Go see a special live performance of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen in Washington, D.C. on Monday Oct. 1. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.
Less than a week before 50-year-old Roger Clemens would bring national attention to an independent-league baseball team in Sugar Land, Texas, the Newark Bears, also independent, prepare to host the 25-62 Worcester Tornadoes, the only team standing between them and last place in the Can-Am League. This is not a hot ticket. Thirty minutes before first pitch, the players on the field nearly outnumber the faithful at Riverfront Stadium (capacity 6,200, official attendance 468, actual attendance in the neighborhood of 200).
I’m not here in Newark as one of the Bears’ (couple hundred) fans. Rather, I’ve come to sit in the bullpen, a place that has a strong claim on being the most boring space in sports. I love baseball, defend it from those who call it dull, uninspired. Where others see malaise, I see strategy and fundamentals, the game behind the game. And yet, how to square the bullpen? The apparent and total tedium, so far from home plate. The seemingly endless inactivity, inning after inning. And then the fire drills, the urgency of being needed right now. As former major-leaguer Steve Nicosia once put it, “Unless you're crazy, life in the bullpen will make you crazy.”
At Riverfront Stadium, Springsteen blares over the loud speaker, lest we forget we’re in Jersey, and the clock ticks closer to game time. I step onto the playing field and meet Dan McNamara, the Bears’ bullpen catcher. We make our way across the outfield lawn and pass through an opening in the left-centerfield wall. This is my home for the next three games.
Game 1: A Seasoned Brand of Boredom
This place is a wilderness—tall grass and overgrown weeds, mosquitoes idling in the late-summer air. A high chain-link fence separates us from McCarter Highway, where rush-hour traffic hurries by. Relievers will trickle out, slowly, inning by inning, but to start the game, the only Bear here is the bullpen catcher.
Dan McNamara loves his job. “There’s a level of excitement when a guy is about to go into the game … a level of intensity,” he tells me. “They call over the walkie-talkie. They say, ‘Get so-and-so hot,’ and that means get him hot.”
Right now there is no intensity. When the Tornadoes smack a leadoff single, I don’t hear the crack of the bat. When the second batter flies out, I don’t hear the pop of the glove. By the time the third hitter lines a home run, I’ve forgotten the game could reach us here, this far out. And yet there’s the ball, still spinning, just a few yards to our right. The Bears’ starting pitcher, Greg Lane, is getting hit hard. This snaps Dan to attention.
“Let me turn the walkie on,” he says.
At the end of one, it’s 3-0 Tornadoes. We’re joined by three more Bears: Marc Rutledge, Caleb Cuevas, and Anthony Pluta, who isn’t in the bullpen five minutes before he’s pissing in the corner. I join the newcomers on a raised wooden platform, built along the outfield wall. Pluta, a team leader who looks remarkably like Brad Pitt during the actor’s ratty goatee phase, warns Rutledge and Cuevas, both rookies, that their services may soon be needed. “He’s not going to last till the fourth if he’s getting hit like this, boy,” he says.
But Lane settles down and the Bears take the lead. Around the fourth inning, Pluta gets down to jog and throw. Rutledge tugs on an elastic band. Cuevas flips a ball, paces. I climb off the platform, realize the place has begun to stink of urine, and watch Pluta get ready for work.
An over-the-top righty, Pluta is probably throwing 80 to 85 percent right now, but you can tell he’s got velocity. According to McNamara, he’s the team’s hardest thrower and can reach the upper 90s on occasion. It’s been almost a decade since he clocked triple digits. That was in 2003, before he had Tommy John surgery. “The Astros were pretty crappy with the rehab,” Pluta says. “It took me until two years ago to learn how to throw strikes again.”
Now 29, Pluta entered the Houston Astros’ system in 2000, as an outfielder. But the kid threw gas, and Houston envisioned a pitcher. In his first two minor-league seasons, he racked up 23 wins before blowing out his arm. He’s been working his way back ever since. “As long as you have a uniform on, you have a chance of making it to the big leagues,” Pluta says. “As soon as you take it off, no chance.”