In professional baseball, the bullpen is the area where relief pitchers sit during a game and warm-up before entering a game. They are usually situated away from the rest of the team’s dugout, leaving this group of players in a different world.
On a recent road trip with the Dayton Dragons to Lansing, Mich., to take on the Lugnuts, I had the opportunity to spend an entire game with the relievers in the bullpen and experience the game in a whole different way.
About 15 minutes before the game starts, relief pitchers will start trickling down to the bullpen. There is no set time that they will come down, nor do they come in a group.
Right before the game is scheduled to start, Dragons pitching coach Tony Fossas will usually come down to the bullpen and hold two brief meetings, one in English and one in Spanish, as the Dragons bullpen staff has four Spanish-speaking players.
In some stadiums in the Midwest League, the fans are extremely close to the bullpen, so much so that fans can reach out and touch the players. Because of that, pitchers occasionally have to “zone out” fans and ignore autograph requests and kids asking for free baseballs throughout the game. Dragons pitcher Andrew Bowman told me, however, that sometimes he’ll chat with a fan, but rarely will he turn fully around to do so. In Lansing, where we were, the pitchers are happy as there is plenty of room for them to sit, and there is also a small buffer between them and the first row of seats.
There are not a lot of routines or superstitions that take place in the bullpen. Usually at home, they will all sit in the same spot on the bullpen bench, but on the road it is more of a free-for-all with every guy grabbing whatever seat he wants.
The Lugnuts took the field for the top of the first inning. In good fun, some of the Dragons pitchers playfully yell at Lansing leftfield Brian Van Kirk. Van Kirk gives the bullpen a wave and a smile back, as he knows it is all in good fun.
“We enjoy trying to talk to the outfielders during the game or in between innings,” Bowman said. “Most are great about giving it back to you, except for (Dragons teammate) Byron Wiley. He gets too serious sometimes and won’t play along with us.”
As the game slowly moves along, Gaffney tells me how great the chemistry has been in the bullpen this season, and how everyone has got along. “It really hurt when Mace Thurman got promoted to Sarasota. We were very happy for him, but sad to see him go,” Gaffney said. He also mentioned how much they all missed Frank Pfister (who was also promoted). He often caught the relievers warming up on his non-starting days.
In the bottom of the second, Jordan Wideman, who will serve as the Dragons bullpen catcher for the game, makes his way to the bullpen, angering some of the relievers. “It feels like a jinx when he comes down here so early,” Bowman said.
When the Dragons relievers get on Wideman about coming down so early, he fires back, “They need me. Without me they aren’t getting warmed up and ready for the game.”
Dragon pitching coach Tony Fossas comes down in the top of the fifth inning to tell Bowman to get mentally ready and start thinking about entering the game. Between innings, Bowman plays catch with the outfielder to begin loosening his arm. Wideman puts on his chest protector and it is time to get Bowman warmed up and ready to enter the contest. With two outs in the bottom of the fifth, Fossas gives the signal for Bowman to begin to throw.
For the most part, Dragons relievers know which days they are “up” and available to throw, and which days they are “down” and most likely not going to get into a game. They all said they enjoy days off and relaxing in the bullpen where things are more laid back and less pressure-filled. On this day, however, Bowman is in as Fossas signals down in the top of the sixth that he is the first Dragons reliever to enter the game on this given night. With a smile and excitement in his voice, Hotchkiss says, “This game is ours (the bullpen’s) now.”
Bowman looks great as he throws 17 pitches in two innings and retires all six Lansing hitters he faced. The eighth inning belongs to James as he picks up his warm up pitches to prepare to enter game. As the bottom of the eighth inning started, I noticed a few Dragon relievers placing their fingers on their nose. Not really knowing what was going on, but not wanting to be left out, I also placed my finger on my nose. I am glad I did. I found out that the last one who did this was in charge of picking up the all the baseballs and equipment left in the bullpen after the game. Jordan Hotchkiss was the unlucky one stuck with the task on this night.
Gaffney came in and shut the door in the ninth, leading to a Dragons victory. We all raced in from the bullpen to join the line of congratulatory handshakes from the rest of the team. Walking back to the clubhouse, Fossas put his arm around me and said, “You were good luck tonight, you may have to always stay in the bullpen.”
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