The Deeper Meaning Behind Bullpen Catching in College Baseball

The Deeper Meaning Behind Bullpen Catching in College Baseball

April 27, 2021 in Sports

by Brett Hintz

On a 64-degree afternoon that’s made right enough for baseball by the occasional opening of the clouds, the Longhorns find themselves poised for a sweep, up 10 to one against an overmatched Abilene Christian program that has changed pitchers four times already before the bottom of the sixth.

They’ll probably be leaving Austin this afternoon wondering why they accepted a three-game bid this past offseason to play a smoking hot Longhorns baseball team that’s about to win their thirteenth game in a row to propel them to 29-8, good enough to be ranked #3 in the country.

Abilene Christian has changed pitchers four times to date. Texas has changed pitchers once. That means ACU’s Adam Stephenson, Tanner Riley, Austin Glaze, and Texas left-hander Lucas Gordon have each all fired in at least 20 pitches to someone squatting 60 feet and six inches away in the confines of their respective bullpens before they made the 300-foot jog to stand at the center of attention at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.

Who exactly is catching those often hurried, yet supremely focused middle 90’s fastballs in those Disch-Falk bullpens nowadays is not known to me. It isn’t known whether or not Texas Baseball currently pays students to catch bullpens anymore with things changing due to COVID-19, and it is entirely possible that Abilene Christian does, but each program is different.

Regardless of whether it’s a fourth-string catcher on the roster or a freshman journalism major (like I used to be) catching those bullpens, the feeling of hatred for these sorts of games as a bullpen catcher is without a doubt universal.

With Texas up nine, each team will inevitably allot innings to guys who need the work for their arm’s maintenance. Those bullpen catchers are in for a long day, making upwards of 200 throws back to pitchers who probably just threw them an upper 90’s fastball without much regard to where it’s going to get loose.

And because it’s Sunday and some of the guys towards the bottom of the roster didn’t get to pitch this weekend, whoever is handling the bullpen catching duties will undoubtedly be asked to catch around 100 pitches from whoever needs it, even after the umpire has the final out call of the ballgame.

That bullpen catcher might hear three thank you’s, and after a win on a Sunday afternoon like this one, will probably even receive a friendly pat on the backside from a pitching coach who at some point made his way to observe the pitcher work, which ultimately just serves to further prolong the whole thing.

Whomever that bullpen catcher is and regardless of whether they are coming off of a Sunday sweep of #1 ranked LSU or a weekend against Oklahoma State in which they were outscored by 22 runs in three games, they are probably dying to go home.

If they were like me, they got to the ballpark at 7 a.m. after being awoken way too early fifteen minutes prior on the 14th floor of the Jester West dormitory by an alarm clock that felt premature in order to complete the duties that many don’t know about before a 1 p.m. first pitch can happen.

Laundry for 45 players rested in two tubs located at the football field, where they were delivered and washed late after last night’s game by the same middle-aged white guy who was always so painstakingly quiet while he blasted rock music through his outdated headphones, you almost missed the faint smell of marijuana that he exuded while he performed his nightly job of washing and drying every uniform of each sports team at the University of Texas.

That laundry, along with today’s uniforms, needed to be neatly passed out to each and every player and coach who was going to be inhabiting the first base dugout at the Disch. After that, with the sun still coming up and now usually donning team-issued orange and grey tops and bottoms, the field needed to be set up for that day’s batting practice.

Batting helmets needed to be shined like they were going to be worn on ESPN later. Dozens of baseballs needed to be rubbed to perfection with a mixture of savvy, mud, and water.

Most of these things happened before the guys who were actually going to play in the game waved their student IDs at a silver card reader to allow them access to the facility and some of them happened before the sun came up, if it was early enough in the season.

And if you were a student manager that functioned just as equally as a bullpen catcher, that would have been just the beginning of a long Sunday spent at a college baseball field, and time on a game day for a breakfast taco that was usually catered by one of Austin’s best locations was both treasured and rare.

By the time essential game day tasks were completed, it would have almost always been time for the team to stretch before it was time to take batting practice, and this was almost always one of the coolest parts of the job.

The coaching staff, filled with men that are borderline MLB Hall-of-Famers that I grew up both idolizing and watching in MLB All-Star games existed in the likes of Troy Tulowitzki and Huston Street, and they would have needed to warm up on a game day before they threw BP to Longhorns in burnt orange cage jackets.

As they received my nervous throws that came in the midst of a strength coach shouting military-like instructions at stretching players, it would have been then that they often shared hilarious stories that commanded the attention from everybody that only men with that kind of allure could do.

If it was a Sunday, these few half-hearted tosses with former big leaguers would serve as only a short reprieve from the grind that one of my coworkers referred to as “the backbone of Texas baseball.”

Because it was a Sunday home game, that meant it would be mine and my fellow bullpen catcher’s seventh consecutive day at the ballpark and our hours were creeping into the mid 50’s as full-time college students who didn’t get paid nearly enough for the amount of labor they put into the program, if you asked any of the players.

This would be the seventh straight day we would be getting paid eight dollars an hour to voluntarily destroy the ligament structure of our elbows and shoulders in the name of priority registration and would have been the seventh straight day we would have sacrificed our time, grades, and probably our mental health in order to wear Texas Baseball across our chest protectors.

Even though we donned the same pants, belts, and hats the players did on gamedays, bullpen catching came with an expected shroud of invisibility to those who could tell us apart.

Aside from a heartwarming moment in which I played a game of catch with a Baylor baseball fan who couldn’t have been more excited or older than seven, or a few other moments in which unknowing toddlers asked for and received my autograph the same way they would’ve if I was Ken Griffey Jr., we largely went unnoticed.

And that’s perfectly okay. The thankless nature of the job made it better that way, and quite frankly, giving out autographs or receiving any kind of attention from spectators came with an underlying shade of awkwardness, because we weren’t players.

We were bullpen catchers, who were paid for the bumps and bruises we acquired by pitchers who mostly didn’t concern themselves with bouncing a 50-foot breaking pitch or the fact that a cold day made catching a two-seam fastball with your palm excruciatingly painful.

But we were also paid in the shared camaraderie that accompanied such an extraneous schedule of college baseball that made a family out of those you saw every day. When the team won, we made our fingers into Longhorns as we faced the home crowd at the Disch, with the same proud, beaming smiles the players had.

When the team lost, which they did plenty of my freshman year as the team ended up finishing last in the Big 12, we too felt the same level of frustration and angst as everyone else who spent each and every day at the field and we weren’t exempt from the questions of frustrated coaches.

There was even a time when head coach David Pierce, frustrated the morning after a loss, asked me in a hotel lobby in Waco with my plate full of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and other breakfast items, if our pitchers “even throw strikes in the bullpen.”

I laughed, and of course, lied when I told him yes. Because that’s what you do for your friends who you spent hours upon hours of time making jokes and telling too many stories about women with in a bullpen that would have probably been better served as a place of strict focus and preparation.

As the postseason approaches and more college baseball makes its way to your TV, not many will be sitting on their couches looking for or will be even aware of the existence of the guys who walk around the ballpark in just their shin guards.

And that’s okay to them. Those guys are nonetheless regarded as brothers within a fraternity who knows exactly who they are, and might even possibly know them a little too well.

And they’ll be there. Long before the players get there, and long after they leave the ballpark.

They’ll be there.

Graphics: Lindsay Brunger

Editor: Tony Ninov

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