I Have Great Empathy for Relievers
I want everyone in the Rays Republic to think about something for a moment, then decide for yourself if you could handle this same zany job description day in, and day out.
You start off by sitting and watching a baseball game unfold in front of you while sitting in one of the best seats in the house, down in the Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen. You are not stretched out at all, possibly having thrown the night before and have a bit of a soreness to your body. Suddenly the Bullpen phone rings.
Someone points to you and the mound and you suddenly have to escalate your velocity from an initial soft, loosing throw to full bore heat in less than 20-25 pitches before you are whisked into the emotional swirling dervish of the game, possibly thrust head-first into an inferno hoping initially in your mind you do not get burned.
One wrong placement, one slight variance from the norm and you are standing there waiting for another ball from the Home Plate Umpire. That is the Topsy-turvy always unnerving world of relief pitching. I consider it one of the worst job in baseball. In no other sport can you go as quickly from hero-to-zero faster than being an Major League Baseball reliever. No other position on a baseball team mentally asks you to omit the previous day’s events and start a-fresh immediately with confidence and swagger.
Because relievers do not get extended outings, their ERA ‘s tend to balloon faster than Kobayashi’s stomach on the 4th of July. Their pitches are subject to Talk Radio fodder even if the previous pitcher left the bases loaded with no outs, it is that “reliever’s fault” someone hit a “Texas Leaguer” into the outfield. He inherits the trouble and his pitches are analyzed by everyone no matter if it brings a strike or a Home Run
Sitting on that Bullpen bench is the ultimate emotional and mental roller coaster which has to be re-programmed nightly, forgetting the previous game’s events and finding a new individual focal point for yourself, bringing a sense of renewed clarity and vigor for that next contest. No where else is Rays Manager Joe Maddon mantra of “thinking about a game for 30 minutes then forget it” have more intense daily mental rotational pull than the Bullpen.
Talk about stress. A reliever is usually not granted a 3 or even 5 run lead on most nights when he hit the pitching rubber. He is more apt to be glaring down a pair of runners in scoring position with a single out than have the luxury to pin-point three nice breaking balls, then take a comfy seat on the dugout bench.
People wonder why relievers have more meltdowns than field players, consider that a game usually hinges on their skills and when the bad things happen, they can not hide, they are bare to the catcalls and fodder of the fans as they walk to the dugout either after a pitching change or in the middle of an inning. It doesn’t carry the glamor or the prestige of being a starter, the reliever is the “housekeepers of baseball”, coming on to clean up a mess more than to accent a great pitching performance.
It almost seems like if you were an MLB reliever you would have a sports psychologist on your speed dial, possibly on-call 24/7 to vent, speak or exorcise the potential nightly hazards of a meltdown of epic proportions, or the annihilation of an opponent with a 9-pitch half inning. Relief pitching is where extreme opposites in game action tend attract. Every action has a reaction, even some that are not pleasant.
Think about this for a moment, as you walk, strut or sprint in from the Bullpen, every eye in the stadium is on you trying to dictate on an insane celestial plane if game day magic or horror awaits the masses during your performance. In one throw, one swing, one moment stamped in time, you can go from the penthouse to the basement, and then you have to throw another pitch.
Maybe that is why I never try and purposely throw relievers “under the bus” when something bad happens. Considering most of the time they are summoned because a bad thing is about to happen, how can you thrust all that guilt and judgment for an impending loss upon a pitcher who is just trying to produce an easy way out, get the perfect pitch to ruin a rally, who’s every pitch can potentially swing the momentum back and forth like a pendulum towards his squad and away from their adversary.
Relievers do seem to hold the balance of a game in the palm of their hand. One false move can change the course of a game,can provide a key moment of clarity for either side, and leave at least one person shaking their head in disbelief. Maybe that is why I vent, release but never blame or condemn a reliever.
Some have mocked this breed of pitcher for his zany actions, bi-polar like transformations from being so friendly and sweet before a game and then turn into a classic son-of-a-boitch when he needs to pull from his dark side on the mound. Acting like another person, possibly even cursing at the ball like former Rays RP Grant Balfour is his unique way to cope with the impending doom or glory.
For it is an extreme slippery slope from great outing to implosion, and as a reliever stands on that mound, he is alone. That is why I do not speak in anger ever to theses guys, not for fear of backlash, but because I know they do a job more difficult than hitting a round sphere going almost 100 mph. Take a special breed of player to let a game wash off their backs like a duck.
Maybe that is why I like relievers, maybe that is why I hold them in high esteem even when thing go terribly South for they are their own sculptors of the flotsam and jetsam surrounding this game. Without relievers this game would take on such a different dimension. That and they chew the best bubble gum.