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IN RELIEF: AGONY, ECSTASY AND COMEDY
George Plimpton
November 03, 1975
The author views the Series with the high-risk men in the bullpens, occupying a bubble-gummed and tobacco-spattered vantage point that yields an unusual story
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November 03, 1975

In Relief: Agony, Ecstasy And Comedy

The author views the Series with the high-risk men in the bullpens, occupying a bubble-gummed and tobacco-spattered vantage point that yields an unusual story

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OCT. 11

As bullpens go, those in Boston are about average. They are not as well situated as those in Wrigley Field, which are close to the dugouts, have an excellent view of the field and are up close to the fence so that the fans are right there and the girls can come down close and pass notes and cakes and such to the relievers. On the other hand, Boston's are considered better than Pittsburgh's, where the bullpen is in an alcove from which it is almost impossible to watch the game; or Milwaukee's, which are 360 feet from home plate; or Detroit's, which are not only a long home-run shot away from the infield but are sunk into the ground so that the players peer out through a wire fence at ground level like a row of prairie dogs. Hubert Humphrey once referred to those premises as "inhuman."

In Boston the two bullpens are behind the low outfield fence, right next to each other, and identical except for a WE'RE NO. 1 sticker on the back of the Boston bench. A fence divides the two; it was raised three feet some years back to keep the players from leaning over it and fraternizing like housewives.

Each bullpen has two pitching lanes, close enough to each other so that if a lefthander and a righthander are warming up at the same time they throw with their hurling arms to the outside to keep them from being entangled down the middle.

The players sit under their respective bullpen sheds on the top plank of a three-decker bench. They can look out and see the backs of the outfielders and, 300 feet or so farther on, the infielders and the distant figures around the plate, backdropped by the feathery skein of the foul screen rising up to the broadcasting booths.

Each bullpen has a sentry-box-like latrine beyond the water fountain at the end of the bench. It is used a great deal during the game—almost entirely for puffing on cigarettes. Smoking is frowned on, especially to be caught at it by the telescopic eye of television. So the players—sometimes as many as three at a time—crowd in, pulling the door closed behind them. It's dark in there, the only light coming through a space at the bottom. In the visitors' latrine a spyhole once looked out on the playing field, but some years ago it was boarded up with a piece of plywood following suspicions that teams were using it to steal the Red Sox catcher's signals by squinting through high-powered telescopes.

So inside it is impossible to tell what is happening; if a great roar goes up from the crowd, the door opens a crack and a player leans out, like a ferryboat skipper peering from his wheelhouse to check the weather, and he reports to those behind him what's going on. If the tension gets too high, the players stream out and perch up on the bullpen seats, blowing smoke furtively into their gloves.

Once there was a clasp on the door of the visiting team's outhouse. Earlier this year the Oakland A's used it to lock in one of their pitchers. He pushed unsuccessfully at the door a few times, and then he pretended to panic in the musty darkness inside, kicking at the side of the structure with a booming sound that attracted the attention of the nearby Fenway fans. As the crowd craned to see what was going on, the bills of the Oakland caps down in the bullpen turned toward the latrine—until finally, before the imprisoned pitcher came bursting through with cracked wood falling from his shoulders, someone sprang forward and released him. The Red Sox had the clasp removed.

There are some distinctions to be made about the two bullpens. Those Boston players who smoke do it more openly along the bench; they are less Calvinist in outlook than the Reds. The Boston players eat a lot of sunflower seeds; the ground under their bench resembles that below a giant bird-feeding station. Tobacco chewing seems more prevalent in the Boston bullpen, though Catcher Tim Blackwell says there is less of it out there than in the Boston dugout. "The guys on the bench usually spit on each other. That's why it's safer to be in the bullpen." Out there he and Jim Willoughby play a tobacco-spitting game that can turn a bleacherite's stomach queasy if he looks over the bullpen fence and spots it going on. The two players use a paper cup as a target, scoring "runs" either by knocking it over with a stream of tobacco juice, or by spitting a shred of tobacco into the cup itself. Willoughby describes the game as one of the devices for keeping pitchers' insides from getting too tense. It is not only the act of chewing that is relaxing, Willoughby feels, but the spitting. On occasion, when he sees a fellow pitcher getting too tight—what he calls "overtrying"—he walks out to the bullpen rubber and lets loose a stream of tobacco on his shoes. He explains, "A pitcher just can't pitch right if he's tight, and nothing loosens a guy up more than to be hit on the shoe with a stream of tobacco."

Over on their side, the Cincinnati players stick to tobacco and bubble gum, bubble gum especially. In the aftermath of a crucial play the pink bubbles suddenly protrude along the bench of players like so many balloons issuing from the mouths of cartoon characters, lacking only the word "Hey!" or "Heck!" or "Whew!" spelled out on the bubble before it pops; the fingers work busily collecting the shreds and stuffing them back in for the next comment.

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