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CRASH COURSE

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BULLPEN CARTS RETURNED TO MAJOR LEAGUE BALLPARKS LAST SEASON, BUT DRIVING ONE ISN'T AS EASY AS IT LOOKS

ON A mild day in late February, I looked into the vacant eyes of Teddy Roosevelt, looming above me with an orange traffic cone raised in his right hand, and suddenly I understood the full power of the presidency. The Washington Nationals were holding auditions for a new bullpen cart driver, and I was doing terribly.

After posting an open call for the position, the team received hundreds of applications. Twenty-one finalists were asked to come to the ballpark to try out by driving through an obstacle course guarded by our 26th president (in mascot form). Candidates were expected to maneuver around a path loosely resembling the team's signature curly W, staying between the cones, avoiding scattered mannequins in baseball uniforms and, of course, steering clear of Teddy. Think of a regular driver's exam, just in a golf cart and monitored by America's Rough Rider, ready to bust you like a trust if you make a mistake.

The bullpen cart might look like a slice of cutesy kitsch, but driving one is serious business. Until last season's revival movement it had been decades since a reliever rode a cart to the mound. Arizona was the first to reintroduce the vehicle, on Opening Day 2018, followed soon by Detroit and, in midseason, Washington. In a game plagued by concerns about pace of play, is there any easier way to shave off a few seconds of dead time? There certainly isn't a more entertaining one.

As applicants interviewed behind closed doors, the Nats made an offer to the handful of reporters on the concourse: Did we want to drive the cart ourselves? Sure, I figured. I'd describe my driving skills as perfectly adequate—O.K., with one speeding ticket—and I'd just watched nearly two dozen people go through the course. How hard could it be?

I missed a turn, finished with the slowest time of the day (one minute, 23 seconds) and felt chastised accordingly by Teddy. The job is harder than it looks, and so it only makes sense that the team wants a driver who—like the pitchers in the passenger seat—can bring his or her best stuff for every game, stay cool under pressure and perform in front of a crowd. Presidents included.