December 14, 2017

The Artist Above The Bullpen

If there’s anything I’m known for on twitter, it’s creating a ridiculous number of Blue Jays signs in the span of June to September. Other than the product of an idle mind, and some far-flung regrets about never going to art school, the signs may be best attributed to watching a frightening number of Joe Biagini interviews in April. I’ve had a bit of an up-and-down year, and Biagini’s eccentricism is comforting in its reliable off-the-wall absurdity. When he became a starter, I began to sit behind the bullpen for the first time.

(June 3rd 2017, June 16th 2017)

Subject: Joe Biagini

Time until completion: 1 ½ hours

If you too have spent far too many hours in bed at 2am, on your cellphone, watching Joe Biagini videos on YouTube, you’ve likely heard Joe voice one of his chief concerns: that he looks cute in his major league pants while he pitches. Feeling it to be of supreme duty to offer my support to our starters, I thought a sign assuring him of the stylishness and graceful cut of his major league trousers was a good choice. Pete Walker noticed, gave me thumbs up and got me to show it to Chris, the bullpen security guard. Joe, once he spotted it, wanted to confirm that I indeed thought his pants were cute. Perhaps the sign was too effective in reminding Joe of his haute-couture accoutrements and distracted him. We lost both games. The sign was quickly retired.‍




(July 23rd 2017)

Subjects: Joe Biagini, Danny Barnes, Dominic Leone, Ryan Tepera

Time for Completion: 1 hour

I wasn’t superstitious until I became seriously invested in baseball, and the lack of signs from mid June until the end of July can be best chalked up to the fear that I, me, Victoria, was responsible for Joe Biagini’s poor outing.

Joe was back in the bullpen by the time the July 24th game against the Athletics rolled around, and I hadn’t intended to make any signs, except at the urging of my thirteen year old cousin. “Lets make one that says ‘Home is Where the Heart Is!’” she suggested. “Let’s not,” my mind supplied. Thus, the beard sign was born half-and hour before we left for the game.

It’s precursor was the nickname I had bestowed on the team of Biagini/Barnes aka the Red Beard Crew of the Bullpen. I wasn’t fond of Dominic Leone at this point. “If any of the pitchers on the sign throw up a ball, it’s mine,” I warned my cousin. “Unless it’s Dominic Leone, then you can have it.” Dominic Leone hadn’t pitched well in the first game I’d attended this season, and I was holding it against him. Midway through the game, I changed my mind: “If Dominic Leone throws the ball, you can’t have it anymore.” He had been the first to notice the sign, reacted with plain amusement, and had gone down the stairs between innings to get Biagini and Barnes out to see it too. It was fine, my cousin got Liriano’s practice ball, and my love affair with the rag-tag group of relief pitchers had blossomed.

(July 25th 2017)

Subject: Marco Estrada

Time for completion: ½ hour

Most of the signs I’ve made this year have edged on the ridiculous. I, like many others, find baseball an outlet from the chaos of day-to-day life and all that it entails. It’s easy to leave behind these cares at the gate, and for several hours allow oneself to be plunged headfirst into the sheltered security of ordered rules and the contained drama of the game.

There are moments though, in every season, when the sharp reality of day-to-day life makes itself known. Watching Marco Estrada struggle in July was one of these moments.

I find the pitcher the most sympathetic figure on the astroturf diamond. The way he stands alone, the entire weight of the game resting more or less on his shoulders. At his worst, there are few diving catches or double plays that can safely cushion the game. There is something innately humbling watching them struggle, alone on the mound, and in full-view of forty-thousand fans. It’s hard not to feel sympathy when the camera pans in on the pitcher’s face, at his mouth twisted with dissatisfaction, or on the tell-tale disappointed slump of his shoulders. It is hard not to feel empathy with that poignant feeling of failure, to not see the rough-patch of a pitcher as a metaphor for one’s own life– the knowledge that struggle and hard work are not always the ingredients for success. And the knowledge too that there are always those watching– whether it be fans, or the proverbial bleachers of friends and family.

It’s harder still when someone who seems as gosh-darn nice as Marco Estrada struggles.

