Life in the Bullpen is like one of those great Viennese waltzes. You move around, change partners, show off your best steps. Over in this corner, you'll have two guys playing games like Password or Name That Tune. That corner over there is for the disgruntled pitchers, the Bermuda Triangle. Over in the scouting corner, somebody will be saying how this next batter is a dead first-ball, fastball hitter. (After 11 years of pitching in both leagues, I can safely say that everybody in both leagues is a dead first-ball, fastball hitter.) And there's a little table for two over in the corner, where a couple of guys are sneaking nachos.
The dance ends when the phone rings. For me, it used to ring in the eighth or ninth inning, but now it rings anytime after the fifth. It's a clichè, I know, but the bullpen is a lot like a fire station, with lots of downtime until the emergency arises. So you want to be as comfortable, as relaxed, as entertained as possible before you're called on to put out the fire.
The term bullpen probably comes from the fact that pitchers used to have to warm up somewhere out in a pasture, and to a great extent we still need room to graze. Freedom of movement is very important. You also want to be close enough to the field to watch the game but still be out of ice cube range of the fans. And you don't want to be in full view of the dugout or of the TV cameras, in case you want to do crossword puzzles or eat a bratwurst.
Nobody likes a bullpen that sits along the foul line next to the playing field. You don't want to throw a 37-foot slider past the backup catcher and have it roll through the legs of the guy in the on-deck circle. The game stops, and everybody starts looking around and pointing at the relief pitcher, who suddenly knows just what it feels like to be an offensive lineman who has been called for holding. And it happens more often than you realize.
April 15, 1990
In St. Louis, one of those parks with sideline pens, it was particularly scary when your pitch got away, because it would head right toward Whitey Herzog's corner of the dugout. Batboys there have been instructed to throw themselves on errant balls as if they were hand grenades. In some of those sideline bullpens, you throw away from home plate, but that's no better—you feel like you're in the line of fire before you are in the line of fire. And you're dependent on the guy standing behind you with a glove, and sometimes he's more matador than protector.
Entertainment is another key factor in a bullpen. This can come in the form of music, dancing, games or bugs. Oakland and San Francisco play great music on the loudspeakers, and so does Milwaukee. As on American Bandstand, you want something with a beat that you can dance to. Buddy Black, one of my teammates in Kansas City, used to do a great Cab Calloway every time they played Minnie the Moocher. Joe Beck-with, who was also with me on the Royals, did a nice job on Sade's Smooth Operator. There was one pitcher—whose identity I must protect—who would do a striptease in the bathroom every time this certain catchy musical jingle came over the speakers between innings in Kansas City. If David Letter-man had "stupid dances" on his show, a lot of us relievers would be late-night TV stars.
County Stadium in Milwaukee is conducive to bullpen games. The grounds crew leaves these big tarpaulin pins out in the bullpen, which make for a fine game of lawn darts—closest to somebody's hat with a pin. The foul line is always a source of amusement—who can flip his sunflower seeds closest to the line? A good view of the scoreboard is also important so that you can quiz guys on the uniform numbers of pitchers on other teams.
As for bugs, well, anybody who has a little entomologist in him would love Cleveland Stadium. It's fascinating to watch spiders at work. You can also find mosquitoes, mud daubers and dive-bombing wasps. That's fun, finding out which of your teammates have a fear of wasps.
Food is also very big in the bullpen. The bratwursts with red sauce are a top priority in Milwaukee. In Baltimore, Colleen, who worked the bullpen picnic area, would get you ribs or chicken or burgers with Cokes and coleslaw on the side. The nachos are great in Texas, but you're in plain sight there, so you have to sneak them into your mouth. You don't want people to see you munching away just before you're called to the mound with two outs and the bases loaded. Could be kind of your last supper.
I don't want to give the impression that all we do in the bullpen is mess around. Conversation is very important. We like to tell minor league tales and winter-ball stories. We like to talk about pitching mechanics. We like to impart scouting wisdom: All lefthanders, for example, are low-ball hitters and highball drinkers. A great fielding play will elicit stories about even better plays; a long home run will get us talking about longer home runs. (Everybody has a topper.)
Occasionally a home run ball will land in the bullpen, and what happens then is like a religious ceremony. Everybody has to take a close look at the ball to see where it was hit—sometimes it's hit so hard the ball is lopsided. Sometimes you can see that the pitcher was trying to cheat—though his method obviously didn't work. If the home run is hit by the other team, you want to take a real close look at the enemy. You want to take a look at your own worst fears, basically.
Now that you have an idea of what bullpen life is like, and now that you know what I look for in a bullpen, it will be easier for you to interpret the bullpen rankings which follow. I should preface this guide by noting that there are three parks—in Montreal, Cincinnati and Houston—that have no bullpens; you have to sit in the dugout with the rest of the team. Before I came over to the National League, I thought I would hate having no bullpen, but oddly enough, I like those places. In the bullpen, you're always looking for diversions, but when you're in the dugout, you find that the game is diversion enough. After all those years, I discovered that baseball can be extremely entertaining close up. And in the dugout you can make calls on close plays—I always think the guy is out—and you can yell, "Hang in there, Joe!" and "Good eye!" and all that stuff. Yes, there is a place for dugouts in baseball.
