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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hanging in the Bullpen

Jim Cryns on Sports

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If someone told you they would let you do something really cool, like shagging flies for the Brewers during batting practice, or putting on catchers’ gear in the MillerPark bullpen and taking some pitches, would you do it? Hell yeah you would.

I met up with Marcus Hanel, the bullpen catcher for the Brewers for the past nine years, for a backstage pass to areas of MillerPark to which I had never been allowed access. I’ve covered the team for nearly 15 years, but this was a new one. I’d spent a game in the old chalet at CountyStadium, turned over the locker room as a new team came in to play the Brewers. I even ran the sausage race.

The bullpen rests between the Kohl’s sign and the Midwest Airlines sign. The pen is so close to the TGI Friday’s, you could drop a pickle or French fry on your favorite reliever.

Hanel and I walked across the manicured grass of Miller Park toward the bullpen, the soft din of air conditioning units, a few crickets, not much else going on, virtually nobody else in the bowl of the park and nary a soul in the stands. You walk up a ramp in left-center field onto an Astroturf surface marked with two home plates comprised of white spray paint. It’s like a studio apartment with a pitching rubber. On the other end a small pitching mound and more phones. Hanel says pitchers like to come up here since it’s a sanctuary from the madness of the dugout, the tension of the game. The first few innings, guys are loose, cracking-wise, but as the game gets into the fifth inning and beyond, it starts to tighten up. Pitchers start to find their game faces.

The entire enclosure is about 20 yards long by 10 yards wide. Also in the enclosure were four phones, three benches along the outfield wall, an ensconced area for pitchers to sit apart from they prying eyes and verbal assaults of fans. There is a small toilet on the side of this enclosure, the metal door pummeled with dozens of baseball imprints. One of the favorite gags in the bullpen is throwing a ball against the door while someone is inside doing their business. Marcus Hanel was more than happy to subject me to this treatment as I was getting a drink of water. It sounded like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Ozgetting hit by a semi. Thank god I wasn’t doing anything else or it would have been messy.

On the door you can make out a couple of dozen autographs from pitchers who have come and gone; Ray King, Derrick Turnbow, Eric Gagne. I’m not sure what Ben Sheets was doing in the bullpen, but his autograph was on the door as well. There are two jet-heaters in the closet for the bone chilling days, and a stationary bike with only a couple of miles on it.

After Hanel threw some batting practice and engaged in some pass ball containment drills with catcher Mike Rivera, he asked me if I’d like to throw on the gear and take a few pitches. Man, I was hoping he was going to ask that. I’d thought about doing this for a long time with the idea of catching the specialty pitch from each Brewers pitcher. With the liabilities, legalities, I realized that was never going to happen. A Ben Sheets fastball shattering several metacarpals would not go over well with the Brewers lawyers.

I strapped on the chest protector over my t-shirt. It was so small that it took a struggle to fasten it around my rotund frame. The catcher’s helmet was too small for my melon of a head, but I knew I needed it to secure the mask. This was the first time I’d applied catcher’s gear in more than 30 years, the last time I caught in a little league game, but it seemed familiar. The crossing of the straps behind the calves, securing the foot protector. I put on Hanel’s Franklin batting glove and grabbed the thickest of the three catcher’s mitts in his bag. I pulled a fresh baseball from the bag and inhaled deeply. If you’re a baseball fan, you know the strange pleasure you derive from the leather on a baseball, a smell that transported me to a ballpark, even though I was already in a ballpark. I smacked the mitt with the ball a few thousand times, tried to loosen up a bit before Hanel made his way back to the bullpen. I was very excited, although there was a bit of apprehension. While I knew he wasn’t going to unload on me with fire like Gagne or Turnbow, Hanel is a monster of a guy that can come with a lot more heat than I could ever muster, and I had every reason to be concerned.

I crouched down, put my right hand behind my back as I was taught, then realized I wasn’t wearing a cup. The first thing they teach you is to wear a cup. But hell, I didn’t know the guy was going to ask me to put the gear on and take some pitches. This opportunity doesn’t come twice, so I said to hell with it. I did crouch extra low to minimize my exposure, if you know what I mean. First pitch, crack, right into the fat part or the web. I nonchalantly tossed the ball back to Hanel, no problem. Second pitch, another thwack. I was getting the hang of this, like I never stopped playing. Then he told me he was going to throw a little breaking stuff. Wait, the last time I caught a breaking ball was from an undersized fifth grader and the ball broke about half an inch. Sure, I said, bring it.Hanel did bring the breaking ball, which fell precipitously between my unprotected loins. I waited for the impact, wincing, knowing it was too late to do anything, all over except for the crying. Then, nothing. It bounced under me to the backstop. Thank god.

Hanel threw about 10 more pitches to me. I didn’t want it to end, but the man had a job to do. As for me, I was huffing more than a teenager at a gas station. My index finger on my catching hand was throbbing, stinging, but it felt terrific. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, only next time, I’m wearing some kind of a cup.