- Over 400 people applied to drive the Nationals' bullpen cart this season. I learned that their job won't be nearly as easy as it looks.
On an early afternoon in late February, I looked up into the vacant eyes of a demon Teddy Roosevelt. Looming above me, he raised an orange traffic cone in his right hand, and suddenly and instinctually, I understood the full power of the presidency. This was not hell, but it might as well have been purgatory—the cement concourse of an otherwise empty baseball stadium in winter.
The Washington Nationals were holding auditions for a new bullpen cart driver, and I was doing terribly.
The team posted an open call for the position and received hundreds of applications in just a few days. The front office whittled the group down to a final set of 21 candidates, each of whom had been asked to come to the ballpark and try out by driving the cart through an obstacle course guarded by our 26th President. To Nationals fans, Teddy is famous for his lengthy losing streak in the presidential mascot race held in the fourth inning of every home game. Here, though—surrounded by neon pylons and keen on pursuing any driver who made a wrong turn or swung too close to him—Teddy was a nightmarishly oversized referee with a mischievous streak instead of a lovable loser.
A tough audition was fitting. The bullpen cart might look like nothing more than a slice of cutesy kitsch, but the driver must take it seriously—you’re hauling precious cargo, after all. Until last season’s revival movement, it had been decades since a reliever rode a cart out to the mound. On Opening Day 2018, Arizona was the first to re-introduce the vehicle, followed soon by Detroit and Washington in midseason. In a game plagued by concerns about pace of play, is there any easier way to shave off a few seconds of dead time? There certainly isn’t a more entertaining one.
The Nationals’ delayed adoption of the phenomenon last year meant using existing staffers as drivers . For the cart’s first full season, however, they wanted the perfect person, hence the open call. The post drew responses from all over the country, said team director of entertainment Tom Davis, with people promising to relocate if it meant a chance to operate the cart.. Washington kept the search local, which helped narrow the pool. What else set top applicants apart?
Ted, recently retired after nearly three decades working at the nearby Library of Congress, sent in a slideshow—a sort of visual résumé for his fandom, with photographs of him and his wife at games over the years, set to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” (The Nationals declined to share finalists’ last names or other identifying information, citing a desire to keep the drivers semi-anonymous, much like the employees who dress as the racing presidents.) The slideshow ended with “the most important picture,” Ted with the Commissioner’s Trophy. How’d a Nationals fan get his hands on that?
“Hall of Fame trip,” he chuckled ruefully.
Anthony, also retired from his fulltime job, updated his résumé to emphasize the relevant experience from his latest gig—spending a few hours each week working for Uber. “I’m not just a driver, I’m a chauffeur,” said the native Washingtonian, whose love of baseball in the city began as a child, with his grandfather taking him to watch the Senators.
Ann, meanwhile, highlighted a lifetime of driving her children to sports practices and other activities. Her kids are grown now, and she’s ready to take on some new riders. “I have a really good driving record,” she said. “I drive—well, not like a little old lady, but I can take care of our relief pitchers. I’ll make sure they get to the mound safely.”
And James, who lives one block from the stadium and has been a season ticketholder for a decade, claimed that he was the full package, right down to his quintessentially chauffeur-like name.
“Who wouldn’t want their driver to be named James?” he joked. “’James, to the bullpen. James, to the mound.’ And besides, I know how to be quiet, I know how to speak when spoken to, I can be discreet. I can drive! I have a perfect record, except for one parking ticket. Which I beat, which is a big deal for D.C. And I’m funny if they do want me to speak to them. Why shouldn’t it be me?”
These applications got them in the ballpark. Next, they had to prove their skills. For the tryout, they weren’t allowed to drive the bullpen cart—as much artwork as vehicle—painted to look like a baseball, with little replica gloves behind the headlights and the team logo on the hubcaps. No, it was parked nearby, for everyone to admire and aspire to. Instead, applicants were asked to show off their driving prowess on an ordinary cart, sans all the special detailing. This one didn’t go quite as fast—it maxed out at 8 MPH, compared to the bullpen cart’s 20 MPH—but it handled similarly, and that was enough for an audition.
Drivers were expected to maneuver the cart around a path loosely designed to resemble the team’s signature Curly W, staying between the traffic cones, avoiding scattered mannequins in baseball uniforms, and, most importantly, steering clear of Teddy. Think of it like a regular driver’s exam, just in a golf cart and monitored by America’s Rough Rider. And he was ready to bust you like a trust if you made a mistake.
Applicants were timed on their trip around the concourse—the best finished in under a minute—but speed wasn’t the top goal. Instead, drivers were encouraged to focus on safety. (A Curly W involves some pretty tight turns, even at 8 MPH.) In the end, each driver proved up to the challenge, albeit with varying levels of finesse. No one flipped the cart or struck a mannequin or flew off the concourse into centerfield, and so they all passed on to the next portion of the day. Split into groups of five, the applicants were taken inside for interviews with team officials, which would be used to help make a final decision on the perfect candidate.
While the interviews were being set up behind closed doors, the team made an offer to the handful of reporters on the concourse: Did we want to drive the cart ourselves? Sure, I figured. I didn’t have much experience on a golf cart, but I’d describe my driving skills as “perfectly adequate”—okay, with one speeding ticket—and I’d just watched nearly two dozen people go through the course. I signed a waiver, promising not to sue for any misfortune that might befall me, and identified an emergency contact. How hard could it be?
I finished with the slowest time of the day (1 minute, 23 seconds), missed a turn, and was chastised accordingly by Teddy. The job is harder than it looks, and so it only makes sense that the team wants a driver who will share something with the pitchers in the passenger seat—someone who can bring their best stuff for every game, stay cool under pressure, and perform in front of a crowd. U.S. Presidents included.