Bullpen catchers fill important roles behind the scenes

Published: Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 12:00 a.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 12:03 a.m. CDT

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Andy Lane was going about his normal Thursday routine at his home in Phoenix when he heard his phone ring.

On the other end was Cubs reliever Kerry Wood, who Lane often caught during the offseason.

“What are you doing Sunday?” Wood asked, to which Lane explained he’d likely be going to church.

“Well, you might want to show up to the Cubs’ facility,” Wood responded.

Lane was unaware that Wood and other Cubs pitchers he regularly worked with, like reliever Sean Marshall, put in a good word to the front office when the bullpen catcher position became available in 2011.

Lane, an infielder during his three seasons in the minors which included a stint with the Cubs, followed Wood’s suggestion and arrived at the Fitch Park complex in Mesa, Ariz., that Sunday. He immediately went to work during a three-hour tryout, throwing batting practice and then caught pitcher Randy Wells’ bullpen session.

As soon as he finished, then-Cubs general manager Jim Hendry offered Lane the bullpen catcher job – three days before the season started. Lane took the night to weigh the life-changing moment.

“It’s a job I took where I could stay in baseball and I jumped at the opportunity,” Lane said. “I miss playing, but how many guys show up and wear a uniform every day? … It beats going to an office every day. My office is ivy and grass and people yelling at you.”

Lane, like most of the 34 major league bullpen catchers, grew up wanting to play major league baseball.

While catching pregame bullpen sessions and warming up relievers during the game is a given, bullpen catchers’ duties sometimes include hitting grounders to infielders or fielding throws from the outfielders. And it almost always includes throwing batting practice.

“We don’t have very many guys who can throw BP and everyone thinks it’s easy but it’s not,” White Sox bullpen catcher Mark Salas said. “You’ve got million-dollar players in there kind of eyeballing you if you don’t throw strikes.”

Brewers bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel estimated he catches at least 200 pitches every day, added to is handling long toss or throwing batting practice.

“Anyone thinks they can do this job,” Hanel said. “People don’t understand how much throwing [is involved].”

For the love of the game

Unlike the players they work alongside for nearly nine months each year, bullpen catchers don’t make millions.

Bullpen catchers typically make less than six figures. Considered a taboo topic, bullpen catchers themselves aren’t sure how much their counterparts make. Every team is different, but the biggest payoff comes from playoff shares awarded to the teams that make the postseason. Last year, the players playoff pool total was more than $65 million with the money being allotted based on how far a team advanced.

The World Series champion Giants were awarded $377,002 for a full share. Players on each team then vote on who should receive a share, which can be a full share, partial share or cash awards.

“They’re very generous about that,” Dodgers bullpen catcher Rob Flippo said of the ballplayers awarding playoff shares. “It’s potentially life-changing money.”

Most teams carry one bullpen catcher, however the Red Sox and Athletics have no official position. Six organizations – Indians, Tigers, Astros, Mets, Padres and Dodgers – have two. Most bullpen catchers arrive at the ballpark five to six hours before the game. They are technically members of the coaching staff.

“The pitching staff we have is pretty amazing. [Max] Scherzer goes 13-0 and that’s the guy I play catch with every day,” Tigers bullpen catcher Jeff Kunkel said. “You feel like you have a little part in that and try to help as much as you can.”

Flippo said he typically throws batting practice while the other bullpen catcher, Fumi Ishibashi, will work with any pitchers who need to throw. During games, Flippo and Ishibashi are used to catching certain relievers but often share the responsibility.

“It’s not that difficult, it just requires a little bit more organization,” Flippo said of having two catchers. “Having another guy makes it a little easier. Pitchers have another guy they can throw to if they want.”

When waiting to throw batting practice or catching a pitcher, they sometimes get rid of scuffed or dirty baseballs and rub baseballs to make sure they have the same feel as game balls.

“You’re basically a rover and you do whatever anyone needs you to do,” Lane said. “But your main job is obviously to catch and make sure [pitchers are] warm. A lot of guys ask for your feedback because you’re the one who catches them.”

There are differing philosophies in providing feedback to pitchers during bullpen sessions. Some bullpen catchers don’t speak unless spoken to while others readily tell pitchers how they’re throwing.

“I try to be as positive as I can, but guys want you to be honest with them,” Kunkel said. “Most of the time everything’s good. ... But guys are always working on stuff and want to know honestly if it looks different or if you can see something.”

A job for the young and old

Salas, 52, is in his second stint with the Sox, having rejoined the organization in 2008 as bullpen catcher after holding the position from 1995 to ‘99. The main advantage of being an older bullpen catcher, Salas said, is the ability to more easily earn pitchers’ respect, especially since he played eight years in the majors at the position.

