Bullpen bonds can last a lifetime

Bullpen bonds can last a lifetime

It's a long haul, those nine innings and those 162 games.

Sitting in the nether regions of the stadiums in the big leagues, beyond the outfield fences, relief pitchers sit and wait to make or break games and seasons.

The tight situations and earfuls from road crowds toughen them up, together. All the while, they're building bullpen bonds that last lifetimes.

"We're the so-called 'warriors' out there," says Eddie Guardado, the longtime Major League reliever who's trying to catch on this spring as a southpaw specialist with the Washington Nationals.

"The end of the game depends on us, and for the grind of a season, we're out there -- nobody but us and the bullpen catcher and bullpen coach. We're off on our own and we talk about a lot of things -- baseball and life. You really forge friendships that way. You almost can't avoid it."

Bullpen mates are baseball's true bands of brothers, players who spend so much time together that they're silently rooting for each other even when they're rooting against each other.

Take Brad Lidge of the Philadelphia Phillies and Dan Wheeler of the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2004 and 2005, they were marching through October together as key cogs in the Houston Astros' bullpen that made it to the World Series in '05. Three years later, they were facing each other in the World Series.

Still, the bond prevailed, with both pitchers happy for each other despite the competitive need to prevail for their respective clubs.

"I wished him luck, but I don't want him to win," Wheeler said at the time, smiling. "It's weird. I've never actually gone through this."

Added Lidge: "We both have a very common goal right now. And that's to win the whole thing."

Lidge ended up nailing down the final out of the Fall Classic that year, but as Spring Training continues in 2010, new bullpen hierarchies mean new friendships in full bloom.

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The Seattle Mariners, who had one of the better bullpens in the American League last year, come back with most of their 2009 relief corps intact, save for newbie Brandon League, acquired in a trade with Toronto.

Last year, under the guidance of their bullpen coach, former big league closer John Wetteland, the Mariners relievers took Guardado's "warriors" label to another level when setup man Mark Lowe bought actual gladiator helmets on eBay and had them displayed in the clubhouse each night.

"We were watching the movie '300' early in the season," Lowe said. "Basically, it's about a small group of guys [300 of them] who are highly trained and they overcome a large group of people. They are outnumbered, but they find a way to stick together and get the job done.

"They battle to the end, which is kind of the same outlook we have in the bullpen. There are seven of us and we make sure we're ready for anything and feel we can overcome anything."

And it isn't just the helmets that symbolize how close the Seattle relievers are.

"From the outside looking in, it's almost like, 'What is going on?'" Wetteland said.

"We wait for each other, we walk with each other. Sometimes Lowe would say, 'Let's walk backward for 10 steps and we'll all turn around together.' Is it all silliness? Yeah, absolutely. But everybody does it, so it is togetherness, and nothing can beat that."

But it isn't all silliness. Relievers, unlike starting pitchers, don't have the luxury of knowing that there will be four days between appearances. Some bullpen arms are expected to be ready almost every day. If a man is down, a reliever might get the call on what he thought would be a night off. All of these shared experiences add to the connection.

A few years in a big league bullpen teaches these men the subtleties of the job. Waiting for the phone to ring, warming up, watching the game unfold from afar, soaking in the often-colorful commentary from the spectator seats nearby -- it's full of nuances known only to the ones who practice it.

"You really have to keep your focus in reserve," Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson said. "You are going to be called upon with the game on the line, so you have to keep it isolated. The first couple of innings, you try and relax, and that is why it helps to have roles in the bullpen.

"If you are a middle reliever and the starter gets hurt in the second inning, you are in and you can't really predict that, but also if the game is in the ninth inning and the closer is in, you know you won't pitch.

"Depending on what role you are in, there is a different rhythm throughout the game to express yourself and do your routine and do your work."

A big part of that work is accepting what you might hear from the crowd, particularly on the road.

"You hear a lot out there in the visiting bullpn," Guardado said with a laugh. "If you're winning, you don't hear nothin'. But if you're losing, watch out.

"The fans seem to be able to hear that phone no matter how softly it's ringing. You hear, 'Oh! Somebody's up! Who's gonna get rocked now? Who's the next guinea pig?' Things like that. Things I can't say and you can't write.

"But we're gonna hear things no matter what. It's just part of the job."

And it's one more thing that relief pitchers can talk about when they go to lunch together, play golf in the offseason, and talk on the phone or at get-togethers long after their playing days are done.

"It's definitely a special kind of fraternity, being a bullpen guy," Guardado says.

"It's a family."

Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.