But I still prefer the bullpens, in all their variety: Some are good, some are bad, some are ugly. By the way, this is mostly a guide to visitors' bullpens, since I've only called Royals Stadium and Busch Stadium home.
•County Stadium, Milwaukee
My personal favorite. I've already given some of the reasons—music, brats, tarp pins—but there are more. You have a lot of area to wander around and a DMZ where you can fraternize illegally through the fence with members of the Brewers bullpen. The fans are close in Milwaukee, but they're a lot of fun because they dance between innings. Milwaukee has another prerequisite for a good bullpen: its own bathroom.
•Royals Stadium, Kansas City
Good view. Good amenities (for one, you have access to a water hose, which is a big plus, especially on hot days when you can hose down the fans). And good entertainment: Royals Stadium has these interesting beetles that we call Mingoris—after a Royals relief pitcher, Steve Mingori, a nice man who was not, shall we say, a very attractive man.
The grounds crew offices are right next to the bullpen, so you can chat with the guys on the crew and get coffee and soda from their machines. They also have a photo darkroom there with interesting pictures on the wall, and some sort of press room with a phone that some guys have used to make calls throughout America. I guess once the people in Anaheim read this, that room won't be left unlocked anymore. Another interesting feature is the very slick runway between the clubhouse and the bullpen. Before the game, it's fun to watch guys carrying coffee in one hand, a jacket under one arm and a glove under the other, come skating on their spikes down the runway. Thrills and spills.
•Yankee Stadium, New York City
A lot of room to graze, and you can eyeball the famous centerfield monuments. I have noticed that none of them are for relief pitchers, however. Yankee Stadium has one thing you wouldn't expect: flowers, in the monument area. The only negative comes when the park is crowded, because the fans above the bullpen can get pretty rough. They're fairly amusing the first day, but by the third day, they get to you.
•Memorial Stadium, Baltimore
Great food, great fans. There is one guy, though, who's a verbal Freddy Krueger. The thing about him is that before the game, he's asking about your family, but once the game starts, he's brutal. But Memorial Stadium is one of my favorites—I especially like the tomato patch along the leftfield line—and I'm sorry they're tearing the park down.
•Fenway Park, Boston
I love Fenway. You're in the belly of a whale of fun. And Whale happens to be our name for a certain usher there who's part of the entertainment. He likes to get on players, and we like to get on him. The bullpen mounds here are in excellent condition, and, as in Milwaukee, you can fraternize with the opposition (I liked watching the Red Sox' Bob Stanley puncture beach balls with a rake). The only bad thing about Boston is the bathroom: It hasn't changed since Babe Ruth availed himself of its services. And it's ripe for harassment: Jamie Quirk, a teammate on the Royals, once smoked me out of there by stuffing newspapers under the door and lighting them. The walls are made of corrugated steel, and while you're in there, a lot of guys like to throw baseballs against the sides.
•Sky Dome, Toronto
Since I've never been there, I'm relying on Jamie Quirk's scouting report. He reports good mounds and security guards (though I can't imagine the Toronto crowd getting too dangerous). It seems the most significant feature is the closed-circuit television camera in the bullpen, which allows the people in the dugout to see what's going on out there. This sounds much too Orwellian for me; I think the Players Association should at least demand another TV camera for the bullpen people so we can spy on the dugout.
•Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego
Besides having its own bathroom, this bullpen has its own water fountain. Very classy. The ground out there is such that it cuts the ball up when it goes in the dirt, and that can do wonders for a relief pitcher's attitude, because suddenly his ball is really moving. The bullpen is too close to the fans, but that proves to be a plus because San Diego is the best place in either league for girl-watching.
•Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
Plenty of seats, and it's always nice to have that option. The Plexiglas screen that separates us from the playing field is an improvement on the chain link fence we usually get. Our old bullpen coach in Kansas City, Jim Schaffer, used to say that he was going to put chain link in front of his TV at home because that's the only way he could feel comfortable watching a game.
•Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh
Best feature: A seating area above the field of play—a vantage point we don't get anywhere else.
•Shea Stadium, New York City
It has plenty of acreage, the mounds are decent, and the fans are far enough away, but I don't like it. For one thing, there's the constant strafing by low-flying aircraft. There's no place in baseball for La Guardia Airport, and La Guardia Airport is no place for baseball. There also is not a lot of cleaning up done at Shea. So until somebody brings a broom or changes the flight patterns, this is a bad bullpen.
•Wrigley Field, Chicago
The bullpen is right behind the first baseman, with barely enough room for two pitchers to warm up at the same time. And there is zero distance between you and the fans.
•Candlestick Park, San Francisco
I think I'll like pitching for the Giants—so I don't have to be in the visitors' pen. Their fans are the toughest in the National League.
•Arlington Stadium, Texas
Basically, you're in a pillbox here. Saved only by the nachos.
•Busch Stadium, St. Louis
A sideline pen with, as mentioned earlier, potential for great embarrassment.
