Three Days in the Bullpen
A quest deep into the heart of the most boring place in sports.
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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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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?!”
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.
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.”
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.