Baseball's new pace-of-games rules are designed to enhance the viewing experience for fans, but they can make a pastoral game seem a little too uptight. Pitchers are focused on delivering the ball within the specified time, while umpires are reminding hitters to keep one foot in the box -- all for the sake of saving a few precious seconds here and there.
Isn't it time to take a break from the mother-hen routine and inject some good old-fashioned fun into the process?
Colorado Rockies manager Walt Weiss struck a blow for nostalgia when he told MLB.com that one way to help pick up the pace -- and provide a few smiles along the way -- would be to bring back the bullpen cart.
Weiss isn't the only person in favor of taking a motorized vehicle ride down memory lane. As any connoisseur of baseball history and shtick well knows, bullpen carts are on a par with John Belushi's classic "Animal House" battle cry -- a staple on MLB video boards -- as a means of evoking pleasant memories and pumping up a crowd.
"I think fans would dig it," said Angels reliever Vinnie Pestano. "When was the last time you saw a bullpen cart and didn't have a little warm feeling? Hey, a bullpen cart! Look at that."
"I think fans would dig it. When was the last time you saw a bullpen cart and didn't have a little warm feeling? Hey, a bullpen cart! Look at that." Vinnie Pestano
Bullpen carts roamed the earth for nearly a half century and provided an endless source of amusement in major league stadiums. The first relief-pitcher chauffeur service -- in the form of a "little red auto" -- was introduced by the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s. The carts quickly became part of the game's lore. When the late Mike Flanagan recounted his first experience at Yankee Stadium as a Baltimore Oriole, he said, "I could never play in New York. The first time I ever came into a game there, I got in the bullpen car and they told me to lock the doors."
Los Angeles Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto made 390 relief appearances over eight big league seasons with Cleveland, the New York Mets and Colorado. Dipoto was a hardcore baseball fan growing up in New Jersey, and the history buff in him remains ardently pro-cart.
Dipoto recalls Yankees center fielder Mickey Rivers playfully throwing himself in front of the bullpen cart that was ferrying in teammate Goose Gossage and screaming, "No, no! Not him! We want to win!" He watched as fans in Japan whipped themselves into a frenzy whenever Marc Kroon and his 100-mph fastball rode in on a cart with the Yokohama BayStars.
"I think people would like it and players would like it," Dipoto said of reinstating the bullpen cart tradition. "It's a promotional opportunity. It's different. It's quirky. It's another matchbox car you can sell in the team shop. It's fun, and it reminds you of when you were young."
The Yankees used a pinstriped Datsun, while many other clubs opted for golf carts topped by oversized team caps, but sometimes teams took the cart idea too far and crossed the line from kitsch to catastrophe. When the Seattle Mariners introduced a bullpen car shaped like a tugboat in 1982, the team's relievers loathed it. Bill Caudill spoke for all of his disgruntled teammates when he stole the keys on Opening Day and left the vehicle stranded on the field, delaying the start of the game.
The practice began to die out in the 1980s and became extinct in the major leagues when the Milwaukee Brewers retired the Harley-Davidson motorcycle and sidecar that they had used to ferry pitchers to the mound at the end of the 1995 season. But the eternal appeal of the bullpen cart lies in the concept rather than the specific means of locomotion. When the Texas-based Sugar Land Skeeters resurrected the bullpen cart in 2012 -- with an eco-friendly, battery-powered model -- it brought welcome attention to the independent Atlantic League, as well as all the modern accoutrements (leather seats, a sound system and a cup holder) its occupants could want.
So, as baseball strives to balance both time management and entertainment value, should it consider reviving a grand baseball tradition that might address both?
"I love the idea," Marlins closer Steve Cishek said. "I remember playing old-school Sega video games and all the bullpen pitchers would come out in a cart. I didn't get it when I was a kid. Then I watched the movie 'Major League' and I understood."
Will bullpen carts return to MLB anytime soon?
The Pace of Game Committee chaired by Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz briefly discussed bullpen carts before deciding to table the topic for 2015 and focus on other issues, such as the batter's box rule and getting out of commercial breaks on time.
Several potential concerns arose while committee members were kicking around the cart idea. Where would teams store the vehicles? How would the drivers be notified that it was time to rev up the ride? Would players be given an option to bypass the cart and continue to jog in from the bullpen, as they're accustomed to doing? MLB officials decided that the potential time savings -- perhaps a minute per game -- didn't warrant the effort required to address those open-ended issues.
The baseball landscape has also changed considerably since the days of sterile, cavernous, multisport concrete saucers. In the 1970s and '80s, it was easy to find storage space for the carts and gain convenient access to the field. The newer, retro parks have significantly less room to house the vehicles, and bullpens are situated in areas that would make getting them onto the field a challenge. Modern ballparks -- and modern players -- pose some other potential hindrances. It was easy for carts to whip in from the bullpen in the days of artificial turf. What happens now when it's drizzling and the grass is mushy and vulnerable to tire tracks?
"No groundskeeper is going to be fired up to allow a cart to go straight across the diamond," said Trevor Hoffman, who -- along with fellow perennial All-Star Mariano Rivera -- helped introduce a new closer ritual in the 1990s: a dramatic entrance accompanied by a heavy-metal theme song.
A special dispensation for closers?
