The bullpens in Oakland Coliseum aren't much, as bullpens go. They look like misplaced bus stops: swatches of green-stained plywood throwing shade on a few crude benches. Instead of warming up behind a screen or outfield wall, the Oakland A's relievers get loose just a broken-bat single beyond third base, 40 feet into foul territory. Uniformed spotters, who rank just below bat-boys in the Athletics' caste system, guard the pitchers' exposed backs.
Minimalist, unenclosed—it doesn't matter. More than just a place to spectate and expectorate, bullpen is a state of mind. The sport's much-chronicled pastoral appeal—"its graceful intermittences of action," as Updike wrote—is hugely magnified by an afternoon in the pen. Slow as things may seem in the dugout, that spot is to the bullpen as Manhattan is to Mudville.
From the perspective of the Oakland A's pen, the longest day of the year seems like the longest two days of the year. Shortly after 10 a.m., the A's relief corps arrives at the Coliseum for a 12:15 twin bill with the Texas Rangers. Jay Howell, Dennis (the Eck) Eckersley, Dennis Lamp, Dave (Chow Chow) Leiper—"Look at his eyes and tell me he doesn't look like a cat," says Howell—Gene (Dr. Poise) Nelson and Dave (VO) Von Ohlen chug through wind sprints, shag flies, remove their hats for the national anthem, replace them and, ever so slowly, meander down to the bullpen, where they will spend the better part of the next seven hours.
And just what do these men do out there all day? What do they talk about? "Tendencies," says Mike Paul, the A's bullpen coach. "The strengths and weaknesses of their hitters—that sort of thing." For seven hours? "Well, sure, sometimes somebody'll say, 'Check out the rack in row 12.' We're human."
Then he adds, "But we've got a pretty intelligent group here. A pretty sane group." Stopper Jay Howell takes that assessment as a personal affront. "We have our moments," he says, knowing that any bullpen has a certain legacy of lunacy to uphold. Paul himself played against legendary reliever Moe Drabowsky, who once dropped three live goldfish into an opposing team's water cooler. Operating from his own bullpen, Drabowsky would phone out-of-town pens, mimic the voice of that team's coach and get the guys up and throwing.
As the A's relievers settle into their pen, a pandashaped man in shin guards is handing two youngsters into the stands. Jim Riche is the bullpen catcher, and the tykes, both decked out in A's uniforms, are his sons, Jered, 5, and Justin, 10 months. Time for Daddy to go back to work. Having already pitched batting practice, having caught 50 pitches from Joaquin Andujar, who is recovering from a pulled hamstring, and having warmed up A's starter Dave Stewart, Riche heads out to leftfield for a catch with Jose Canseco. Riche's throws are carefully grooved so that Canseco never has to bend at the waist or reach across his body, sparing the outfielder wasted energy and confirming that the bullpen catcher takes his work seriously.
"There's a line a mile long of people who'd love my job," says JR, a hardwood salesman who pitched for Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., in the late 1970s. "Not everybody can do this." The job has its hazards, particularly when he's working in the crouch. "Sometimes a ball comes up on me [that is, gets under his glove and caroms upward]. That's wear and tear I'm saving Steiny and Mickey [A's catchers Terry Steinbach and Mickey Tettleton]."
Riche is interrupted by a waif with a pen. "Can I have your autograph?"
"I'm just the bullpen catcher," Riche protests.
"Oh. Then how about a ball?"
The relievers take their seats, but not before spreading towels on the bench so its planks won't leave lines on their backsides. Stewart pitches three innings of no-hit ball. He will not come out until the seventh. To hasten their day, the A's relievers employ various pastimes:
•Bird-watching. Leiper gets up from the bench, ostensibly to stretch his hamstrings. Von Ohlen turns as if to follow the flight of a foul ball. They fool no one. Both stand and survey the crowd—certain sunbathers, especially.
•The Gum Wad Toss. From a seated position, players fling wads of chewed gum at the leftfield foul line. Closest to the line gets a point. Gum wads on the line are worth two points. No points are awarded for gum thrown onto the field of play. Howell mixes chewed sunflower seed fragments into his wad for better control.
•Dot Racing. Before the bottom of the fourth inning, the stadium's giant centerfield video screen displays a computerized five-lap race among three differently colored electronic dots. This curious event has become a favorite with the Oakland fans—and with the Oakland relievers, who consider themselves experts. However, Leiper's Rule—that the dot in second place going into the bell lap always wins—is twice disproved on this day. Howell in particular appreciates the Dot Race. After suffering tendinitis and an off season in '86, Howell has become the target of disgruntled fans. Now, to spare himself the boos and abuse, he waits until the bell lap of the Dot Race—"the moment of maximum distraction"—and jogs from dugout to bullpen unnoticed.
•Spitting. Of gum, tobacco juice, sunflower seeds, water and virtually every combination thereof. Dugout etiquette, at least, requires a cup for this exercise. In the pen, however, a sort of tree house, the-earth-is-our-spittoon mentality prevails. After every A's game, grounds-keepers render the area immaculate. Whatever the organization pays them, it is not enough.
After four innings, the A's have a 6-3 lead. After five, the phone rings. Paul speaks briefly with A's manager Tony LaRussa, then calls Riche over. Before long, VO and Eckersley are throwing. The phone rings again: LaRussa has changed his mind. He wants Leiper up. VO, a tall, mustachioed blond with a lugubrious manner, sighs and resumes his vigil.
Leiper faces only two batters in the top of the seventh and comes out. Eckersley takes over and cruises the rest of the way in a 7-3 romp.
In the nightcap, starter Eric Plunk walks six Rangers and yields a rare inside-the-park grand slam before being lifted, with the A's down 4-1. Lamp and Von Ohlen combine to hold Texas to just nine additional runs in a 13-3 loss. Their only encouragement comes from a middle-aged man sitting two rows behind the bullpen, who, each time a base hit is surrendered, yells "It's better'n walkin' 'em!"
After the game the Oakland clubhouse is not happy with the split; the mood is funereal. Von Ohlen, who waited six hours so that he could give up four runs in three innings, seeks consolation in the deep recesses of his locker. "Sure, there's always tomorrow," he sulks. "That doesn't mean I have to like it today."
Back at the bullpen, in the quiet of the empty Coliseum, JR isn't taking the loss so well himself. It baffles him how anyone could feast on his buddies the way the Rangers just did. "These guys look so good when I'm catching 'em," he says, "I don't see how anybody can hit 'em. But then, that's just the bullpen catcher talking."