Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Playing the Field: For the Love of the Bullpen Catcher by Abigail Gullo

I was finally back in south Florida for spring training after too long of an absence. There was a time
when I felt like I went every year. My grandparents were snow birds in Deerfield Beach for 25 years and my aunt Marie had a house in Port St. Lucie where my beloved Mets have their spring training. I even found myself driving my gramps and grammy over to Tampa so she could see her “boys,” the Yankees. My grammy has been a Yankees fan since she saw Babe Ruth hit a homer in the old Polo Grounds, before he built the “house” that he built. My heart may be true to the orange and blue, but I wasn’t going to begrudge her wonderful baseball history.

I had only been down to Florida (with a fellow baseball loving gal pal) for spring training once since my gramps and my aunt Marie passed away. But now my parents have a place of their own in Delray Beach. And since I moved to New Orleans a year ago, I have been starved for my favorite team playing my favorite game. My mom actually made plans to take my 94-year-old Grammy to a game later in the week. But I could not wait. The Mets were playing the team from Venezuela leading up to the World Baseball Classic. Using the excuse that I had never seen an international team play, I took off for the Treasure Coast in my rental car. Love songs on the radio made me feel giddy. Who was I missing in New Orleans? No one. So why did I feel the butterflies in my stomach, a clear sign of the anticipation of love?

Suddenly I realized the culprit. I am in love with baseball. The thought of seeing my boys of summer in the spring caused a physical reaction in my body. The endorphins were flooding through me. My body was telling my brain I am in love. Who was I to argue?

Having familiarized myself once again with Tradition Field—and the tacos in a helmet—I returned the next day with my family in tow. We had amazing seats right in front of the Mets’ bullpen. I could hear the chatter of the coaches and the thwack of the ball hitting glove. They could also hear me, I soon learned. “Oh! There is Colin McHugh,” I exclaimed. “I follow him on Twitter!” And then I shrank in my seat when he actually turned to look at me.

The front row was full of middle aged old white men begging the players for balls. There are a certain type of old men at spring training; idol worshipers who treasure their artifacts more than the experience. All they want is the signed merchandise to prove that they were there (or perhaps to sell later for big bucks). I am not that type. I prefer to just relish the experience. Watching our soon-to-be ace Matt Harvey warm up while I took iPhone videos was as invasive as I was going to be.

When I go to a game, I’m not the type to dress head to toe in Mets gear. My baseball fashion idol is
Annie Savoy from Bull Durham. I wear vintage dresses, big sunglasses and wide picture hats. I will iron on Lady Met decals onto black sundresses and also gravitate towards orange and blues. I am proudly pretty, if no longer young. As I am a big girl, I have grown used to being invisible, especially to men, no matter how I dress or how many tattoos I get. And I am ok with that now that I am on this side of 40. I dress for myself now, finally!

So I was surprised when I seemed to be getting a stare down from the bullpen catcher. I had been checking the scoreboard over his head when I noticed he seemed to be checking me out. I felt that flush of unwanted or unknown attention. At this side of 40 I’m still not very good at relations with the opposite sex. (As I mentioned, my body is more likely to get worked up over a sport than an actual human being.) My options for flirting seemed slim, sitting between my mother and my grandmother. But I couldn’t let this connection pass me by. The next time I caught his eye I took a chance.

“Can I have a ball for my grammy?”

Sure enough, he nodded and tossed me a ball.

Disappointment erupted from the middle aged losers in front of me, but was my grammy
pleased as punch! What a nice guy!

The next day I dragged my cousin and his two-year old son back to those same seats. I caught
the bullpen catcher’s eye again.

“Can I have a ball for my little cousin?”

Another game ball comes sailing into my hot little hands.

By the third game, he waved to me as I was taking my seat and I was in love.

I waited until I was safely out of Florida before I Googled him. I didn’t want to look too desperate and I like to take relationships slow. It turns out my bullpen catcher was, pardon the pun, quite a catch. The job of bullpen catcher is a tough one. You wear a uniform, but you’re not on the roster. You aren’t a coach and you work for tips, basically, as much of your pay comes from tip outs from the pitchers. As a bartender, I felt a kinship with my catcher. They usually don’t stay in that position long, but my guy seemed to have stuck it out since the Bobby Valentine years. He also happens to be best friends with David Wright. It’s gotta help when you are best pals with the franchise player. That night I dreamt how much fun we would have on double dates with David and his gal.

That baseball time in Florida wasn’t enough for me this year. I decided I would go visit my sister in Los Angeles and my high school boyfriend Steve in San Diego. Oh yeah, and the Mets just happened to be having a West Coast road trip. I made sure all my tickets were near the visiting bullpen. I showed up to the first game in Los Angeles wearing a t-shirt with my bullpen catcher’s name and number on the back. He was warming up with Matt Harvey, our all-star, in the bullpen. I stood casually with my back to the bullpen and was delighted to hear the good-natured ribbing he took from his teammates for my t-shirt. They obviously love to tease for stuff like that. I’m sure they could clearly tell I meant it as tongue firmly in cheek, right?

Things went even better in San Diego, which is now my new favorite ball park in America. (What a
beauty! Too bad the Padres play there.) As he was carrying equipment to the bullpen from the dugout, I caught his eye and he waved at me—right in front of my high school boyfriend Steve. (The best boyfriend I ever had, by the way.) “What was that?” Steve asked. I shrugged it off. “Oh, we kind of have a thing since spring training this year.” I acted cool. My insides were flying.

The Mets lost every game I saw this year. But the bullpen catcher waved to me three times, twice in
front of the one love of my life. The last time I saw him, as we both leaving San Diego in defeat, I told him I would see him again at spring training. Who knows? I might even let him get to second base next year.

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