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December 8, 2017

An Ode To The Bullpen

This was written after the September 21st game against the KC Royals. As luck would have it, I did end up sitting above the bullpen for a final time, thanks to the kindness of some fellow fans.

I got home last night exhausted. I’m on medication that often leaves me drowsy. I remember the multitude of all-nighters I pulled in high-school and marvel. I can’t do that anymore. But there were things to be done: wash makeup off, change out of jersey, put jersey in the tub to soak while I took my medication, rinse jersey, hang jersey to dry outdoors.

I got into bed expecting to fall asleep easily, and instead ended up crying into the early hours of the morning. Why? No idea why at the time, and no idea now. I’d felt a little choked up leaving my seat last night. It was my last game of the season in my favourite front-row bullpen spot. I was there with one of my favourite people in the world, we’d spent months planning to go to a game– so long that our group chat was originally named ‘Fire Up the Grilli’. The loss was disappointing, sure, but it wasn’t that.

So why? No idea. Just a lingering sense of loss and regret and fear for the long baseball-less months.

I spent most of last summer living in Siena, Italy– a medieval town with narrow winding streets and a stone staircase marked with a cross for where St. Catherine of Siena was said to have been pushed by the devil. The internet was shaky at best, non-existent at worst, and every night was a battle between me and the moths that slipped in through the shutters of my windows. I didn’t watch any baseball while I was there. The weeks were first occupied with gelato and exploration, and the occasional tumultuous mood. As the weeks stretched on my mood worsened, and then worsened, and then went off the deep end of holy-fuck-everything-is-awful.

It’s not the first time that it’s happened, but it’s perhaps the worst. I can chronologise the years of my life into those where mental illness was overwhelming (my first bout of OCD at 8, then depression at 12, at 15, at 18, at 20, and then 21). Anxiety has always been the backdrop to every facet of my life. But this was worse: I couldn’t sit still, but simultaneously couldn’t get anything done. I visited Venice, I visited Naples and Rome, and all I looked forward to was a return to my bed in Siena. I was horrible to deal with, short-tempered and surly.

I came back to Canada at the beginning of September and made a long-overdue appointment with my doctor. I counted down the days, and I started to watch baseball again. I saw Josh Donaldson’s dash to home with its magnificent slide. The days that had been marked by indifference now had a small semblance of structure. Whatever I did was bracketed neatly by the appearance of reliable evening-games. I was put on antidepressants as the Jays battled their way through the postseason.

And now a year has passed, and last night as I cried I was seized by a single terrifying thought: “This must be a relapse!”

My mood has been stable for nearly a year, and what I’m constantly forced to remind myself is that everyone has bad days. A single bad day, or couple of days, or even a couple of weeks is not relapse. They happen to everyone and don’t signify a regression to the days of not-getting-out-of-bed-and-staring-at-the-ceiling.

But then why cry?

It’s hard to imagine life without the reliable routine of baseball, now that it’s settled in. I know it’s doable– I’ve lived the off-season life before and will again. I will miss the thrill of sitting over the bullpen waiting for minor interactions with men whom I don’t, and likely will never know.

It’s not that baseball saved me. It hasn’t. But that it’s provided me something to look forward to when I most needed it.

And perhaps the draw to the bullpen can be framed in the same light. That the strongest impulses of depression are often not towards sadness, so much as towards isolation from those you love most. Antidepressants are not a solve-all fix-all, and the impulse to isolate has remained strong. What the bullpen has provided is a sense of community. It has offered short measured interactions with no expectation of giving a rundown of my health, school, work, life that is required when meeting with old friends after a long break.

And maybe the fact that over the course of the season these men have provided a sort of support system. Making a bullpen sign gave me a thrill akin to planning a wonderful present for a friend’s birthday (I’m a big fan of quirky gifts). The short interactions gave me something to look forward

to, something to kick me out of the drudgery of routinisation.

Perhaps it’s also the symbolism of the bullpen as the underdogs of baseball. The way they sit apart from the superstars of the game, from the Donaldsons and Bautistas and the megaliths of starting pitchers like Stroman. Rarely noted except when they screw up spectacularly; relatively isolated except for brief moments when a game flounders or is in need of a momentary savior to push forward, to maintain the lead, to clinch the win.

I like the camaraderie of it, accessible in a way that the dugout isn’t. The pitchers sit in full-view, their warm-up routines performed under the scrutiny of a dozen children screaming “Ball, ball, ball!” And, in more cases than not, they’ve gotten the job done this year. The bullpen have been the unsung heroes of a team that has not only floundered, but outright tanked. They’ve held it together when the rotation was reduced to two starting pitchers.

I’m a sucker for narrativization. I like stories that are neat, clean, that fit into the parameters of growth and struggle. And what a narrative this season has been for men like Tepera, Dominic Leone, or Danny Barnes. For Matt Dermody who, after a disastrous outing in April, now sits more comfortably around 4.00. For the young pitchers, Carlos Ramirez and Luis Santos, who have wowed in the short span of September call-ups.

There is something innately comforting in watching the predictable drama of the bullpen play out. The predictable order they sit in: Ramirez, Santos, Osuna, Campos, Rowley, Mayza, Dermody, Leone, Loup, Tepera. The constant flicking of sunflower seeds, of Tepera spitting water over the side of the bench, of the casual banter which doesn’t carry to the seats. The deviations from routine are reassuring in their thrill too: the one time Rowley took Tepera’s spot, when Estrada and Happ appear to rifle through the snacks and sit amongst the bullpen’s number for a handful of innings, the final game when Danny Barnes climbed the stairs to the raised benches for the first time that I’ve seen this season. All minor diversion amidst the commonplace workings of the bullpen.

The most shocking thing this season was when Stroman and Martin were thrown out, and Pillar stopped by for some water.

So why cry?

I don’t know. Regret that I hadn’t done more. Regret that the season was over. Regret that it would be months before I would watch the quiet drama of the relief pitchers play out again.

Baseball didn’t cure my mental illness; didn’t help to solve the minutiae of life problems. But baseball helped to fill the void of avoidance, helped to establish regularity when everything else seems to be erupting into chaos. There will be other things now: dancing, and winter ice-creams, and drinking turkish coffee on snowy mornings.

And as the season ends I can reflect that I am not at my best, but neither am I at my worst, and that the only reliable thing is the persistent ticking forward of time. Soon enough, baseball will return, and the summer with it.

Victoria Popov is a staunch Blue Jays fan, history student, Torontonian, and fan of general tomfoolery. She has spent the majority of the 2017 baseball season making bullpen signs and attempting to emulate the soothing dulcet tones of Joe Biagini.She spends her free time ogling Toronto’s dog population, swing dancing, and dressing like the average 1940s Brooklyn Dodgers fan. She can be found on twitter @victoriapopov.

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