This is the only sign this season that I made as an expression more or less of my own anxieties. It was made for a game that was widely speculated to be Marco Estrada’s last as a Blue Jay– at least for this season.

As fans we are helpless in the stands watching our favourite players hit slumps. These are men of which we know next to nothing, joined only by our love for the game. And yet, it’s incredibly difficult to stand aside and do nothing. I know, that in the lowest moments of my own life, it was the continued support of those closest to me that gave me the greatest courage. There few adequate ways to express all this, I struggle with it even at the time of writing this, and perhaps most inadequate of those is a piece of bristol-board pilfered from your teenage brothers room. But I was at a loss, and so I made a sign.

(August 26th, 2017)

Subject: Joe Biagini

Time for completon: 1 ½ hours

No grand story or meaning behind this sign. It was Joe Biagini’s first start after being sent down. Joe Biagini is a big fan of Bob Ross. Presto! He didn’t paint us a win, but I was happy to see him all the same.

This sign is most notable not for it’s content, but for the fact that my cat, Rain, decided she desperately wanted to help with the painting. She rolled over the drying ‘Back’, and a terrifying cat-wash ensued (she hates to be washed, and she hates having her legs touched, and she especially hates having her legs touched to be washed). The Horror.

(September 12th, 2017)

Subject: Joe Biagini

Time to Completion: 2 hours

Another Biagini sign. All were references to his interviews (except for the last).This time I was sitting above the bullpen and got to hang it up over the railing. The security was amused. Joe seemed equally so, he noticed it during the national anthem and began to nod thoughtfully as he read each point– clearly I had noted his routine with some degree of accuracy.

And then the situation devolved into the single most terrifying ballpark experience. Joe Biagini threw me his practice ball. I was so excited I was trembling from head to toe, and then I made the mistake of looking at the four-year old next to me. Never before have I seen a look expressing such heartfelt betrayal, such ardent deceit. Children can sometimes be the singularly  most terrifying creatures. I was just bracing myself to explain to her mother that Joe was my favourite player ever and I had spent hours painting a sign and… and… and…. when Alex Andreopolous, the wonderful bullpen catcher, saved me by tossing her up a ball of her own. Deliverance.

After the terrifying ordeal, Dane Johnson called out to me and then held up a two and mimed finger-painting. He was confused. I called back “Ask Joe, not me!” Whether he managed to elucidate the inner-workings of Joe Biagini’s mind and figured out the philosophical significance of finger painting, I shall never know.

(September 13th, 2017)

Subject: Dominic Leone

Time to Completion: 1 ¾ hour

At the end of July I’d had an idea for a Lion King sign. I carefully spent hours pouring over every minute detail, ensuring that the colour, ratios and line-art were just-so. This was to be the sign-of-all-signs. This is not that sign.

Sometimes real-life breaks the spell of baseball, and sometimes real-life just ruins your sign schedule. The sign-of-all-signs was a Roberto Osuna sign and on September 11th, Roberto Osuna travelled back to Mexico for the birth of his daughter. While I was surprised, but happy for Osuna, this threw a wrench into my plans.

“I’ll just go without a sign,” I said the night before.

“I NEED a sign,” I said an hour before I was meant to leave.

Queue some frantic sketching, and enlisting the help of my fourteen-year-old brother, and then quickly unenlisting his help from colouring the sky. There was no time for minute details, ratios or precise line art. The inspiration from the sign came from the Jays Twitter community. I had seen him called the Leone King long before this sign came to fruition. I asked around to see if anyone knew who bestowed the nickname upon him, but received a shrug, and my attempts to Twitter-search my way to the source were equally fruitless.

Despite the wild colouring, I was still half-an-hour late meeting my friend. Dominic Leone’s face wasn’t stuck on until we were on the subway– the actual act brought some questioning glances our way.

This was possibly my favourite sign of the year. Not the most beautiful, or the cleverest by half, but it carries with it the fondest memories of the season.

My friend Melissa, the one who had been waiting at the subway, said for the reaction of the relief pitchers: “They’re like a flock of birds! One of them sees something, and all of them huddle around to look too.”