•Oak land Coliseum
The music is a mitigating factor, but the fans are tough, the bullpen is crowded, and you throw on the sideline.
•Fulton County Stadium, Atlanta
The armies of red ants can be a source of fascination, but these are probably the worst mounds in baseball.
•The King dome, Seattle
The fans are right behind you, and the place is just not very exciting.
•The Metrodome, Minnesota
Just like the Kingdome, except that to get to the clubhouse bathroom, you have to walk through the dugout and up 75 very slippery steps.
•Comiskey Park, Chicago
The Catacombs: This bullpen is like a set from Beauty and the Beast. It's either cold and wet or hot and wet, and if you don't duck your head every time you sit down, you'll be kissing cement.
I have a love/hate relationship with this place. It's a dirty, dingy bullpen on the side of the field, and the fans are too close. The ground is so wet that your cleats are constantly clogging up. But it's immensely entertaining out there, thanks to two characters on the grounds crew and, of course, because of the dazzling variety of bugs.
•Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia
Just terrible. It's like a garbage dump in there. The net over the bullpen is designed to catch solids, not liquids. There is an equipment area you can wander around in if you have the nerve, but it's very dark, and I'm convinced that a monster lives in there. The bullpen has Plexiglas, but it's all smudged and dirty; one time a guy spit his chewing tobacco on the glass, and I swear he improved the view. The only good thing about Philadelphia is the Phanatic—the only mascot that players enjoy watching.
•Tiger Stadium, Detroit
The absolute worst. You're in a little box on the side of the field. It's heavily wired to keep the fans from getting at you, and on a hot day, it's murder. I now know what life is like on a submarine. When you're in there, all you want to do is get outside and breathe the air. We had a bench-clearing brawl there one day, and with all of us trying to get out of the submarine at once, it looked like a combination of the Keystone Kops and Das Boot. Tiger Stadium also has the worst fans in either league. I don't care if I never get back.
The key to any good bullpen is the people who are in it. With that in mind, I've come up with an ideal—yet representative—crew of guys I've served time with.
•Jim Schaffer, bullpen coach
A bullpen coach is part pitching coach, part equipment manager and full-time babysitter. He pretty much regulates the fun, how much you can and can't have. Schaff was good about that. I'll always remember the time in Milwaukee when our manager, Dick Howser, called on the phone while Bill Castro and Mike Armstrong were warming up. Dick asked, "Which one looks better?" Schaff answered, "They're both ugly."
•John Wathan and Jamie Quirk, backup catchers
The key to being a good backup catcher is to be comfortable with your playing time, no matter how minimal it is. You have to be ready to play at any time, but you can't be grousing if you're not playing. The backup catcher is a tool; that's why he's known as Black & Decker. John and Jamie were both top-of-the-line Black & Deckers.
•Ken Brett, left handed reliever
He had a great mind—he could talk about classical music or impressionist art or vintage wines, and 30 seconds later, he could be just as stupid as the rest of us. What I liked best about Kemmer, though, was his reaction when he got the call to pitch. Most of us, when we get the call, get this intense stare in our eyes. But Kemmer would put on this great smile and go running out onto the field, skipping or giddyapping or zigzagging until he got to the mound. He always reminded us that the game was fun.
•Frank DiPino, lefthanded reliever
Very quick-witted and tough with opponents. Any bullpen is always begging for runs, and you already know about rally caps. But Frank has what he calls "the blind rally." For a blind rally, you have to get out of sight of the game, with no peeking at the scoreboard, and guess what's happening just by the crowd noise. Frank believes it really produces runs, and although no exhaustive studies have been done, I think it's a fairly effective method. At any rate, it was hard to be bored when Frank was around.
•Marty Pattin, righthanded reliever
A great barbecue chef. He would bring his grill to Royals Stadium and cook steaks and chicken right out there in the bullpen. Marty was known as Duck because he was so good at talking like Donald Duck. We often enjoyed his Duck rendition of the national anthem. He wasn't much help in the scouting department, however. His answer to everything was, "Hard sliders, away." Naturally, he's a college coach now.
•Bud Black, banished starter
There are always one or two guys in a bullpen who feel they don't belong there, but Buddy handled it better than most. Not only could he dance and sing, but he was also a fine bowler. He made up this game where he would line us up like bowling pins, and then he would roll a baseball and determine which of us would fall to the ground.
•Renie Martin, righthanded reliever
My alltime favorite playmate. Before he got them fixed, Renie had these big, protruding teeth that we used to play like a piano. He didn't mind. He also liked to draw cartoons in the dirt. He could dance stupid steps, he would say stupid things and he could tell stupid jokes. It's very important to have a guy like that in your bullpen.
I thought about retiring after last season, but the camaraderie of the bullpen—the feeling you get out there—is one of the main reasons I decided not to. When I do finally retire, I'll probably want to sit in a tight, enclosed area every once in a while and have people yell at me. Maybe I'll put some chain link fence in front of my TV.
Dan Quisenberry, who joined the San Francisco Giants this season, has previously pitched for Kansas City and St. Louis; with 244 saves, he is ranked fourth on the all time list.