A night in the bullpen is always different for relievers
From pitching discussions to pranks to banter with fans, it's an interesting place
The nights in April can be cold. It can stay 100 degrees all game in some parts of the country in July. And when you're stranded beyond the outfield wall for six, maybe seven and maybe all nine innings or many more, it can get lonely. Especially during a season that lasts 162 games.
Relief pitchers don't seem to mind, though.
Many are happy to have big league jobs, happy with their unique niches and roles, happy to hear the often clever, often not-so-clever, sometimes out-and-out profane words that rain down on them from the bleachers.
After all, it's just another night in the bullpen.
In the first and second and third innings, not much is going on. There's plenty of down time for the six and sometimes seven relievers, the bullpen coach and the bullpen catcher out there, marooned. If a starter gets knocked around, their first contestant will get a phone call and be summoned away for the evening. And so on.
The conversation is already clicking.
"It's all over the place," Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen said. "It depends on any one of the thoughts that anyone says out loud, and then it just goes and goes and goes. It's so all over the board. Mindless jabber, really. There are some deep thoughts.
"It's hard to explain. I guess it's like the bar down there. You keep politics out of the bar, you keep politics out of the bullpen. And religion? Gone. Just knock that out of there, too, and it's pretty much open game after that."
Game strategy is never far behind. Relief pitchers might be 400 feet from home plate, but they can see the game, and they can see the umpires. Bullpen guys might be looking to see how the man in black is calling balls and strikes, and also what's working for their pitcher against the other team's hitters.
"There are definitely some theories being traded," said Detroit Tigers left-hander Phil Coke.
"Like, if someone has longer time in the league and has had a lot of success against a certain hitter and you've had zero, you're going to listen to what he does, no matter what hand he throws with.
"If he's locating fastballs and getting that guy to pop straight up every time, it's like, 'OK, where are you locating it? Where's that [spot] that you keep going to? Because I want to use it, too. Because every time I want to go down and away to this dude, he freakin' knocks it off the center-field wall. I'm tired of doing that.' Things like that."
In other circumstances, rites of passage might be happening right before everyone's eyes -- or at least the eyes of those who care to look.
Angels reliever Mark Lowe came up to the Major Leagues in 2006 with the Mariners when Seattle released veteran Eddie Guardado. He made his debut July 7 against the Tigers at Safeco Field, and it's a good thing then-manager Mike Hargrove decided to use Lowe in the ninth inning.
It seems that bullpen prankster J.J. Putz had orchestrated a special initiation for Lowe, which entailed handcuffing him to the railing of the bullpen. For the first four innings of the game. With the blessing of a member of the King County Sheriff's Department who was working Safeco security (they were his cuffs).
"It was standard stuff," Lowe said. "The fans noticed it, but how could I be mad? It was my first game in the big leagues."
Other things relievers have seen and heard: A cat somehow appearing in the bullpen and then running out onto the field. And plenty of bathroom humor. Literally.
Coke was in Seattle, explaining how Safeco Field's bullpen bathroom, prior to this past offseason's fence dimension alteration, was immediately to the left as soon as you entered the door of the bullpen.
"With the old dimensions, the bullpen door swung right open into the bathroom door, so if you were in the bathroom, the handle would get stuck on the door to go into the bullpen," Coke said. "So basically the other guys in the 'pen can mess with you while you're in there, and you're stuck in there until they choose otherwise."
That wouldn't work very well in Kansas City, where fans standing over the bullpen can see players in the bullpen bathroom unless the player is aware and takes measures to be more hidden.
And comments from the fans?
"That's like breathing," Coke said. "Sometimes you hear some really funny stuff and you can't help it. It just makes you laugh. Somebody was calling me Chuck Norris when my hair was longer and shaggier, and [I] had a beard.
"They're right on top of you, which is fine, but they're chanting, 'Chuck Norris, Chuck Norris.' And you don't know what the heck is going on. And finally you turn around and they cheer, because you turned around after they called you Chuck Norris. Then the realization comes: Oh, I'm Chuck Norris. Oh. OK. I get it now."
Lowe and Coke agree that any band of brothers in the bullpen doesn't get "locked in" until the fifth or sixth inning. Once the seventh rolls around, it's on. The phone can be expected to ring at any moment.
"It just gets to a point where everybody's there for the same reason," Lowe said. "And that's to get their job done."
Then the ninth has come and gone and the save has or has not been recorded and the men of the bullpen have warmed up in the clubhouse heat after being cold or cooled off in the clubhouse air conditioning after sitting out in the sun.
More innings have been logged and each member of the bullpen will know if he can be used the next night or if he'll get a breather to prevent overuse in one long grind of a season.
That's when relief pitchers can look back at all those hours spent so close but so very far away from the rest of their team and appreciate it.
"Either that or it just makes you crazy," Coke said. "Unless you're already crazy.
"Put it this way: If the other members of bullpen look at you like you're crazy, you're out of your mind. I guess that makes me the guy that's out of his mind."