It’s for this perhaps that I have no idea who saw it first. Or it might have been the fact that I had been attempting to take a sneaky picture of the snack in Luis Santos’ glove at that moment (grapes–not so sneaky, he noticed). But Matt Dermody seemed to find it most amusing, laughing and giving me a thumbs up while all the pitchers called for Leone to come out and see it.

After a good dozen or so calls of “Leone!” from his fellow pitchers, he did see it, and laughed.

“What a beard!” Tom Koehler noted. Leone gestured enthusiastically to his now shorter beard, but the words were lost to be in the hubbub of the ballpark.

The sign made television– the first and only of my signs to have done so– and one twitter user said, with some degree of derision: “The Leone King! What will millennials think of next?”…

(September 19th, 2017)

Subjects: Roberto Osuna, Carlos Ramirez, Matt Dermody

Time Spent: 10+ hours

With Roberto Osuna returned from paternity leave, the original Lion King sign plan was back in action. This remains the sign that I put the greatest amount of work into. I started it at the end of July, shortly after the Beard Sign, and didn’t complete it until the September 19th, the day of the game it was brought to.

The sign was actually finished at the game itself. My friend Meredyth was expertly employed in cutting out the heads of the players while I finished colouring in the moss on the log. Miraculously it was finished in time to be taped up before the game.

The inspiration for this one is perhaps a little clearer than that others– the Jays shop itself sells t-shirts that say ‘Osuna Matata’. The entire sign was a recreation of the scene in Hakuna Matata where Simba, Pumba, and Timone cross the log. I took some artistic license in resizing the characters so that the actual ballplayers heads would be recognisable from a distance, and by turning the moon into a giant floating baseball. The baseball was the hardest thing to draw.

The line-art for this was done with a sharpie, and everything, except for the ‘Osuna Matata’ (which was painted) was filled in with pencil crayons.

This was also the first sign where I took suggestions from Twitter at large (@TuronnoJays having previously helped me with the Joe Biagini checklist sign by suggesting I add hugs). Osuna had to be Simba, that much was set. Timone was likewise set as Matt Dermody– after his joyful reaction the Leone King sign, I really wanted to make sure he was included in one in the future. Pumba was crowdsourced. A number of people suggested Tepera, others suggested perhaps Danny Barnes. It was @KJAK16 and @Danbot26R who urged me to include one of our young September callups, and so Carlos Ramirez was added to complete the sign.

Neither Osuna nor Ramirez saw it that day. Dominic Leone did, and called out “Is that Derm?” and gesturing to Timone. I confirmed that it was, and he called back once more “Who’s that in the middle?”


“Ohhh Ramirez Ohhh.”

“Did you see he was talking to that lady?” a woman sitting a few seats down from me said to someone else.

It took a second to click in that she was talking about me. A relief pitcher had talked to me. I’d made it in life.

(September 20th, 2017)

Subject: Danny Barnes

Time Taken: 3 hours

No grand ridiculous backstory for this one. The inspiration was vintage boxing posters– and I used elements of several when creating this. Danny Barnes hadn’t been featured on any signs since the Beard Crew sign, and I felt his time had come round again. He’s one of my favourite players on the team.

As some readers are no doubt well aware, Danny Barnes’ beard has what one fellow fan termed a “cult following” on Twitter. This, and the fact that it truly is an impressive bit of facial hair, ensured that ‘the Beard’ had to be listed as the main attraction of the evening. As one fellow fan on Twitter termed it: “His luscious, majestic beard shines deeply into my soul.”

The sign itself was once again brought to the attention of the pitchers by Dominic Leone, who turned to shout “Barnes! Barnes!” from the raised relievers bench to the seats below. “You’ve made it!!”

Barnes came out to see what the commotion was about, but it was Tom Koehler who laughed hardest. Perhaps he too is a secret member of the Danny Barnes Beard Appreciation Society.

But it wasn’t Barnes or Koehler who made my night. Partway through the game, Matt Dermody came out and gestured that he wanted to throw me a ball. Despite my best Pillar-like efforts, it sailed over my right shoulder in the the thankfully empty row behind me. When I had collected it, I realised that he had signed the ball.

I managed to yell “Thank you!” back after a moment to collect myself.

“Are they just throwing balls randomly up here?” the woman next to me asked. It was her first baseball game ever.

