Northern Virginia Daily (Strasburg, VA)
Rebels' relievers relish rocking the rowboat, entertaining crowd
By Ryan Sonner (Northern Virginia Daily Staff Writer) - July 11, 2006
NEW MARKET — Gerard Haran does everything in his power to keep his eyes from wandering down the left-field line.
He stares a hole through the opposing pitcher. He checks to make sure his shoes are tied. He scans the crowd for pretty girls — anything to keep his attention away from the bullpen.
"You can't look down there," the New Market catcher said. "You can't start concentrating on what these guys are doing."
Even the slightest glance can paralyze a hitter's rhythm for the entire evening.
"They're kooky," Haran said. "I don't know how else to say it."
The fun begins in the first inning against Staunton last Thursday at Rebel Park. As soon as Haran reaches the batter's box, the parade starts.
Joseph Malzone leads the troops into action. Once the crew — nine members strong — files into the bullpen, their gloves go up. And they stay up.
They desperately want to see Haran launch a home run in their direction.
Haran is patient at the plate and draws a full count. When the at-bat, which lasts nearly five minutes, ends with a walk, the gloves drop in unison. Disappointment envelops the bullpen, but they're back at it in the fifth inning.
This time, they bring their dancing shoes.
"It's funny," Haran said. "A pitch was called a strike and it was 6 inches outside. I asked the catcher, 'What the hell is that?' He said, 'What the hell is out there in left field?'
"They were out there doing the Macarena."
* * *
That's one in a long list of oddities that define the bullpen crew. There's also the rowboat routine, when the players squat behind the fence, leaving only their upper bodies visible.
"The rowboat is our bread and butter," said Darren Caldwell, a right-hander from East Tennessee State. "It's like we're in the water, so we're rowing — all in unison, of course."
Then there's the Whack-A-Mole, the creation of Ryan Tabor, a southpaw from Georgia State and College. It's the crew's newest routine, but it's quickly becoming a crowd favorite.
Just like the old arcade game, players kneel behind the fence and one player pops up every few seconds. Caldwell stands in the background, trying to keep up with the moles, bopping each one in the head with a wooden bat.
"We have one philosophy," left-hander Kyle Ramsey said. "Go big or go home. That's our main thing. It's all about the fans; all about the kids."
The life of a relief pitcher — at least during games — is about as exciting as a trip to the dentist. That's why most turn into goofballs after the first pitch. Caldwell, for example, arrived in New Market resembling the perfect gentleman.
"He was a very quiet kid," manager Blaine Brown said. "He was a very polite 'yes sir, no sir' kind of kid. Come to find out, he's one of the most animated ones out there. I was shocked."
Most of the bullpen crew arrive to Rebel Park a few hours before game time. Some throw bullpen sessions; others search for ways to kill time. By the time the game starts, they're itching for excitement.
"A lot of times, they are in situations where they're only throwing one inning in a game," Brown said. "Their preparation is a little different than a positional player, who is taking ground balls and BP before the game."
* * *
Sandy Jacobs is perhaps the most infamous crew member in team history. During a game in 2004, the Rebels had just a few hits and no runs. That's when the North Carolina-Pembroke product invented a unique way to summon the baseball gods.
Brown, coaching third base at the time, was approached by the field umpire, who was the first to notice Jacobs' antics.
"I look out there and Sandy has a fire built, doing a run dance," Brown said. "He's doing a little chant around the fire in the bullpen. You could see the smoke coming up."
Brown immediately sent one of his players to the bullpen to extinguish the fire. Jacobs jogged to the dugout after the inning and explained his actions.
"He looked me straight in the face and goes, 'Coach, I'm just doing a run dance, something to wake these bats up,'" Brown said. "It was the most creative thing I've seen since I've been here."
There was also another incident that summer, this one involving athletic tape and reliever Trent Hill. In an attempt to rally the offense, a few players positioned Hill in front of a metal pole in the dugout and wrapped him — mummy-style — around it with the tape. He remained there for more than three innings.
"The only things you could see was his eyes and mouth," Brown said. "The bullpen guys looked over and said, 'We're holding him [hostage] until we score a run.'"
* * *
Brown, who called this year's crew the most animated in his three-year stint with the Rebels, has only one rule.
"I told them I don't care what they do down there," he said. "I won't say one thing as long as they're ready to go when they step across the line. As soon as I see that affecting what they're doing in the game, that's when I'll say something."
So far, that hasn't been a problem.
Entering Monday, New Market leads the Valley League with a 2.85 earned-run average. That number has been greatly aided by the bullpen, and it all starts with closer Cotton Dickson, who leads the league with 10 saves. The hard-throwing right-hander from Tusculum has a minuscule 0.55 ERA and 22 strikeouts to just one walk in 16 1/3 innings.
Dickson, a fan favorite, is the franchise's most dominant closer since Chris Ray, who has 22 saves for the Baltimore Orioles.
The setup role, shared by no less than four pitchers, has been just as effective. Only one starter, Frank Gailey, has thrown more than 80 pitches in a given game.
"Pitch counts are anywhere from 20 to 30 pitches lower than they were the last two years," Brown said. "I feel very comfortable when we get to the seventh."
There are plenty of arms to go around, and the players don't complain when Brown skips over them.
"A lot of these other teams don't have the team concept that we do," Ramsey said. "If our starters can give us six innings, we can bring in whoever and we're good."
* * *
It's two hours before last week's game against Staunton and the crew is still searching for a suitable nickname. Caldwell is first to speak, but his idea of "The Bearded Felons" is met with a deafening silence.
It certainly would have made sense — the crew began growing beards the moment they arrived in New Market. Even baby-faced Dickson has sprouted a little peach fuzz.
Maus appears to be in deep thought while devouring a fresh bag of sunflower seeds, but he comes up with nothing. Ramsey picks up the slack with a few belly-busters.
"Do we have a name?" he asked. "We need one now. Bullpen junkies? Scrubs? Lumberjacks?"
The latter drew a rousing response, but nothing is set in stone.
Ramsey is the crew's unofficial spokesman. He leads all relievers in innings pitched, but his on-field role has varied. On more than one occasion, he has been called in to face only a single batter.
In most cases, that suits Ramsey just fine.
"It's nice to show myself and run back to the bullpen," he said. "We all know where we come from."
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