Far from the spotlight, Orioles bullpen catchers keep the mood light - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Rich Dubroff

Far from the spotlight, Orioles bullpen catchers keep the mood light

Photo Credit: Rich Dubroff

Even the most avid Orioles fans don’t know who Ben Carhart and Joel Polanco are. The Orioles’ relievers certainly do. To them, Carhart and Polanco are their bullpen catchers, their buddies, confidants and sometimes pitching coaches.

Carhart spent five seasons in the Chicago Cubs organization, first as an infielder, then a catcher. The 34-year-old was brought to the organization in 2020 by Tim Cossins, the major league field coordinator/catching instructor.

The 38-year-old Polanco, known universally as “Yogi,” has spent most of his life with the Orioles’ organization, signing with them in the Dominican Republic in 2004.

Polanco spent three seasons with the Dominican Summer League Orioles, then three more in Bluefield, Aberdeen and Bowie, ending his career in 2011. He then became the bullpen catcher at Bowie and Norfolk until he came to the Orioles in 2019.

“They are absolute clowns,” Danny Coulombe said. “That’s what you need in the bullpen. You need guys to lighten the mood a little bit. If it’s too tense early on, it’s a long time to be locked in. They’re just perfect fits.”

Carhart and Polanco have many duties. They not only warm up relievers during games, they warm up starters between their starts, they play catch with outfielders before each inning, and they make sure there are enough balls to go around for every drill. That’s an especially arduous task during spring training when there are multiple fields and sometimes 70 players participating.

They also make sure the bullpen is prepared for the rituals of each starter. Kyle Bradish likes a piece of apple gum, and Cole Irvin likes his towels laid out a certain way.

‘We know what every starter likes. We try to cater to them as much as possible,” Carhart said.

Their most important function isn’t in their job description. It’s creating a climate where eight relievers with very different personalities can perform well.

“They keep it very light in the bullpen,” Mike Baumann said. “They find ways to make us laugh. Yogi never has a bad day. He shows up with the same smile on his face. It makes it easier when they’re loose.”

Dillon Tate has worked with both, and finds their advice helpful, and the atmosphere positive.

“Comical, they definitely have a good friendship. You can see that,” Tate said. “I can see them both always making jabs at one another, playful of course. There’s also a mutual level of respect, too.”

There’s constant kidding going on in the bullpen, and that’s by design.

“It’s like watching a married couple fight sometime,” Jacob Webb said. “It’s honestly funny in a way. They keep everything entertaining and fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be.”

Some relievers are Ben guys. Others are Yogi guys. It’s not that pitchers like one more than another. They’ve found it works best to have specific relievers assigned to a bullpen catcher.

Baumann and Coulombe generally work with Carhart. Webb works with Polanco, who works with Spanish-speaking pitchers.

“They’re incredible. When Yogi is catching me, he helps me make adjustments when I’m pitching to him,” Yennier Cano said through Orioles’ interpreter Brandon Quinones. “He’ll tell me, ‘I’m flying open’ or I’m doing this wrong or he’ll try to get me right before I go into the game. They’re huge and they help me 100 percent.”

Cano, Polanco and Cionel Pérez, who’s on the 15-day injured list with a strained right oblique muscle, are often having fun together, especially in the early innings.

Pérez is considered the loudest talker in the bullpen.

“We like to call it nervous energy where he goes out there and he’s very calm the first few innings,” Carhart said. “All the guys get their nervous energy going. Pérez’s way of dealing with that is talking. Other guys tie their shoes or chew sunflower seeds.”

Cano’s English is limited, and he enjoys the bullpen repartee with Carhart and Polanco.

“We’re usually just messing around and cracking jokes,” he said. “Those two guys always make sure we’re having a good time and enjoying ourselves in the bullpen.”

In the early innings when they’re not likely to used, there’s time for chatter. Last year, they’d play Immaculate Grid. Now, they’re reverted to more conventional talk.

“Danny likes to come up with a ‘Would you rather?’ question a lot of time and walks around the team and asks,” Carhart said. “We like to talk about whatever’s popular that day.”

One thing that’s a constant is throwing to the outfielders before innings. At home, they’ll throw to the leftfielder because the Orioles’ bullpen is there while the centerfielder and rightfielder play catch with each other.

On the road, they’ll play catch with the rightfielder if the ball is in right.

“At home, [Polanco] always throws in the first inning,” Carhart said. “On the road, I’ll always throw in the first inning. Starting last year, we did this thing where the pitcher puts up a zero, no runs that inning, then you have to go back out.

“Don’t mess with the juju-type deal. If somebody gives up a run, the other guy goes out the next inning. We don’t even talk about it anymore. We just know. If Yogi’s been throwing the first three innings with zeroes, and they score one run, then I know I’m the next inning and vice-versa.”

If runs are scored in consecutive innings, Major League Development coach Grant Anders throws instead of Carhart and Polanco.

Like in most jobs, other duties are assigned.

In 2022, after the Orioles’ had suffered two ninth-inning losses to Minnesota, a frustrated manager Brandon Hyde called Carhart into his office and told him to take the lineup card to home plate before that game.

That was a lucky call by Hyde since it began a 10-game winning streak that sparked the club into contention.

“We just kept winning,” Carhart said.

Cossins is in the bullpen for every game, and he’s taken with their work ethic.

“Their relationship is unique in the fact that it’s so vital for this team to have such a wide-reaching impact of their personalities,” he said. “They’re the humor, they’re the grit. They work their tails off. They’re super prepared. They are hysterically funny together and they provide such a cool day-to-day personality that it’s extremely valuable to have them.”

Carhart might eventually like to manage, but he’s enjoying his time with the Orioles and his relationship with Polanco.

“When we met each other in 2020, I knew he’d been here for a year, and I’d ask him for help. He’d ask me for help. We figured out what we were good at,” Carhart said. “Our relationship kind of evolved into a brothers-type deal. So we talk crap to each other in a light way and kind of make the guys happy. We never mean it.”

The ever-smiling Polanco chimes in: “We’ve never been mad for one minute,” he said. “If I have something very bad to say, ‘I’m sorry, Ben.’ When you see me and him walk to the bullpen, it’s 100 percent working together. We have a very good relationship.”

At some point, Polanco may want to take a step to advance his career and manage.

“I would like to do it,” he said through Quinones. “I’m already 38 years old. Maybe I’ll get to a point one day where I’m not able to physically do it anymore. I know that I would like to stay in baseball and continue working in this field.”

For now, Keegan Akin and the rest of the bullpen are happy they’re happy.

“They’re great. You talk to guys who come over from different organizations. You don’t always get bullpen catchers like that,” Akin said. “I know Yogi is in his late 30s, and you think he’s 16 or 18 by the way he acts somedays, but that’s what makes it fun. They both like to have fun down there and keep it loose. You couldn’t ask for much more really.”

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