“No, no,” I waved vaguely. “I made a sign.”

This was the absolute highlight of my 2017 season.

(September 21st 2017)

Subjects: The whole goshdarn bullpen (first row: Dermody, Loup, Leone, Tepera, 
Second row: Santos, Osuna, Ramirez, Campos
Third Row: Koehler, Barnes, Rowley, Mayza

Fourth Row: Andreopolous, Phillips, Johnson, Walker)

Time Spent: 4 hours

For the finale bullpen sign of the season, I wanted to ensure that as many relief pitchers were included as possible. The original intent was to do some variation of the Beard Crew sign, but expanded to include the new additions since July. It was my friend Melissa who suggested that I do one and label it ‘The Beardy Bunch’.

I took the idea, and ran with it. Thus, ‘The Bullpen-y Bunch’ was born.

The entire sign was painted, except for the photos of the pitchers themselves. I ordered everyone on the basis of who was friends with whom, and on the order on which they sit during games. Dermody, Leone, Loup and Tep were grouped together on this basis. Mayza and Rowley likewise. If one looks closely enough at the photos, I tried to make it look like they were interacting with one another– Mayza’s face, for instance, was meant to be a reaction to Rowley’s overt gum-chewing.

This sign was noticed by all the pitchers. Tepera clapped when he saw it. Rowley was most amused by Mayza, not himself– and started stretching angrily in imitation of him. Leonel Campos looked very, very confused. He nudged Osuna and pointed. Osuna shrugged. Campos continued to stare, even as he went to get himself some water.

It finally occurred to me that he likely didn’t grow up watching replays of the Brady Bunch.

It maybe didn’t help that his was among the sillier of the photos.

“I finally get a sign and they picked THAT photo?”

I don’t blame the dude.

(September 24th 2017)

Subject: Jose Bautista

Time Spent: 3 Hours

The last sign of the season, for the last home-game of the season.

After a lot of waffling on my part: “I don’t want them to think I’m a weird fangirl, I just really like making signs!” I finally decided to bring several of the old signs with me to the final game: The Leone King, Osuna Matata, and the Bullpen-y Bunch were all rolled up along with this final Jose sign and carted along on the 7:18am GO Train.

I was perhaps a little over-worried on making sure I got to the Dome early enough to get a place along the third-base line. My friend and I were the first in line at Gate 11, and I quickly realised that I had forgotten the scissors needed to cut out the photos of Jose and finish this sign.

Eventually, some kitchen shears were acquired.

“Can they cut through paper?” I asked my friend over the phone. She had wandered to a corner store to try and find scissors.

“It says they can cut through bone.”


I did finish the sign, tracing the photos of Jose with a sharpie and then pasting the photos themselves over the shadowed images.

And I did make it to the third-base line to meet the pitchers.

I had managed to mostly keep my cool until Matt Dermody, stopping to sign something for someone next to me, said quite nonchalantly: “How’s it going, Victoria?”

I managed to stammer out an answer, asking how he knew my name. The answer: Twitter.

He, Tom Koehler, and Dominic Leone were all gracious enough to stop to pose for a photo with the signs. Dominic Leone was so excited about his that he signed it on the ground and wanted to hold it himself in the photo.

The Jose sign for the day was not exactly happy: Jose, Jose, Jose, Forever, with the hope that this wasn’t actually goodbye, or the end of the era for the Blue Jays. But when I look back, I can’t express my thankfulness for the relief pitchers, for the joy they brought me on a day that was more than tinged with sadness.

‍It is strange now to reflect on the year. To think that this was all spawned by the act of making a sign complementing Joe Biagini’s pants. At risk of sounding sappy, making the signs changed the way I view baseball, from the mechanics of relief pitching, to Dominic Leone’s redemption arc (sorry for holding that one outing against you, Dom!). Mostly, I am thankful for the community it’s exposed me to. The wonderful people on Twitter, and those who sit in 137L.

Here’s to next year, folks!

(A special thanks to all who helped me with the signs over the year: my friends, Jays Twitter, and to my cat assistants Rain and Storm)

Bonus Photo of Luis Santos noticing me noticing him having grapes in his glove:‍

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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