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Thursday, February 29, 2024

The Rebirth of Bullpen Carts and What It Means for the Game

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s….

the Relief Pitcher Coming into the Game!  

AZ’s New Ride (Credit: Usatoday.com)

*This piece is part of John Collins’ ongoing article series called, “It’s All Fun and Games (‘Till Somebody Brings Up the Money…)” where he focuses on the lighter sides of sports business while tying it back into the topics driving the conversation in the industry. 

The Arizona Diamondbacks made some major news last week, announcing that they’ve decided to go back to the future; and will be bringing the long-forgotten bullpen cart back into the Major League game. A project they’ve apparently been working on for years, Diamondbacks President & CEO Derrick Hall said they decided to finally reintroduce the carts this year as a way for the team to celebrate their 20th anniversary; with a fun, nostalgic homage to a tradition that was once such a fixture of the game.

Ironically, if you take your shoes off to do some quick math, you’ll notice the franchise hadn’t even been created until the carts had already been phased out of the league…but it’s still a cool idea. Last seen in 1995, the relief-pitcher-rides originated in the 1950’s, and proliferated the sport by the ‘60’s, going through various iterations including carts, cars, and even a rather unique Bullpen Boat on wheels for the Mariners out in Seattle.

Land, ho! Mariners float in from pen (Credit: mlb.com)

Yet by 1995, the practice ended for good when the Milwaukee Brewers took the last remaining bullpen “cart” in the league off of the field (actually a Harley Davidson motorcycle with sidecar for the pitcher, but same idea…).

Mike Fetters, the Brewers’ closer at the time, says that the team decided to eliminate the carts after a few of their relief pitchers had bad outings and attributed it to the rides in from the bullpen. He and others have said that’s probably true of the other teams that did away with the carts far sooner; the Brewers were just the last ones to do it, so they got the most coverage. Milwaukee pulling the Harley into the garage signaled the end of what had once been a league-wide tradition.  

Now, in an odd bit of symmetry Fetters- the “Closer” on that ‘95 Brewers team – is currently the bullpen coach with this Diamondbacks franchise bringing the relief-pitcher ubers back into the game. That’s gotta create some kind of weird juju….after all, this is the same league that got rid of the carts primarily because of their dogmatic adherence to superstition…(not judging; I’m guilty too- just ask the remains of my tattered lucky hat!).

Fans and even a few of the players and managers around the league are thrilled with the idea. They believe the return of the bullpen buggies will inject some fun and energy into a game often criticized as being too stale, stodgy, and boring. Based on the positive reaction of Diamondbacks closer Archie Bradley, that’s definitely one implication. Bradley said that he and his fellow relievers are looking forward to the move, and see it as a, “cool idea that we’ll have some fun with,” which is exactly what fans of Major League Baseball would love to see: some fun and enthusiasm back on the field.  

Indians Manager Terry Francona took the analysis a step further, and loves the decision because of its potential as an effective way to grow the game. Francona believes the bullpen carts, “bring a little personality,” and “will be a hit with fans; especially the kids the game is so badly trying to attract,” which is definitely true. You can’t help but smile at the novelty.

Yet a few relief pitchers are wary, as it upends the routine they’ve become so used to: running onto the field with their personalized “entrance music” playing in the background to get the endorphins flowing. Even cart proponent Archie Bradley admitted that he, “really loves running in and feeling the crowd get up and going. It’s going to be an adjustment…” Adding carts to the mix could disrupt what’s become an exciting part of the baseball experience.

Seeing relievers run in from the ‘pen with “Enter Sandman,” or “Welcome to the Jungle,” blaring in the background signals something intense and climactic. It generates a certain intimidation factor for the relievers entering the game, and as Jason Foster of Sporting News notes, gives fans a “badly needed spectacle” to get hyped about. The Entrance Music routine has become a staple of the game that Foster believes fans look forward to, and will sorely miss if the practice goes away.

The bigger implication of the Diamondbacks announcement is the potential advertising overreach the updated bullpen carts present for Major League Baseball. While the baseball buggies are a blast from the past, traditionally they were adorned with the franchise colors/logo and not much else. This new iteration Arizona is planning will be sponsored by OnTrac, and features their logo prominently on the ride.

Unlike passive signage on the walls, sponsored broadcasts and fan sections, and even the mid-inning marketing “gimmicks”- like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” brought to you by Cracker Jack, etc.- the bullpen carts are an actual part of the game. They are essentially a “tool,” or piece of equipment directly involved with the play on the field; which makes this the first time a vehicle for advertising is going to be injected so prominently into the fabric of the game (terrible pun intended).  

At risk of sounding like the “Get off my lawn!” guy, my concern is that these corporate sponsored carts may start to cheapen the tradition of the game. An OnTrac bullpen cart is just a small step away from NBA’s new marketing initiative allowing brands and companies to pay for patch-placement on the actual player jerseys. Like the player jerseys, carts are literally part of the game. Is selling the rights to them just another example of the over-commercialization of sports that fans say has been turning them away?

                       Jake Taylor Following Lynn in “Major League” (Credit: IMDB.com)

You decide. In the meantime, I’ll be figuring out how to take one of the bullpen carts on a joyride…or maybe even get my own!  

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