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?"