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 2)

Even basic bathroom practices could be a point of cultural confusion. “When I was with the Astros, there was a guy who came from a country where the toilets are so dirty you can’t sit on them, so the guys would strip down naked except for their shoes and squat on the toilet and drape their clothes over the top. Guys would come in and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so is taking a dump. What the fuck? You’re getting shit on your shoes!’ ”

Over the loudspeaker, the stadium announcer teases the last in a long series of giveaways: “All right, Bear fans—who wants a T-shirt?!”

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The place goes bananas as the shirts fly into the crowd. “They never throw T-shirts on that side,” Pluta says, pointing behind the Tornadoes’ dugout. I watch the glum-looking spectators along the third-base line, and I can barely stomach the injustice: Tens of fans with no shot at a T-shirt. Tens of them!

Bears lose, 7-3.

Plenty of good seats still available at Riverfront Stadium.
Plenty of good seats still available at Riverfront Stadium.

Game 3: Never Play the Baseball Card

Barely 12 hours go by, and we’re back at Riverfront Stadium. The whole place feels hung over. Fans (officially: 502) shield their eyes from the overhead sun.

After one inning, Cuevas unexpectedly joins us in the ’pen.

“You’re out early,” McNamara says.

“Yeah, I need to take a nap. Day game,” Cuevas says. “Don’t write that.”

Drowsy but conscious, Cuevas tells me about his off-season plans, which include getting a license to sell life insurance, maybe taking some mortgage classes, too. “It’s like $160 each class, pretty good investment,” he explains. Everyone here has to do something to supplement their meager independent-league salaries, which average around $1,500 per month. “I’ve worked at Marshalls, installed air conditioning, worked at a catering company. You do what you can to make money,” Pluta says.

Though the pay is low, Can-Am League baseball does have one perk: less heckling. At the big-league level, beer-brave fans can become a hellacious peanut gallery. “People, they talk shit,” says Jorge Vasquez. “Every time I go to the bullpen I need a jacket [to cover my last name],” which perhaps explains why he wore a Mets fleece the first two games of the series. “They yell, ‘Hey, Vasquez, you suck! You fucking suck!’ Something like that.”

Here in Newark, there’s only the highway. In the bottom of the third, the Bears score four runs as traffic moves at a crawl behind us. A sedan passenger with a thick Spanish accent yells out his window: “Hey! Represent Newark! All day, every day!” “Mama juevo!” yells Cuevas in response. He doesn’t know any Spanish except for curse words.

The lack of fan proximity is a disadvantage, though, when it comes to finding post-game companionship. “I was that way when I was younger,” Pluta says. “Write your name and number on a baseball. Oh, it’s all over.”

I ask Cuevas if he’s ever done this. “No, I got a girlfriend,” he says, sheepish. “It’s tough, man. It’s hard to be with somebody when you’re not with them all the time … I’m not perfect. There’s a lot of distraction, a lot of temptations. It’s like a drug.” And judging from the bro-ish gossip about who banged who, it’s a readily available drug, even in the subbasement of professional baseball.

No matter the league, there is one rule of courtship that ballplayers must live by: If you’re picking up a woman away from the stadium, you must never play the baseball card. “I tell girls I fold blimps for a living,” Cuevas says. “MetLife, it’s always MetLife. Goodyear is too obvious.”

“I remember the first time someone told me never to use baseball as a pickup line,” Pluta says. “I was with a [AA] baseball player … 18, 17 years old. And he said, ‘Don’t ever use baseball as a pickup line as a professional baseball player.’ And I was like, ‘Why not?’ ” His response: “Because it’s too easy. Make it a game.”

Closer Jorge Vasquez gets ready.
Closer Jorge Vasquez gets ready.

According to Pluta, this guy—his name was David Glick—was an amazing pickup artist. And who was the worst he’s ever seen? “Chad Qualls,” he says. “Worst game ever … He’d tell girls he drives a Denali. ‘Hey, I drive a Denali. I was a second rounder.’ Terrible pickup line, but he’d get chicks because he played the baseball card.” Qualls has 51 career major-league saves. He has earned more than $10 million playing baseball. I wonder if he still drives a Denali.

As we enter the seventh, the Bears are up 4-2. The bullpen gets less chatty, more focused. Before the start of the eighth, pitching coach Ralph Citarella radios down: “Get Jorge ready. If we get in any trouble, he’s in the game.” Not having pitched since Sunday, Vasquez, the closer, takes his time warming up, softly tossing at 80, 90 feet. The walkie-talkie crackles again. “Hey, papi, you’re in the game,” Cuevas shouts.

“Are you serious?” Vasquez asks. Cuevas is serious.

Stress materializes all at once now. An umpire comes out to the bullpen, opens the gate. “Come on, big guy,” he says. Jorge ignores him. The ump comes back. “Let’s go, Jorge.”

Vasquez escapes the eighth unscathed and retakes the mound for the ninth. The first batter singles. “He’ll strike out the side,” Pluta predicts. The first batter goes down on strikes. So does the second. The third makes contact, lining out to second. Game over. Bears win.

“Motherfucker didn’t strike him out!” Pluta screams with faux disappointment, bounding off the platform. Out on the field, the entire Bears team convenes at the mound for congratulatory high fives and fist bumps. The pitchers, though, must be careful not to harm their hands. They’ll need them later tonight, for folding blimps.

Rafi Kohan has written for GQ, Details, ESPN.com, and the Wall Street Journal. He is currently at work on a novel. You can email him and follow him on Twitter.

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