FORT MYERS, Fla. – Propping up water bottles so they’ll fall down on unknowing rookies.
Reminding teammates they’re not dressed right – just before the game starts.
Talking to relievers minutes before they head to the mound, then watching one of them joke with the manager before a tense situation.Quaffing Red Bull before doing battle.
And trading practical jokes with closer Glen Perkins – at your own risk.
The Minnesota Twins’ bullpen is an eclectic mix of hometown and acquired talent, low-key and high-strung personalities and one alpha male.
“We have a good time,” setup guy Jared Burton said. “We’re like a group of brothers. We’re a lot closer than everything thinks we are.”
“We like to rib each other and get after one another,” starter-reliever Brian Duensing said. “The bullpen likes to have fun.”
Despite being on a team that finished 30 games under .500 in 2012, the Twins’ relievers were able to keep their sanity while posting some respectable numbers.
Despite pitching the second-most innings among American League bullpens last year, their 3.77 ERA ranked No. 17 in the major leagues. Opposing teams hit .246 against them.
“Last year, our bullpen was fairly solid when we didn’t have to expose them,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “We went to bullpen early and often. That’s not good. When we get the rotation settled down, that will certainly benefit our bullpen.”
Ryan noted that Perkins (70 appearances, 16 saves, 2.53 ERA) took over the closer’s role when Matt Capps was hurt and Burton emerged as a setup guy (64 appearanances, 18 holds, five saves, 2.18 ERA). Casey Fiens (35 appearances, 2.06 ERA) also was solid while Duensing moved between long reliever and starter (55 appearances, 4-12, 5.12 ERA).
“We were overworked, but we still closed the door at the end,” Duensing said. “Guys proved to themselves they could get the job done. Our bullpen was very effective. For the most part, we were called up together. It was the hand we were dealt.”
Favorite jokes, rituals
It almost has become a rite of passage in the Twins bullpen for rookies to get a good dousing.
A bathroom door is propped open with a bottle of water on top. Rookie opens the door, bottle comes down. Rookie is christened. One time, an unknowing security guard got doused when was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He laughed it off, though,” Burton said.
Though the relievers have different ways of preparing for games, Fien’s ritual may be the most intense and hardcore.
“Three Red Bulls every day and I’m good to go,” he said. “Some people don’t like that jittery feeling. I love it.”
Fien’s favorite joke is to wait to tell an unknowing player – usually Pat Robertson – that he has the wrong cap on.
“We didn’t tell him until game time,” he said. “But we had one ready, so he didn’t have to walk all the way back.”
Fien said players will pick their spots on when they hone in on the game. They’ll usually tend to most of their joking when the Twins are batting.
“We’re focused, but we keep it loose,” Burton said. “You can’t be on edge all the time. A couple of us have established roles in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning. After a couple of weeks, the roles have identified themselves. Once that happens, you sit back and relax and watch the game. You can see the direction it’s going. About a month in, when the phone rings, you pretty much know who it’s gonna be.”
Jared Burton: Mystery man
Duensing said he doesn’t quite know how to take Burton during a game, so he just leaves him alone. But he does like to watch him prepare and work.
“He’s got filthy stuff,” Duensing said. “It’s so deceptive. It seems to disappear to hitters, that changeup. They’re just not able to see it or pick up the spin or arm action.
“He’s got that perfect mental approach. He’s always low-key, he doesn’t get excited. He’s a mellow due who likes to compete and go out there and give everything he can.”
After thyroid and shoulder injuries bothered him in 2010 and 2011 in Cincinnati, he came to Minnesota healthy.
“I’ve proven when I’m on the field, I’ve been pretty successful,” he said. “The main thing for me is, you can’t play on pins and needles.”
Glen Perkins: Silent assassin
The closer is not a guy players want to escalate a practical joke with.
“He takes it one step too far,” Duensing said. “You have to watch him or you’ll find your tires slashed.”
Burton added: “He’s the silent assassin.”
Perkins admits he likes the control of knowing that teammates may hesitate to get even with him.
“I like to have the upper hand, even if he owes me,” Perkins admitted. “I think you gotta feel like you’re better or you will come out on top.”
Perkins takes the same approach to the mound. “It’s competition,” he said.Now, he doesn’t have that don’t-mess-with-me mode minutes before he pitches.
“He’s as calm as they come,” Burton said.
Duensing added: “Perkins doesn’t care. You could talk to him when he’s working, as long as you’re not telling him to pitch. But you can go up and say, ‘See, what’s going on out there?”
Perkins admitted he once joked with manager Ron Gardenhire before going to work.
“It is a game,” he said. “If you can’t have fun, why play it? I know I have a job to do.”
He remembers something former Twins bullpen coach Rich Stelmaszek told him: “I’ve caught a lot of no-hitters in the bullpen. There’s a difference once you go over that white line.”
What Perkins found is what a lot of teammates have – that pitching on a regular basis instead of every fifth day appeals to the nature and skill set of a guy who throws two different kinds of fastballs as well as a slider.
“When I was a starter, I had a hard time coming to the field knowing I wouldn’t have an impact,” he said. “When I come to the field now, I know there’s a chance I could play that day. And make a difference.”