Dec. 26, 2012
The catcher wipes sweat from above his sky-blue eyes and stares intently through his mask as the pitcher delivers another heater right over the plate. He knows he has to pick up the pace if his team is going to have a chance to preserve its lead, so he tosses the ball back to the mound as quick as he can.
It's the bottom of the eighth. The starting pitcher had kept the other team off the board until a solo home run to start the frame cut the lead to two. The catcher knew it was time to focus and make sure his pitcher was ready to go. The next hitter grounded out to the shortstop, but a walk to the third batter of the inning has brought the tying run to the plate with only one down. The next hitter will be the last one for the starter, no matter what happens.
Crack! It's a liner to the gap in right centerfield for a double that puts runners on second and third. The manager makes the slow walk to the mound, signaling for a pitching change. The catcher takes off his mask, stands up, jogs out to the mound and gives the pitcher a slap on the back, telling his closer to go save the game as he runs a freckled hand through his rusty brown hair. All he can do now is watch from behind the fence in right field as the man he was warming up enters the pressure situation.
The bullpen catcher has done his job. He got the right guy loose at the right time so the manager could put him in and hold onto the lead. After the game is won, the players and coaches will know the role he played in the victory, but the fans never will.
Paul Andrews, a junior at Boston College, has served in the unknown job of bullpen catcher for the Eagles baseball team for over a year now. He knows life as a bullpen catcher is not glamorous, but he chose it anyway. He goes to every practice, travels to every game, but never gets to step between the foul lines and be part the action.
The job is an enormous time commitment, as road trips typically last three or four days and the annual spring-break trip lasts about 10. Preseason practices in the bubble covering Alumni Stadium in January and February can last five hours and start at seven in the morning, but Andrews is always there and never complains, trying to participate in as many drills as possible.
"It was tough at first," Andrews said. "It was really intimidating coming in it and it took a couple months to get used to it, but everyone was welcoming and after a while some of the players became some of my best friends at BC."
It's these relationships that have kept Andrews going in his unsung role. Not only has he made friends with players on the team, but also with the coaching staff, working with them all the time to make the pitchers better. Andrews says he talks to the coaches at least once a week to inform them which pitchers are mentally right while giving them feedback on whose stuff looks best. He also lets them know which guys are injured, information players will often not volunteer.
The job has also provided Andrews with experiences he never thought he would have in college. He's been able to travel to Florida and to schools all over the Atlantic Coast Conference. He's been on the field with major-league players before BC's annual exhibition game with the Boston Red Sox during spring training. Seeing David Ortiz up close and talking to catcher Ryan Lavarnway were moments that have made the grind of Andrews' job worth it.
Not only did Andrews not expect to be warming up alongside the Red Sox, he did not expect to be playing baseball at all in college, despite catching for the varsity team for three years at Saugus High School in Massachusetts. The most popular sport in Saugus is hockey, so when Andrews got to BC he wanted to try out for the club hockey team after starting on the varsity team all four years in high school. The team is highly competitive and with no spots available, Andrews decided to try out for the club baseball team instead. He made the team as its starting catcher.
Eagles assistant coach Greg Sullivan saw Andrews practicing with the club team and invited him to try out as the varsity team's bullpen catcher. The next weekend, he worked out with the team and it went well, so he was brought back for a few weeks to see if he was what the coaching staff was looking for. He was, and Andrews moved on from the club team to the varsity team.
The unexpected jump forced Andrews to keep things in perspective. Even though he's big enough for the varsity team at six feet tall, he is not as athletically gifted as a Division I athlete. He believes his realistic view of his abilities is one of the best qualities he brings to the position.
"I don't get hung up on the mistakes I make," Andrews said. "I didn't come in as a scholarship athlete, so if I catch a kid who is throwing 93 [miles an hour] instead of 65 I am not going to let it bother me if it takes me a while to get used to him. If you do, you are never going to figure it out. A little mistake isn't going to matter like it would playing in a game, so I like to be easygoing."
That comfort level did not come right away for Andrews, who had to adjust to both being on the varsity team and never playing, since he is not on the active roster. As he settled in, however, he was able to focus on helping pitchers when something was off.
"At first, I had no idea what I was talking about, but then I started to be able to pick up on some of the guys' mechanics and tendencies," Andrews said. "Especially during a game when they are struggling to get ready and have to speed it up, they aren't going to notice their mechanics, so I slow them down."
It's important that the players trust Andrews, because he sees them throw more than anyone else and can recognize changes that could be causing problems. He's also able to give them advice about how to fix those problems, but if they don't believe in him, they won't listen.
Hard work has always been something Andrews valued. Growing up in the Boston area, his favorite baseball player was Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra because of the way Garciaparra put his full effort into every game.
Andrews' work ethic is what makes him so valuable, according to head coach Mike Gambino. Gambino said Andrews does as much to help the team win as any of the players.
"He is completely invested in our program and cares about winning," Gambino said. "It's not a role that we take lightly in terms of who can do that because of the amount of responsibility we put on him. You can give him any job and it doesn't matter. He will do a great job."
Gambino even calls Andrews an extension of the coaching staff, acting as a sort of bullpen coach. Even though Andrews knows he'll never have a chance to play, having the support and respect of Gambino and the other coaches only makes him want to work harder.
On game days, Andrews's duties include warming up the starting pitcher, while also helping members of the staff build a routine that gets them into rhythm before they go out on the mound. He also has to know which pitcher the coaches are going to want to turn to in certain situations so that pitcher is ready when needed. It could hurt the team if Gambino has to leave a tired pitcher in the game or turn to somebody who does not have an advantage against an opposing batter. As the season goes on, Andrews says, his job becomes a lot easier, because a pattern usually develops as to who will go into the game and when. Each pitcher carves out a role for himself.
With all the hours Andrews has to put into practicing and going to games, time management has become crucial. He has to figure out how to get his school work done, especially when on the road, away from campus. It has also challenged him in managing his non-team friendships, as he has to balance them with everything else he has to do.
So while nobody watching the Eagles - or any baseball team, for that matter - will ever talk about how great it was that the long reliever was ready in time to stop the bleeding, the coaches and players appreciate his contribution, and Andrews appreciates their support. It's not about the accolades or outside attention for Andrews; it's about continuing to play baseball.
"I figured I would give it at least one season and see what happens with it," Andrews said. "You're never going to get to play with the Red Sox again or be around kids who are going to go on to play pro ball, so I thought I would give it a shot. That's why I stuck it out and grew to love it. I still get to go out there and play baseball."
Andrews returned for a second year and is still the Eagles' bullpen catcher.
Written by senior Eddie Lockhart