Originally created 07/12/98

Bullpen activity businesslike



ATLANTA -- The state of the shaky Atlanta Braves bullpen has Ned Yost feeling a bit uneasy.

"There's not a lot of talking or any messing around down there during a game," says Yost, the Braves bullpen coach. "We're pretty serious. It's all business. It's really kind of boring."

Truth be told, the only thing as misleading as Yost's title is his description of a typical night in the bullpen at Turner Field.

First of all, Yost is a former big-league catcher who does very little coaching of the relievers. That's pitching coach Leo Mazzone's department.

Second, and perhaps more important, life in the bullpen is not nearly as boring as Yost would contend.

"There is some fun stuff and cutting up that happens out there, but I'd probably better not discuss it," says Braves rookie relief pitcher and Macon native John Rocker. "Ned told us not to say much. Some of the stuff that goes on, (manager Bobby Cox) probably wouldn't appreciate. It wouldn't look very professional."

Besides, there's only so much cutting up that could go undetected anyway. Video cameras in the bullpen capture every move, with the images available in the dugout on two color monitors.

And late in the game, when Cox or Mazzone picks up the phone in the dugout and calls the bullpen, Yost makes sure the atmosphere is very businesslike.

His responsibility is to get a reliever up and throwing quickly, and to make sure that pitcher is loose and mentally ready to enter a tight game at a moment's notice.

"There's not any teaching going on down there at all during a ballgame," Yost says. "But we'll talk about situations all the time. We'll talk about how to get certain hitters out if they need to face them late in the game. The most important thing is to keep them mentally ready and then make sure you get them loose quickly."

Rocker admits it's a lot easier to get loose quickly then it is to stay focused out in right-center field more than 390 feet away from home plate.

"As a reliever, if you try to get mentally prepared and focused before every game like you do as a starter, a few weeks into the season you'd be dead mentally," Rocker said.

"It would be like studying for finals for six months straight. So usually I try to just hang loose and when you know you're fixing to go into a game, that's when you know you've got to get prepared in three to four minutes mentally."

And then there are distractions that come with the territory.

Tucked away between the field pavilion seats at The Ted, Braves' relievers are literally surrounded by thousands of fans, seemingly widening the gap that separates bullpen and diamond.

"There are enough ushers out there to keep the fans away, but there's always people wanting to take pictures," Rocker says. "It'll be the seventh inning and we've got a guy up getting loose and some dummy will be hanging over the railing saying `Can you sign my ball, can you sign my ball?"'

This despite the signs on each wall of the bullpen that read:

National League Rule 14.2 prohibits players from signing autographs while a game is in progress. We appreciate your cooperation.

"We appreciate the fans but it gets a little stupid down there sometimes," says Rocker, who smiled widely when asked if he ever minded the female fans who wear bikini tops on hot days.

"I'll hear stuff like `Hey, we're from Macon and my son went to the same school that you did.' That's nice, but it can be a little annoying when that stuff goes on during a ballgame."

To help redirect their focus, a television hidden behind a closet door in the pen allows relievers to get away from it all and sneak an occasional close-up peek at the action.

"Who told you we got a TV down there?" Yost asks an interloper. "We've got a bathroom. We've got two or three places we can sit. But we don't have no TV. A bullpen's a bullpen."

But the TV does exist, along with three chairs in a space designed to be a storage closet. Without the tube, it would be impossible for the relievers to get a feel for what's going on.

Inside the TV closet hangs a placard for Winston cigarettes that reads: "No bull, just like our smokes" with the words "DO NOT SPIT ON FLOOR!" scribbled in black marker.

Next to the TV sits an old, unmarked medicine jar filled with a Ben Gay-like substance, and several surgical gloves.

"Denny (Martinez) uses that to rub his arm down and puts the gloves on so he don't get greasy hands," Rocker explains.

Inside the visiting bullpen closet down in the left-field corner, there is no TV, just a few rakes and shovels.

Home field advantage.

"Mostly, the TV helps to see what certain hitters are doing against certain pitches," Rocker says. "It's impossible to know what pitch our guys are throwing and what they're swinging at when you're so far away."

Above all, Yost assures us his bullpen is in order.

What happens once a reliever exits his lair? Now that's another story.

"Our guys are young guys and they pretty much pay attention throughout the whole nine innings," he says. "Before, when we had an older bullpen, guys would mess around and talk a lot more. But these guys we've got now are pretty much focused. We all know we've got a job to do."