The annual Orioles bullpen barbecue was held recently at the home of well-known burger chef Gregg Olson, and attendance was mandatory for every reliever.
The rest of the Orioles were not invited.
It was a bullpen thing. They wouldn't understand.
The night of big steaks and small talk left little doubt about the close relationship that has formed among six pitchers who spend plenty of time together as it is. Different in personality, they have blended into the most effective bullpen in the majors.
Olson is the unquestioned leader, which sometimes means being social director and grill sergeant. Todd Frohwirth is the class clown. Mark Williamson is the craggy -- but no longer cranky -- veteran. Jim Poole is the straight arrow. Alan Mills and Brad Pennington defy such simplistic classification, but you get the idea. Vive la difference.
"They are the closest group of any bullpen I have ever seen," said manager Johnny Oates, who saw quite a few during a career spent largely as a backup catcher. "They have cookouts together, just the six of them. They go out together on the road. They leave the clubhouse together every night."
If that doesn't seem unusual, consider that the traditional bullpen hierarchy can be expected to breed just the opposite kind of environment. The closer gets the big bucks and everybody else sits around waiting for a chance to take his place, which would figure to create some jealousy.
Not so here. When the opportunity arose earlier this season to displace Olson during his April slump, Frohwirth and the others rushed to his defense instead. The result was an even tighter bond and a turn of fortune making the bullpen a statistical marvel.
Orioles relievers entered last night with a combined 2.42 ERA that is the best in the major leagues. The bullpen also leads the American League with 26 saves and ranks highly in several other categories. The starting rotation and the resurgent offense have gotten most of the credit for the club's recent revival, but it couldn't have happened without a tremendous relief effort.
Relievers registered five victories and six saves during the 10-game winning streak that put the club back into the AL East race. They have kept the heat on through the current 18-3 run that included a three-game sweep of first-place Detroit and 6 2/3 scoreless bullpen innings in Friday's 7-6 comeback win over New York.
Success breeds success, but does brotherly love win games? Pitching coach Dick Bosman can't be sure, but he can't argue with the results.
"They are a very supportive, close-knit group," Bosman said. "They really do have the attitude that one guy picks up the other guy. They
have that whatever-it-takes approach. That's why this club wins. This club has quite a bit of the team attitude."
Olson found that out in late April, when the club was reeling and he was struggling so badly that he wondered if his days as one of baseball's premier closers had come to an end. He was devastated when Oates temporarily moved him into a less pressurized role, and -- strangely enough -- so were the pitchers who stood to benefit from the move.
"I can't explain the type of guys we have out there, but they came to my side when I needed help," said Olson, who has bounced back to re-establish himself among the top closers.
As the hottest Orioles reliever, Frohwirth stood to gain the most at the time of Olson's demotion. But he made it clear from the start that he had no desire to do anything but keep the seat warm while Olson worked his way back.
"Nobody really knew if I would come back," Olson said. "It was an awkward situation for all of them. They had a job to do, but they also were there trying to help me get fixed. It was a strange situation, but their friendship came out the most."
Perhaps without it, Olson would not have been able to rebuild his confidence and recover so completely. He has been successful in 16 of his 17 save opportunities since then and has an excellent chance to be in the All-Star bullpen on July 13.
"It was an unbelievable time," he said. "I really found out who my friends were."
If this is beginning to sound maudlin, don't be fooled. The Orioles' bullpen may be very self-supportive, but it is not a sentimental bunch.
We're talking about a group of overgrown fraternity types stuck together in a small alcove for three or four hours a day, every day for eight months.
They do all the usual sophisticated bullpen things, like flicking sunflower seeds at each other and trading light-hearted insults. They even play a practical joke once in awhile, but we're not talking about the Moe Drabowsky era here.
Drabowsky was the guy who once called the other bullpen and impersonated the opposing manager well enough to convince a relief pitcher to start warming up. He was from the bullpen generation that used the bullpen telephone to order in Chinese food, though most of those stories probably are exaggerated.