I Spent Three Days in a Baseball Bullpen. This Is What I Saw.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 25 2012 8:03 AM

Three Days in the Bullpen

A quest deep into the heart of the most boring place in sports.

(Continued from Page 1)

Independent leagues are a frequent landing spot for ex-big leaguers looking for one last shot, guys like Jose Canseco, Jose Lima, and Rickey Henderson, each of whom turned stints with the Bears into major-league contracts. This year, three Can-Am League alums have played in the majors while a dozen others can be found on MLB-affiliated minor-league clubs. Just last year, Daryle Ward moved from the Bears to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization, although that was before he received a 50-game suspension for taking amphetamines. Now he’s back in Newark.

During the middle of the sixth inning, Pluta is told to get loose. We’re also joined by the last two Bears relievers: Sergio Espinosa, a left-handed Cuban defector, and Jorge Vasquez, the team’s Dominican closer. Espinosa mans the walkie-talkie, relaying game action to Pluta, while Vasquez, the only one of the relievers with major-league service time, exhibits a seasoned brand of boredom, working the elastic bands, bouncing his knees, drumming a metal lawn stake against the rail—ring da da ding da da ding ding ding.

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Pluta enters the game and works a scoreless seventh. The eighth does not go as smoothly. Walk. Walk. Single. Single. Grand slam. Then another home run. The lead is gone, and so is the bullpen’s energy. Everyone seems winded, deflated by Pluta’s implosion. Over the last two innings, the bullpen chatter fades to silence.

Bears lose, 10-8.

Riverfront Stadium at sunset.
Riverfront Stadium at sunset.

Game 2: Who Wants a T-Shirt?

It’s fan appreciation night, and the stands are fuller (official attendance: 607). Even the Tornadoes have gussied up. Last night, they appeared to be wearing T-shirts. Today they’re donning actual jerseys, road gray. Worcester has had serious money troubles all season, allegedly passing bad checks and failing to pay both vendors and players. Lawsuits have been filed, including one from Jose Canseco, who is seeking $840,000. The team recently had a home game delayed over a payment dispute. By the weekend, the Tornadoes will be dressing in a now-defunct team’s leftover jerseys after theirs are seized.

This stuff happens in independent-league baseball. The Bears themselves filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Since then, ownership of the team has been in flux. The current owners, Doug Spiel (also the team doctor) and his fiancée, Danielle Dronet, who previously ran a marketing agency for New Orleans-area showgirls, took control of the franchise last summer and reportedly have kept the team afloat through out-of-pocket expenditures. This year, the Bears rank last in the league in attendance.

Around the second inning, score tied 1-1, I experience my first bout of honest boredom. I stare out past the highway. My thoughts wander. I can’t imagine what it would be like to sit out here every night, what it must feel like to stew on this platform on the heels of a bad outing.

“Hey,” McNamara says, “you play video games?”

I do not.

McNamara talks instead about how he spent his morning: sending emails to his contacts on LinkedIn. The bullpen catcher uses the site to get in touch with major-league GMs and their subordinates. “Seeing if I can’t get a workout in spring training,” he says. “I’m crossing my fingers.”

Anthony Pluta stands for "God Bless America"
Anthony Pluta stands for “God Bless America."

When Espinosa trots out to the bullpen an inning later, he’s halted by a Tornadoes outfielder who accuses the Bears of stealing signs. The pitcher is confused, wonders why the Worcester player is barking at him. “We are all mans,” he says. “If he do that, I’m going to hit him, whatever.” Should a fight break out, the bullpen decides, I will be required to join in.

Next inning, the Tornadoes plate three runs, retaking the lead. We stand for “God Bless America,” and I wonder aloud why they didn’t sing this yesterday. “We had the Honey Bears,” Pluta whispers (even independent teams have dance squads). “You want to give credit to the country and the servicemen, but when there are chicks in little shorts, you let them dance.”

As the game winds down, Pluta gets more philosophical. We delve into the divisions of class and race that pervade minor-league baseball. He tells me about his days in affiliated ball, when some of his teammates were raised privileged and proper and others ate mashed potatoes with their hands. “In the Latin culture everybody shares everything,” he says. “If I have two gloves and you don’t have any, I give you a glove. In America, I can have six gloves but they’re my gloves, so you’re not getting one.”

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