DETROIT — It took until the fifth ball before Ben Carhart was satisfied with the final product.
Carhart put his markers away, looking down at the colored baseball. The laces were an interchanging black and red with a blue border. The Orioles bullpen catcher had drawn the Major League Baseball logo, added blue-and-red dots around it, and then crafted in block red letters the meaning of this special baseball: “This is the CHAMPS Ball. You Go 1st,” it reads.
“I take time during spring to do this,” Carhart explained, holding the decorated baseball in the dugout.
He takes that time — drawing and redrawing, starting over on a new ball until he deems it perfect — because that ball has a pivotal role to play in Baltimore’s pregame bullpen tradition. Before each game, the relievers watch the starting pitcher finish his warmup. They line up to high-five the starter, and then their own game begins.
Bocce ball. (Or at least a modified version.)
And that decorated baseball begins it all, with the winner from the previous day starting the proceedings with a roll, bounce or throw of the champ’s ball — any form, all with the aim of landing closest to home plate.
“Everybody is locked in for that bocce ball,” right-hander Bryan Baker said.
The game has become an integral piece of the Orioles’ pregame bullpen routine, with Carhart and his bullpen catching partner Joel Polanco passing out the seven standard — and one colored — balls for the contestants. The tradition began in 2021 and took off in earnest last year.
Ever since, it’s been a high-intensity battle before the true game begins.
“It gets very competitive,” said left-hander Keegan Akin, the Orioles’ 2022 champion. “Lot of smack talking back and forth.”
Carhart could tell they needed to do something differently midway through the 2021 summer, as a 110-loss season was in full swing. The Orioles bullpen catcher, who takes it upon himself to ensure the vibes remain positive, watched a 19-game losing streak take its toll.
Typically, the bullpen arms would throw a ball into the air when Baltimore scored a run. When the Orioles scored their third, they’d throw it even higher, counting to three before they catch it. But that all became stale when games kept falling apart, when the number of runs were few, yet the losing streak grew.
“Boys,” Carhart told the assembled relievers, “we need to have some fun around here.”
The solution started soon after, when Carhart, Polanco and relievers Travis Lakins and Tanner Scott began playing the bocce ball game. Paul Fry served as the referee. There were periodically other participants.
“Last year, I kind of bullied everyone into playing it, just for fun, and they all loved it,” Carhart said. “I put everybody’s name on [the champ’s ball] that made the opening day roster, and when they come up, I tell them if they win, then they get their name on the ball.”
It’s a way to keep track of all the bullpen movement throughout the season. When a catcher joins the taxi squad, he can partake in the game. Sometimes Carhart looks back at the 162 tallies — he counted to make sure he remembered each game — and is surprised by a name who was there for a short time yet left his impact on the bocce ball game, if not on the mound very often.
This year, Yennier Cano joined the bullpen two weeks into the season. In that time, he has taken over a high-leverage role and has won a game of bocce ball, so Carhart wrote Cano’s name on the 2023 champ’s ball with a tally mark underneath.
On last year’s ball, there are 20 tallies under Akin’s name, securing him a championship. Baker and Carhart finished one behind, and Dillon Tate was in the running as well. On a mantel in Akin’s home, he has the ball from his first strikeout in a display case. A ball from his first win joins it.
Pretty soon, he plans to add the colored ball from his 2022 bocce ball championship to the shelf full of his career achievements — and he might need space for two.
“If I win this year, need a little better competition,” Akin said.
Each relief arm has a different strategy, and the makeup of the bullpen plays a key role. The previous day’s winner chooses which bullpen mound to start from, and at Camden Yards, left-handers have an easier time from the right mound and right-handers have a favorable throw from the left. Each park is different, and each trip offers a new challenge.
There are no limits to the strategy. Baker rotates through, from bouncing off the back or side walls to rolling it softly. Akin always chooses to ricochet the ball off a wall or two. Tate takes a soft approach, rolling it. Right-hander Mike Baumann rolls the ball on a turf surface but bounces it on grass, opting to avoid any unforeseen hops. Right-hander Austin Voth used to throw his ball off the back wall before he realized the bounces can be unpredictable; now he lobs it high into the air, hoping for one or two bounces before it settles at the plate.
The game is much more difficult at the Athletics’ Oakland Coliseum or Rays’ Tropicana Field. Those bullpens are on the field, so there are no walls to bounce the ball off, and one time a throw at Tropicana Field rolled all the way to third base.
At the end, they measure which ball is closest by using the most exact method possible.
“Usually it’s Cionel Pérez using his feet to measure,” Carhart said. “Sometimes we use baseballs. We need a tape measure. But usually it’s Cionel Pérez measuring with his feet, and whoever’s closest gets a tally mark, and then we throw all the extra baseballs out to fans.”
There’s nothing off limits, either. When Carhart and Polanco go, they tend to aim for the other catcher’s ball to bump them out of competition. Left-hander Danny Coulombe recently landed his ball right on the plate, only for Akin to knock it away.
“My goal is to literally try as hard as I can every day — because I haven’t won one yet — and not win one,” Coulombe said. “I’m trying, but I don’t want to win. That’s my goal.”
“I think it would be funny,” Coulombe said. “If I’m legitimately trying every single day and I can’t win one, that would be hilarious.”
So, in a way, Akin helped Coulombe out by nailing his ball.
Coulombe’s name is already written on the champ’s ball, because he made the opening day roster. But when the season ends and 162 tallies are counted, that specially decorated baseball will belong to one of his teammates — an accomplishment worth putting next to their first strikeout.