—regarded by many to be, yes, raging animals (or at least raging lunatics). For the first time in my career, I find myself inhabiting these alluring confines.
“You’ll adjust quickly,” someone told me. “Just try to pay attention to the game a bit.”
I thought this was a given. After all, I’m a baseball player. It’s my job to watch the games and to try to learn from them. I soon realized though, that things are different in the bullpen.
Within our fox trap, essentially removed from the game and other teammates, it’s hard to pay attention. Often four hundred feet from the plate, one can barely see the pitches thrown. Gum wars begin, stories are told, and trivia games are played. And there are always so many kids around.
“Number 14! Number 27! Can I have a ball? Can I have a ball?!!”
“We don’t have any,” is the usual response.
“What’s in your hand?”
“Well why can’t I have it?”
“Because we’re going to use it.”
“Can I have an autograph?”
“Not during the game.”
“We aren’t allowed to sign during the game. Why don’t you go roll down the hill some more?”
“You guys are mean.”
Collectively, the bullpen views kids much the same way the hippo views the oxpecker. The hippo gains a lot from this bird, as it eats all the bugs that inevitably cover its four-ton body—an impossible task for those stumpy little legs to perform. But all that pecking and noise that birds make has to get annoying. They fly around, yap at each other, and invite their friends to the tea party. Before long, what began as a single symbiotic relationship turns into a bird fiesta. And birds smell. After a while, all the hippo wants to do is lay in his muck in peace. Yet the birds keep yapping and pecking, yapping and pecking, yapping and pecking. Before long, the hippo loses it: he opens his giant mouth and screams. The birds frantically scatter.
Recently, a truckload of birds ambushed us during a day-game in Lancaster, CA. Kids day at the park, all of them were enjoying a field trip from school. To reward their attendance, the stadium officials decided to hand out plastic bugles the size of javelins. Immediately, they put these tools to use—piercing my eardrums and eventually striking my amygdalae, spontaneously producing anger.
The tipping point came in the 6th inning. A teacher decided it would be fun to line up all of his kids directly behind us. Twenty-five kids assumed their positions less than a foot away from our unsuspecting ears.
“All right kids. One, two, three!”
With that command a volley of sound, second only to Krakatoa, struck all of us. We leapt from our chairs, ready to fight an army of laughing children.
“Really?” one bullpen inhabitant asked.
“That’s it, we’re coming to your classroom tomorrow when you least expect it and firing off firecrackers,” another offered.
Before the battle was over I had confiscated an enemy weapon. Upon instinct, I wanted to break the bugle over my knee, but eventually I acquiesced and returned the weapon to its rightful owner: a kid now screaming even louder than the bugle. Feeling bad, I even did the unthinkable. I gave her a baseball.
Such an environment has proven difficult, but I am adapting. I am becoming accustomed to quickly springing into action whenever the mysterious walkie-talkie calls my name. At one time I believed my arm would break in half if I didn’t follow a precisely scripted, half hour warm-up routine. Now I’m ready to pitch within minutes.
“The hardest thing is gaining feel,” I recently told one of my coaches. “I just don’t seem to have as good of command of all of my pitches.”
“Just try to simulate a hitter or two before you come in the game,” was his reply.
Often this isn’t a luxury afforded—you don’t have time. Instead, you have to go into the game only partially armed. You learn to quickly adapt and to use whatever works.
Usually strict with my running and lifting routine, controlling every day between starts, now I am lifting and running in a seemingly random manner. Sometimes I do both on days that I pitch. Surprisingly, my body hasn’t shattered.
Just as I am becoming accustomed to this curious entrapment, it seems that I am resuming my duties as a starting pitcher. I will now return to the scripted routine, and will again be doing pitching charts, paying attention to every pitch thrown. I’ll miss the joking around in the bullpen, and I’ll even miss talking to carefree kids. But I won’t miss the bugles.