Bullpen Olympic Cart Zen

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Pitcher Jeremy Bleich was foaming in the bullpen and he needed to relax.

The Israel reliever had just warmed up at Yokohama Stadium to face the United States, and his mind raced thinking of the winning run he had allowed in a crushing overtime loss the night before. He only found some peace when he dropped into a strange-looking vehicle with an even stranger chair.

As the two dugouts watched, Bleich sat in a bullpen cart with a baseball glove-shaped seat and rode a 300-foot ride that was just long enough for him to collect his thoughts. It was his moment of zen at the Tokyo Olympics.

“It gives you a second to catch your breath,” Bleich said after the scoreless outing.

Bleich isn’t the only one who appreciates the bullpen cart. Piloted by a member of the ground crew, the vehicle is Tokyo’s least frequented form of transport and is quickly becoming its most popular. It’s the star of a Olympics that rely on all sorts of motorized vehicles, including a network of slow-moving buses, automated taxis in the Athletes’ Village, and remote-controlled cars that launch javelins around the athletic field.

The paddock cart only travels a few hundred feet at a time at a top speed of 12 miles per hour, and those short trips are spectacular. The seat is a huge baseball glove. The carpet is green, with the white outline of a baseball field. An LED board on the front flashes the words “Go! Go!” The sight is especially hilarious when carrying a massive Dominican reliever named Jumbo Diaz.

“Being in that glove, rolling around the stadium like that, that was pretty cool,” USA reliever Ryder Ryan said.

Team Israel’s Shlomo Lipetz enters the game after stepping up from the bullpen cart.


Photo:

Yuichi Masuda/Getty Images

The Tokyo Olympics brought baseball back to the Games for the first time since 2008. Along with a vehicle designed specifically for the Olympics, they also brought back an even older baseball tradition: the bullpen the carts are widely considered an awkward relic of the 1960s, like the Monkees or the New York Mets.

The range and variety of paddock-to-mound transportation over the years has included regular golf carts, a Harley-Davidson scooter in Milwaukee, and a nautical-themed buggy in Seattle called the Tugboat. In the 1970s, the Yankees briefly teamed up with Japanese automaker Datsun to drive relievers to games in a four-door striped sedan, cementing their place as baseball’s only team without a sense of humor.

The iconic and most enduring design, which spread around the league like stirrups, was the half-baseball shaped golf cart with a baseball cap on top, propped up by a pair of bats. It offered style, comfort and all the grunt of a 12 horsepower engine. A 1967 Mets cap cart sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 2014 for $112,500, about the price of a Porsche 911.

They became so essential to teams that the Pittsburgh Pirates brought their basket of relievers – one of the baseball-shaped affairs with a black and yellow cap – down to Baltimore for the 1971 World Series.

But they were also so weird that pitchers ended up losing patience for them.

Bullpen carts all but disappeared in the United States after that. Pitchers at the Olympics had heard stories about them and seen photos of relievers competing in games with their 1970s mustaches and pastel uniforms, but never pitched in one. A few Major League teams have occasionally trotted out that retro feel in recent years, rarely deviating from classic designs.

The main places that have deployed carts for regular use tend to be in the minor leagues, in the same whimsical vein as the use of golden retrievers for batboys.

At the Japan Olympics, these unique vehicles aren’t just theater. They serve a serious purpose. That’s why ball games here end in a reasonable amount of time.

Ryder Ryan first turned his nose up at this contraption that looks like an elementary school diorama on wheels. He had his own routine: a slow walk out of the bullpen door followed by a jog for the second half. It’s his way of letting go without getting tired. “I didn’t want to take it,” Ryder said.

Dominican Republic relief pitcher Dario Alvarez rolls out of the bullpen.


Photo:

kazuhiro fujihara/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

But international baseball rules are slightly different at the Tokyo Olympics than in the United States. MLB pitchers can stroll to the mound and still have plenty of time to relax, with a 2-minute, 5-second warm-up window, or 2:25 a.m. in nationally televised games.

At the Olympics, they are governed by a stricter clock. Relievers only have 90 seconds to be ready on the mound from the time they step out of the bullpen onto the warning track.

“If you have to run, it takes time, so I took the cart,” says Ryan.

Manufactured by Toyota, the cart proves far more useful than the company’s other original technological contribution to these Games: a three-point basketball robot. The cart actually speeds up the sport. The robot takes longer to shoot than Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It also helps explain why Team USA’s win over Israel on Friday lasted less than 2.5 hours, which is also known as the fifth inning of a Red Sox-Yankees game. Breaks between innings are short and pitch changes happen quickly.

“I loved it,” said Alon Leichman, a pitcher from Israel. He had never known one before, although during non-Olympic times he is a pitching coach for the exact type of team that might have one – the Double-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners in Arkansas.

Leichman is unlikely to return with a medal around his neck. He will, however, return to Arkansas with a flight history of 6,000 miles for a 15-second ride in a Japanese baseball glove.

“That’s what’s unique about this tournament,” he said.

Write to Andrew Beaton at [email protected] and Joshua Robinson at [email protected]

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