When the Yankee Stadium bullpen door swung open and Rivera jogged to the mound accompanied by Metallica's "Enter Sandman," it served notice to opposing hitters that they were in for a barrage of bat-breaking cutters. When Hoffman strode out of the bullpen as AC/DC's "Hells Bells" played over the stadium PA system, a buzz began building at Qualcomm Stadium or Petco Park in San Diego and eventually reached a crescendo.
"The first time I heard it I was like, 'Wow, that's kind of loud,'" Hoffman said. "But it was pretty awesome. It became bigger than my inning, really."
Carts were fading from the scene when Hoffman began his career, and he never rode in one. In hindsight, he thinks it might have interfered with his concentration as he prepared mentally to close out the ninth. He wonders how he would have responded to a bullpen cart driver who was in a chatty mood.
"You're so jacked up to get out there, it's kind of hard to sit down next to someone who starts talking to you," Hoffman said. "I probably would have told him, 'I'm about to get my brains beat in against the 3-4-5 guys [in the order]. You go out there and throw to these guys.'"
Long before Rivera and Hoffman emerged on the scene, Al Hrabosky turned the closer intimidation routine into a cottage industry. He logged some dominant seasons in St. Louis and Kansas City in the late 1970s and attracted lots of attention with an intense pre-inning ritual that jibed with his nickname, "The Mad Hungarian."
Hrabosky worked himself into a lather during the jog from the bullpen to the mound, but he didn't thumb his nose at the occasional ride. He remembers coming into games at Shea Stadium in the Mets' bullpen cart and riding to the mound in Kansas City in a Chevrolet (a team sponsor at the time).
"I personally liked trotting in, because I was by myself and I had my thoughts," said Hrabosky, now a Cardinals broadcaster. "If I had to get a ride, I preferred the golf cart over a car. It's easier to get out of a golf cart."
What would Todd Coffey think?
Like Hoffman, many current relievers find that the trot out to the mound gives them a few welcome moments of peace to settle the nerves and prepare for the rigors of the task at hand.
"I wouldn't be a fan of [carts]," Miami's Mike Dunn said. "The jog out there kind of gets your mind right and your legs loose."
And, the truth is, some relievers are simply faster (and more entertaining) racing in from the pen than they could ever be hitching a ride in the cart. Craig Lefferts, John Rocker, Phil Coke, Heath Bell and Pestano head the list of notable sprinters, and Todd Coffey could go down in history as the Usain Bolt of closers.
"I was always afraid of those guys blowing a hamstring," Hoffman said. "Why didn't they run that hard in the afternoon when they were supposed to be running hard?"
Some relievers contend that the complex logistics of cart use might actually add precious minutes and seconds to the length of a game. If baseball truly wants to save time, said veteran reliever Chris Perez, it might be better served allowing relievers to warm up in indoor cages situated behind the dugouts at a lot of ballparks.
"I don't think carts would be a time saver," Perez said. "They'd have to signal the cart first, and every once in a while, you'd have a false start where they think they're making a change but they don't. I just think it would cause more problems."
In addition, relief pitchers in San Francisco, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Wrigley Field in Chicago warm up down the first- and third-base lines, where the proximity of the bullpen mound to the infield renders the bullpen cart irrelevant.
"Maybe you could just give relievers there a motor scooter or something," Cishek said. "That would be the epitome of laziness."
A lot more pros than cons
Of the relievers surveyed by ESPN.com about bullpen carts, several loved the idea of the mini-vehicles making a comeback. Even those who have mixed feelings about hitching a ride to their work station recognize the fan appeal and inherent fun factor.
• "I'm fine with anything that would save me a few steps," Kansas City right-hander Luke Hochevar said.
• "I sprint in from the bullpen, so I might race the cart," Pestano said. "Or I could be like Indiana Jones and hop on the back and let it take me in."
• "I think a Billy the Marlin [theme] would be classic," said Cishek. "You could have a big huge marlin bill out the side and joust with other teams' golf carts -- like in medieval times."
Relievers in the pro-cart camp offered some other compelling reasons to bring them back. For one thing, they would be a boon to the baseball job market.
"You've got 30 teams, so that's 30 new employees, right?" Royals reliever Jason Frasor said. "Golf cart drivers. That's an important job. It would be good for the economy."
In Texas, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and several other ballparks, it's a long trip from the bullpen to the mound.
"In Colorado you can run like two football fields [between them]," Perez said. "You need oxygen by the time you get in there."
And the marketing, promotional and creative-design opportunities are endless. Frasor envisions a bullpen cart-laden landscape in which each team's cart could be tailored to its market. In Kansas City, for example, the cart's design could evoke jazz or some variety of smoked meat. In Milwaukee, it could be beer- or sausage-themed -- and so on. Teams could hold contests for fans to design the best cart.
Oakland closer Sean Doolittle, similarly, sees an alternate revenue stream for baseball in a world in which bullpen carts reign supreme.
"I think it's kind of a win-win situation," Doolittle said. "They want to speed up the game, and a cart gets you there faster. It's also good from the standpoint of advertising and the almighty dollar for teams. Who cares if it looks like NASCAR with all the stickers on the side? It could be cool."
When it was suggested to Doolittle that Oakland's cart could feature an image of the team's elephant mascot, he paused to consider the possibility.
"Or we could just come in on a real elephant," he said. "That might actually take more time, but fans would love it."