Pitchers didn’t always walk in from the bullpen. At one point or another, most teams had a bullpen car of some type. The 1950 Cleveland Indians used a literal car to transport relievers onto the field namely because Municipal Stadium in Cleveland was so large. A year later, the White Sox took the idea a step further, literally dropping the reliever off at the mound. Only problem was that fans took to throwing garbage at the car and the idea was ditched in 1955. In Milwaukee, their mode of transportation was a custom Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a sidecar.
The California Angels reintroduced the idea in 1963, but this time it wasn’t an actual car, but a golf cart. In 1967, the Mets came up with what is thought of as the classic bullpen cart complete with a baseball painted exterior and an oversized Mets cap on the top of the cart. Across town, the Yankees started using a Datsun 1200 painted with Yankee pinstripes in 1972. The White Sox tried again, this time with a Chrysler LeBaron in 1981. Unfortunately, the pitchers said it was too uncomfortable to ride in and again, the fans pelted it with garbage.
Perhaps the biggest failure came when the Seattle Mariners modeled their bullpen cart into a tugboat called the M.S. Relief. Pitcher Bill Caudill, who was especially embarrassed by the idea, literally hid the keys to the car causing a delay in the opening day game in ’82 and pitchers boycotted the “boat” and the team scrapped it without a player ever having ridden in it.
By 1995, bullpen carts were phased out. In Japanese baseball, the cars have been in use since the 1980s and occasionally, an independent league team, most noticeably the Sugar Land Skeeters, have reworked the idea. Starting in 2018, bullpen carts started to make a comeback with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers and Washington Nationals all putting them to use.
Now, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs are joining the group as one of the first – and very few – affiliated minor league teams to save a few steps for their relievers.
Erik Hoffman, the IronPigs Director of Corporate Partnerships, is a self-described “baseball nerd.” He saw videos of bullpen carts and always loved the NFL helmet cars that were developed and thought it would be cool to bring the idea to Coca-Cola Park.
“I always thought they were pretty neat and it was one of those things that I thought would be fun to bring back,” said Hoffman. Prior to the season, Hoffman was approached by a potential sponsor – Technet and Advanced Auto Parts – who wanted to do something special that would stand out. Hoffman combined that request with his love of the old bullpen cart idea and the two were a winning combination. “It really just involved taking something old and making it new. It was the perfect match, really.”
Now, all they had to do was build one.
“There’s a company in Florida that builds them, but they are really expensive and that just wasn’t going to work,” admitted Hoffman. From there, the team turned to one of their gurus who finds a way to make things work and presented him with the idea. John Getty came up with a foam lid that would be shaped into a baseball hat and covered with a hard outer shell. The team purchased a basic golf cart and the remodeling began. “The idea worked perfectly. We were able to put some stickers on to make it look like an IronPigs hat and the advertiser was happy and we are excited to have it in service for the 2022 season.”
The bullpen cart was rolled out for the exhibition game against the Reading Fightin’ Phillies, but only one reliever chose to take the free ride. “It was really cold that night and I gave it a shot, but that was one cold ride,” said Mark Appel, who coming into the first homestand of May is the only pitcher to ride in the bullpen cart. The cart was relegated to carrying the pitcher’s jacket to the dugout and doing a lap around the ballpark before exiting. “I would give it another shot when it gets warmer. It’s a neat idea, but it has just been too cold.”
Jonathan Hennigan, an IronPigs left-hander, also has no issue with the cart, but agrees with Appel that it’s just been too cold through the first month of the season. “Running in from the bullpen lets me keep the blood flowing and helps me stay warm,” said Hennigan. “At that point, I don’t want to sit down and ride around in the cold weather. I want to keep moving.”
With the IronPigs returning home for a six-game homestand this week and temperatures expected to be near or above 70 degrees, the bullpen cart might have some riders.
The cart actually serves a practical purpose, too. With an emphasis on speeding up games and pitchers having just 2:15 to get in from the bullpen and warm up, speed counts. In fact, MLB actually had a committee explore the idea of bringing back the bullpen cart as part of their pace of play guidelines. That committee helped to persuade the three MLB teams who have bullpen carts to incorporate them.
So, the IronPigs get to ride in style, but what about the visitors? “Actually, there is no rule for us to have to allow the opponent’s pitchers to use the bullpen cart. I guess it’s just part of the home team advantage, so you won’t be seeing any opponents getting a ride in to the game.”
The cart may eventually be used for promotions such as the t-shirt toss and other entertainment options. It’s not out of the question that down the road, you will be able to buy a scale model of the bullpen cart at the team store.
“It’s something that we can use for a number of things that will help draw attention to the team and work well for the advertiser,” said Hoffman. “I’ve been politicking with a lot of the pitchers and I’m sure they are getting on board now that the weather is getting warmer, so that will be the first step.”