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Inside the Daily Duties of an MLB Bullpen Catcher

Toronto's Alex Andreopoulos takes us through the unique world of being a major league bullpen catcher, a job that includes spending early mornings rubbing mud and spit on baseballs to keep pitchers happy.
March 11, 2016, 6:42pm
Photo by John Lott

Until a few months ago, the Blue Jays employed two Canadians of Greek heritage whose last names rhymed. Not only that, but their first names were the same. One Alex became famous across Canada during the heady summer of 2015. It's likely you haven't heard of the other Alex, but he's still on the job, an unsung soldier, taking his lumps in the bullpen, sorting scuffed baseballs and counting himself lucky.

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So this one is for Alex Andreopoulos (yes, rhymes with Anthopoulos). Everybody calls him Drop. He is the keeper of the pearls.

READ MORE: Picking a Closer: The Blue Jays Have a Good Problem on Their Hands

The pearls are baseballs, the shiny white ones, fresh from their tissue-paper wrapping in the box, the kind hitters like to hit in batting practice. But not the kind pitchers like to pitch, so Andreopoulos spends his early mornings rubbing mud and spit on some of the pearls and turning them into swine to keep the pitchers happy during their bullpen sessions.

A Toronto native, Andreopoulos is a former minor-league catcher, and a good one, and there is a reason he counts himself fortunate. At 43, he is still working in baseball as the Jays' bullpen catcher and batting practice pitcher. He is happy not to be working in construction, like some of his family and friends.

"That's real work," he says. "I can't complain about this. I'm in the sun in Florida. I get to work out. I rub baseballs, catch baseballs, get to hang out with big leaguers. At the end of the day, it's pretty good."

It also makes for pretty long days, especially in spring training, when the Blue Jays go through nearly 11,000 baseballs. Andreopoulos sorts and distributes every last one, culling the daily collection to determine which ones are spiffy enough for another round of batting practice. The scuffed ones go to the indoor batting cage. It's dim in there so no one complains about dirty baseballs. After they absorb further abuse in the cage, Andreopoulos boxes them up and sends them to the Jays' minor league teams.

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You get to the big leagues, you get to hit pearls. During the regular season, the Blue Jays go through more than 37,000 of them.

***

Late in the summer of 2002, Andreopoulos was out of work. After eight years in the minors—.288 average, .383 on-base percentage—he'd been released from Triple-A teams twice that season, first by the Expos, then by the Cardinals. So he called the Blue Jays, hoping they might let a hometown boy finish the year in Syracuse.

They didn't need him in Triple-A. But they'd just fired their bullpen catcher.

"They said, 'Would you be interested in coming home and finishing out the season doing that?,'" he recalls. "I was like, 'hell yeah.' I was burned out, got released twice in the summer. So I went home, did that for a month and a half, and at the end of the season, they sat me down and asked if I wanted to keep the job."

When he isn't doctoring baseballs or throwing BP, Andreopoulos is catching bullpen sessions. —Photo by John Lott

He had to think about it. He was 29, and confident someone would let him keep playing the game he loved.

"As a left-handed hitting catcher who could hit a little bit, I might have gotten a cup of coffee down the line," he says. "But I talked it over with my wife and family, and it's been the best decision for me. Fourteen years now. I'm in the big leagues. I don't make the money those guys do, but I don't complain. It just kind of fell into my lap. I got lucky."

***

Andreopoulos didn't know what he was getting into. The catching he could do. He'd had one shoulder surgery, and it didn't quite work, but sure, he could still throw batting practice. Then they handed him a tub of Lena Blackbourne's Baseball Rubbing Mud and told him to turn the pearls a duller shade of pale. It took some trial and error.

"I remember the first couple weeks, the pitchers were like, 'Too dark, too light,'" he says. "Guys will let you know. I'll rub the same way, every single one, and guys will reach in the bag and some of them won't like a ball. To every guy it feels different. It's weird that way."

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Now he does it by rote. During spring training, he comes to work at 5:30 AM, opens his shadowy storage room near the indoor batting cage, turns a bucket upside down and takes a seat. With a coffee by his side, he cracks a case of pearls and breaks out the special mud. For more than 60 years, every pro team has used the same goop to rub up balls, and in that period, the formula has been the same: a dab of mud on the fingers, a dash of spit, and a thorough rub to take the shine off. Andreopoulos finishes a ball in about 30 seconds.

This is where you can find Andreopoulos in the early mornings during spring training. —Photo by John Lott

The doctored ball is easier for a pitcher to grip. And if the pitcher bounces it in the dirt just once in the bullpen, chances are it will begin its descent down the scuffed-ball ladder, stopping first in the indoor cage for another beating before landing in a cardboard box destined for a farm team.

Andreopoulos loads up bags of pearls for batting practice (everyone calls it BP) and bags of rubbed balls for the bullpens. Each bag holds about 100 balls. After a day's use, he returns to his lair and sorts them for the next day.

"That's got a scuff—it goes to the cage," he says, narrating the process for a reporter, flipping balls quickly into their assigned bags. "BP… cage… BP, BP… cage, cage… definitely cage—too dark."

When the Blue Jays hitters hit the cage for early BP the next morning, the rejects will be waiting.

***

For Andreopoulos, the rest of the day is hard labour, especially in spring training. He throws batting practice. He catches pitchers throwing on flat ground and in bullpens. R.A. Dickey is a daily throwing partner in the outfield. When he catches Dickey, Andreopoulos dons his full regalia to minimize the mugging a knuckleball can deliver.

He absorbs more hard knocks than he ever did as a catcher.

Those are some nice pearls you got. —Photo by John Lott

"It takes a toll physically," he says. "I'm Dickey's guy. I've got to catch him every day, knuckleballs—my thumb, my elbows, everything's banged up. I got pretty beat up last year. And catching the guys in the pen—they're great, but when they're warming up, they'll bounce stuff. You can't do anything about it. You just keep going."

Back in 2011, during a bullpen session in Anaheim, Octavio Dotel bounced one pitch after another, leaving Andreopoulos battered and bruised. When Dotel was done, a nearby contingent of fans gave his catcher a standing ovation. It was a rare moment of recognition for a man who toils in anonymity.

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In the mid-2000s, Andreopoulos was catching a live BP session when a foul ball hit him just below his right shoulder. A few days later, while throwing BP in New York, he lost the feeling in his hand. "All of a sudden my hand's turning blue and my whole arm starts going numb, and my hand starts swelling," he recalls.

He had a blood clot in his upper arm where the foul tip hit him. For the next 15 days, a doctor injected him with a powerful blood thinner to break up the clot. He was on blood-thinning medication for a year.

In 2012, he missed more than half the season after a second shoulder surgery. He was told he might not be able to throw again. He's still at it.

Nothing can slow down Andreopoulos. —Photo by John Lott

As he tells his war stories, Andreopoulos repeatedly pauses to stress that he has no complaints.

"I love doing this," he says. "What else am I going to do, work construction? I've been in baseball my whole life. That's all I've ever done. And I love it. I'm from Toronto, man. I was in the stands in '85-'86, in the old grandstand at the CNE, skipping school in the afternoon to go to Jays games. So for me, this is awesome.

"And hopefully," he adds with a laugh, "I can make it last a little while longer."