Tormenting the TenderfootsBy KATHERINE SCHULTEN
Snarling relief pitchers see themselves as baseball’s meanest breed. Asked to take the mound at the most pivotal, pressure-packed moments — in the late innings, with the game on the line — they often develop a steely shell to hide any rattled nerves.
But decades of hard work could be coming undone thanks to the smiling faces of Hannah Montana, Dora the Explorer and Hello Kitty.
In this tradition-bound sport, in which managers wear the same uniforms as the players and Cracker Jack can still be bought at concession stands, a hazing ritual that has gone on for years seems to have reached a new level of absurdity at major league ballparks: rookie relievers are being forced to wear schoolgirl backpacks — gaudy in color, utterly unmanly — to transport gear.
“Everybody laughs at me,” said Bryan Shaw, a 23-year-old rookie reliever for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Before each game, he makes the long, painful walk to the bullpen toting a pink bag adorned with an image of a white unicorn. “They all yell, ‘Cute bag!’ ” he said.
The most junior reliever on each major league team is in charge of carrying the stash of snacks, drinks and pain medications from the clubhouse to the bullpen. For decades, an extra equipment sack or plastic shopping bag sufficed. But leave it to big leaguers to find new ways to torment their tenderfoots.
“It’s just one more way to get at your rookie,” said Mets pitcher Tim Byrdak, 37. “You have to walk all the way across the field to get to the bullpen, so you make the rookie carry this pink bag, and you can kind of humiliate him.”
Before a recent home game, Pedro Beato, 24, the Mets’ youngest reliever, was diligently stuffing a fuchsia Dora the Explorer backpack with chips, cookies and candy bars. When Jason Isringhausen, one of the team’s veterans, had gone shopping online to find a suitable bag for Beato, he knew exactly what he was looking for. “Something pink,” Isringhausen said.
The flamboyance of a floral pattern running down either side of the bag forms a striking juxtaposition with its wearer. “The first day I showed up, and it was just in my locker, I knew what I had to do,” said Beato, a 6-foot-4 right-hander with a vicious fastball. “It’s my duty.”
That duty, and that color scheme, extend across the league.
For much of this season, Michael Stutes of the Philadelphia Phillies was forced to wear a Hello Kitty backpack and a pink feather boa purchased by Brad Lidge, a 10-year veteran, during a road trip to San Francisco. “I thought it wasn’t right for Stutes to be carrying a plain black bag,” Lidge said. “I was in Macy’s shopping for my kids. I just knew we wanted something pink.”
Jonny Venters of the Atlanta Braves, meanwhile, toted an assortment of bags last season that recalled the TiVo recordings of an 8-year-old. First there was Hannah Montana. Then iCarly. By September, the team’s veterans added SpongeBob SquarePants and Cinderella.
“I heard stuff from fans on the road, you know, ‘Nice backpack, man!’ ” Venters said, laughing. “But, whatever. It’s a fun time.”
No one quite knows when the playful practice began. Trevor Hoffman, baseball’s career leader in saves, said that this type of rookie hazing did not occur when he reached the majors in 1993 and that he never noticed the bags in the proceeding decade.
“But now it seems like we’re seeing a ton of them everywhere,” Hoffman said. “I think it’s amusing for the fans to see. It’s kind of a way of pointing out who’s the low man on the totem pole.”
Major League Baseball for now has no issue with the bags, as long as they maintain a spirit of innocence, a league spokesman said.
Baseball’s famously nitpicky attention to dress was exposed last year when it briefly barred Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, from wearing a team-branded hooded sweatshirt over his uniform top in the dugout.
For a sport that has seemed to resist any diversion from the sacraments of its rich history, then, this colorful rite is an unlikely trend.
Hoffman, who retired before the start of this season, said the bags were harmless. But other shenanigans, he said, could overstep the boundaries of baseball’s accepted manners. In 2007, for example, Hoffman and the other San Diego Padres relievers bought a motorized cooler for the rookie to ride to the bullpen. But it was stopped after one outing.
Barton Silverman/The New York Times
San Diego reliever Erik Hamren shouldering a backpack featuring R2-D2 of “Star Wars.”
Barton Silverman/The New York Times
The Padres' Anthony Bass, left, and Josh Spence evoked “Star Wars.”
“We just thought it was too over the top,” Hoffman said. “We didn’t need to bring that much attention to ourselves.”
When Hoffman left the Padres before the 2009 season, the bullpen was left under the stewardship of Heath Bell. A long and fraught process to find the perfect bag soon followed.
“We did, like, a school bus driver, a crossing guard, a fisherman, a construction worker, and it just wasn’t good,” Bell said of the search in his first year as the team’s closer. “And then I came across Yoda.”
Bell encountered the backpack with the “Star Wars” theme while taking his children to Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif., and felt it was perfect for the team. The ensuing winning streak sealed the matter. Two other bags, one featuring R2-D2 and one a stormtrooper, have since made their debut with the Padres, and Bell said he had Chewbacca and C-3PO at home in reserve.
These days, before every game, Yoda is slung over the shoulders of Erik Hamren.
“It’s part of the gig,” Hamren, 25, said. “I’ve grown to love it.”
The nature of the game, meanwhile, means that this fluorescent pink wave will most likely endure for years.
“Guys are starting to move up that had it first done to them, so it seems like it’s starting to get passed on,” Hoffman said. “Guys that are carrying them now are going to want to make sure they get the chance to make someone else do it.”
Last month, for instance, Stutes was able to rid himself of the Hello Kitty and boa ensemble when the Phillies called up Michael Schwimer, 25, a 6-foot-8 right-hander.
“He was very happy to hand it over to me,” Schwimer said. “I’ll just wear it with pride.”