Bullpen life wasn't always just work for Nelson

Bullpen life wasn't always just work for Nelson

Bullpen life wasn't always just work for Nelson
Jeff Nelson experienced the highs, lows and hijinks in Major League bullpens for 15 years as a right-handed reliever.

Oh, were there hijinks.

"It's such a pressure game," said Nelson, who mostly pitched with the Yankees and Mariners. "There's a lot of pressure, and we try to ease the pressure down here. A lot of the crazy guys are in the bullpen, and we kind of like it that way."

There's a lot of downtime for relievers. Nelson, who took MLB.com through a day in the bullpen, shared a few ways he and his fellow relief pitchers passed the time. Relievers become close during the long season out in the bullpen, which, aside from a handful of ballparks, is beyond the outfield fence. They share stories and talk about things other than the game.

But they do pay attention, and Nelson used to play a game called "Pass it on" with his fellow bullpen mates that made it imperative to do so. When the Bombers' offense did something good, everybody had to acknowledge it with a clap. If they didn't do it in time -- before the next batter was announced -- they got slapped on the forehead.

"It's a stupid game, "Nelson admitted, "but it's funny."

The Yankees' bullpen also threw birthday parties for one another. Before the game, each reliever filled a cup with whatever they could find in the clubhouse -- jelly, tuna fish, Pepto-Bismol -- then poured the cups one by one on the birthday boy.

On Mike Stanton's birthday in Boston, the last thing Ramiro Mendoza poured on Stanton's wet hair was Diamond Dry -- a drying agent used on baseball fields -- and rosin, which hardens when it gets wet.

"It hardened instantly and took him three innings to get the stuff off his head," Nelson said.

Although pranks are fun, Nelson said they also serve a purpose.

"You like to keep it loose," Nelson said. "We're coming in in situations where the game's on the line, and we're trying to get out of that. ... Out here, it eases the pressure in the first five innings, especially for the young kids who aren't used to pitching in tight situations."

Once the fifth inning rolls around, however, the bullpen mood is business-like. Especially on the dominant Yankees teams Nelson played on, most guys knew their role. When their time neared, they began stretching and getting loose. Sometimes, the bullpen got a call at the beginning of the inning, warning certain guys to be ready. Other times, an instant jam could appear before dissolving.

"The toughest thing is getting up and down, rapid fire, getting heated up, and all of a sudden, sit down and get up the next inning," Nelson said. "That's why a lot of guys get tired arms, from constantly getting up and down.

"The good pitching coaches and managers put you in when you're up."

Actually being in the game is the best time for relievers.

"A lot of times, especially playoff situations, when you're in the bullpen, it's almost harder to watch. You're on the edge of your seat and you're waiting to get in the game," Nelson said. "Once you're in the game, you have control, you have the ball. At least your nerves are kind of settled down."

And although relievers are sometimes the hero and other times the goat, Nelson said he loved every minute he spent in the 'pen.

"I wouldn't trade this for anything in the world," Nelson said. "It's the greatest job ever, and you're in there trying to give your team a win and maybe win a World Series."

Cash Kruth is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @cashkruth. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.