“I’m the bullpen babysitter,” Salas said. “You’re a father figure out there.”

While he was strong defensively behind the plate, Hanel, 41, realized after 11 minor league seasons that he would never hit well enough and retired when he was 27.  He immediately joined the Brewers, the team he grew up watching at County Stadium.

Hanel now has a charitable organization, “Koos For Kids,” helping terminally ill and disadvantaged children in southeast Wisconsin. Last winter, the organization, created in 2005, bought 1,100 new coats that were given to kids in need in Milwaukee and Racine.

“I’ve been given a platform to do these things and I’m just trying to use it,” Hanel said.

Unforgettable opportunities, memories

Oct. 26, 1999, is a day Braves bullpen catcher Alan Butts, 49, will never forget.

On the field at old Yankee Stadium, Butts stood along the foul line next to the ballplayers and Braves coaches listening as long-time Yankees public address announcer Bob Sheppard called his name before Game 3 of the 1999 World Series in front of 56,794 fans.

“It doesn’t get any better than that, you know?” said Butts, whose spent 21 years in the organization, recently ending his role of coordinating the scouting of Braves’ opponents in order to spend more time with his three children. “I can’t even imagine what being a player and that feels like. It was fun.”

That experience was nearly topped less than a year later when Butts threw to Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. during the Home Run Derby at Turner Field. Butts was part of Bobby Cox’s All-Star Game staff and was in charge of throwing practice pitches to Griffey’s workout group earlier that day.

When they finished, Griffey asked Butts to throw to him during the event, an experience Butts called “unbelievable.” Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa ultimately beat Griffey in the final, 9-2.

“That last round or so, you really get into it a lot,” Butts said. “And you try to be perfect sometimes and I found out you can’t be perfect.”

Remembering the scene where the Dodgers stunned the 97-win Cubs team in 2008 – taking two games at Wrigley in the National League Division Series en route to the three-game sweep – Flippo couldn’t hold back a smile reminiscing about one of his favorite memories since joining the staff.

“Coming here for the playoffs was awesome – watching Manny [Ramirez] hit a home run and James Loney hit a grand slam in [Game 1] of the playoffs,” Flippo said.

Challenging job

Hanel has made the same walk down to the visitor’s bullpen at Wrigley Field nearly 266 times during his 14 seasons as the Brewers’ bullpen catcher.

By now, Hanel knows some of the Cubs season ticket holders who sit only a few feet behind him. Of course, Cubs fans dish some good-natured barbs to Hanel and the rest of the Brewers sitting on the green bench in the bullpen, and he said it “can be pretty fun” interacting with them.

However, once the game begins, Hanel is usually on high alert. With the bullpens at Wrigley situated in foul territory along the outfield, foul balls have a tendency to send guys scattering as they approach the bullpen like a missile.

But the most dangerous part of Hanel’s and his counterparts’ job when at Wrigley is actually warming up pitchers. The LED board in right field, which was put in last year, makes it difficult for the bullpen catchers to pick up the ball as it approaches the plate, especially during night games.

Its brightness, combined with the incorporation of white numbers and lettering, makes the ball blend into the background.

The Cubs reportedly made changes during last season after some visiting teams complained about the board affecting their bullpen catchers’ vision. When told of the supposed alterations, Hanel said, “Nothing has changed, no,” adding that “it’s dangerous.”

“This is now probably one of the scariest places to catch,” Hanel said. “When you have your big league catchers come down, they’re freaking out because it’s difficult. That’s the hard part of it.”

Hanel explained Wrigley’s LED board setup often forces him to catch defensively when a pitcher throws a ball at catcher-mask level or higher – usually ducking his head and blindly lifting his glove in hopes of catching it – because he can’t see the ball at all.

Also, Hanel, Lane and others must work extra hard at Wrigley to prevent a ball from getting past them and rolling onto the field, delaying the game. Hanel said some relievers will avoid throwing certain pitches for fear of skipping one past him and hitting first-base coach Garth Iorg.

Ishibashi learned first hand Thursday during Starlin Casto’s sixth-inning at-bat Ishibashi couldn’t corral a pitch from Dodgers right-hander Chris Withrow. The ball skipped past Ishibashi, finally rolling to a stop a couple of feet from home plate. Home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt had to call time to allow the bat boy to retrieve the ball. But in spite of the unique bullpen challenges at Wrigley, Flippo, who is in his 12th season in the position, said he enjoys the yearly visits to the ballpark.

“It’s old, but I think the history of it outweighs the fact that it’s an old stadium,” Flippo said. “It’s a great atmosphere and a great place to be part of a baseball game.”

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