Brendan Sullivan is a 1993 graduate of St. Albans, where he was an All-Met at the Northwest Washington school. During the season, he will chronicle his experiences as a pitcher in the minor league system of the San Diego Padres.
I have been told repeatedly -- and have come to believe -- that consistency is the key to success in this game. Beyond a relatively small group of superstars in the major leagues, the talent level there is similar to Class AAA. While no pitcher or batter is expected to perform perfectly, those who perform consistently are given the opportunity to play -- and stay -- at the highest level.
As a middle reliever in a professional bullpen, I never know when I might throw. I am asked to be ready whenever the phone rings, no matter the inning or score, whether I pitched the night before or have not pitched for more than a week. My goal, therefore, is to create consistency where there is very little. The job has proved difficult.
A twelve-day stretch of this summer, beginning June 29, epitomizes the task of a middle reliever and captures the flavor of my season perfectly. On a Tuesday in Salt Lake City I threw 1 2/3 innings, laboring through the final frame. Back home in Las Vegas Wednesday against Fresno, I warmed up quickly in the third inning when our starter struggled but I never entered the game. On Thursday I threw two scoreless innings and on Friday battled through 2 2/3 more. Then our manager did not so much as warm me up for seven days.
Oddly enough, that week off turned out to be the most productive of my season -- and perhaps of my career.
Games Within the Game
Performance on the field or in the box score is just the tip of what happens in the bullpen. In between appearances there is a lot of preparation, hard work and plenty of wasting time.
Each reliever prepares himself differently, though everyone follows a routine. I lift weights every other morning, run, do abdominal exercises and long toss every afternoon of the season. Most days I will throw in the bullpen before batting practice, in search of the consistency that may some day get me to the major leagues. I feel if I prepare consistently, I give my body and arm the best chance of performing that way.
Once the game begins we are left to entertain ourselves for three hours. Conversation wanders from topic to topic -- though rarely to baseball. We will occasionally talk about opposing hitters or exchange stories from past seasons -- while filtering the game just enough to know when one of us might be called to warm up or if a foul ball is headed our way.
Otherwise we are too busy scouring the crowd with binoculars (we usually do not try to steal signs), telling jokes or playing pranks. Questions such as, "How does this guy handle the inside fastball?" are far less common than, "Would you quit baseball right now if you could join the PGA Tour?"
The game provides plenty of pressure when I am on the mound. I do not need to put any more on myself and allow it to build before I get between the foul lines. As a right-handed submariner I know where right-handed hitters (that I may be called upon to face) fall in the opposing lineup. I know each hitter's glaring strengths or weaknesses and which ones might bunt or steal. And I know when I am called to warm up, my first throw will block out all conversation, laughter and jokes from teammates and fans.
Friends, Teammates, Competitors
My closest friends on the Las Vegas Stars are my fellow relief pitchers. Given the amount of time relievers spend together, this is the situation on most teams. We work out together, eat lunch together, watch the game (sort of) together, go out together and in most cases live together -- every day and night for six months. While teammates in one sense we are competitors in another, as there are only so many big league jobs to go around.
In Class AAA, where players frequently move from organization to organization and guys have played the game long enough to realize one will get to the major leagues if you are good enough, this competition is mild. At lower levels it provides a harsh reality and ends many careers.
In 1996, the Padres drafted me in the 26th round and Nick Witte -- another sidearm right-hander from Ball State University -- in the 27th round. We would later joke that this obvious error must have cost some poor scout or executive his job. Nick and I played side by side for three years in Class A. We lived together and were inseparable for two of those years. We coached and encouraged one another, golfed the same courses, ate the same food and drank the same beer -- all the while knowing there was not room for both of us in San Diego.
Halfway through last season while at Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., our paths diverged. He underwent elbow surgery at the same time I was promoted to Class AA. This spring, I was assigned to Las Vegas and Nick was released.
When we talk about once a month, I can tell that Nick is rooting for me every bit as much as I am rooting for myself, just as I would be rooting for him. Some might say I won the competition between the two of us. I say I lost the best teammate I have ever had.
I did not need or want a week off in early July. I would pitch every night if they let me, but those seven days allowed me the chance to experiment with the first mechanical adjustment of my career. Just days after I wrote in late June how my unorthodox delivery made me difficult to coach, the Padres' minor league pitching coordinator, Jeff Andrews, came to town and proved me wrong.
In search of maximum deception in my delivery and movement on my pitches, I had always thrown from the stretch position on the far right side of the pitching rubber. When set, my front (left) foot crossed over my back foot so that my back was almost completely turned toward the hitter.
Andrews suggested I straighten my feet in the set position and slide to the left side of the rubber. Despite the initial discomfort, the results of these changes were startling. As the nights passed and I did not pitch, I practiced the new delivery more and more in the afternoons and the discomfort passed. When I finally got called into a game, I threw two perfect innings, striking out two and inducing four ground balls. In my first three appearances after the changes, I retired the first 15 batters I faced.
The day after Andrews first altered my pitching motion, I asked Tom Brown, my Las Vegas pitching coach, his opinion of the adjustments. "The best thing that could happen to you," he said. "And if you remember, I suggested this in April."
In fact he had -- and I had forgotten. At the time I resisted the change the memory of my dominant Class AA season the year before was still fresh in my mind. But the same sweeping sinker and slider that had fooled so many hitters in the Southern League proved far less effective in Class AAA. By July, when Andrews arrived, I was quite willing to change.
Just over a month remains in my season here, the most frustrating summer I have spent in baseball. I still am not pitching as frequently as I would like, but when I have recently the results have been encouraging. I feel this new delivery gives me a real chance to perform effectively and consistently here and in the major leagues.
As is often the case, a certain amount of failure was required before I realized changes were needed. Three months of being knocked around the Pacific Coast League may have been a blessing in disguise.
If I had only known at the time.
Brendan Sullivan's Statistics
Through Aug. 2 1/4/7.60/37/55.2/30/44
Through June 23 1/4/7.93/25/36.1/19/29