Why the Nats don’t drive their bullpen wagon: A Washington Post investigation

Trip Morgan is a little lonelier these days. This is what happens when you're one of the eight Washington Nationals bullpen cart drivers and none of their substitutes are driving along.

“Am I trying to seduce people now?” said Morgan, who has driven the car since its launch in the summer of 2018. “For the visitors, I'm going to stick my tail right next to the door and almost block them, so they really have to think about it before jogging into the game.” I don't do that with the home team. I'm just close so they know I'm there to put them in their place. But I hope some of our substitutes will contact me about it soon. I miss the company.”

Morgan keeps a detailed log of his rides and interactions with players. Last weekend he held the package in his hand in the service tunnel under the stadium and lamented that it hadn't grown much in the last few months. 2018 saw the first game ride with Sean Doolittle, one of Morgan's favorite bullpen cart memories. There was that night last year when Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Atlanta Braves coaches kept asking for rides to their seats on the field, requests Morgan couldn't quite accommodate because he can't ride on the turf.

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His Nationals passengers over the years include Doolittle, Fernando Rodney and Trevor Rosenthal. But this season the only riders came from other teams: Texas Rangers' Glen Otto, Colorado Rockies' Daniel Bard and Oakland Athletics' Trevor May. The car still circles the warning lane at every pitch change, even after its sponsor didn't renew for 2023. But to keep it going, Morgan is hoping that a home helper – or two or three – will take over the car soon. His life may simply depend on it.

Some Nationals don't want to change their routines, as is typical for baseball players. In a mostly young and inexperienced team, others feel they don't have enough game time to participate in a gimmick. And two helpers didn't even know it was an option.

Here is a selection of their answers:

Kyle Finnegan, 31, and the team closer: “It's the last thing on your mind when you start walking: ‘Should I take the wagon or not?'” So I feel like if I would bother with to start with the shopping cart, then I would do it every time. But at the moment I'm only committed to jogging.”

Robert Garcia, a 27-year-old freshman: “I saw the car go by and thought it must be an inter-innings promotion. To be honest, I like jogging. I love it. When I get out there, take a deep breath, channel the adrenaline of the park and the situation, I look forward to that moment. Like it's time to compete. A driveway would not be suitable for me.”

Joe La Sorsa, a 25-year-old rookie who is currently in AAA: “I didn't realize that was an option. Is that why that thing always gets so close to the bullpen when the door opens? I've always wondered why that is, because I think, “No way anybody would ever drive this thing.”

Jordan Weems, 30: “Jogging in is normal, you know what I'm saying? You want to stay as close to it as possible. They play at 29 other parks and there's no bullpen cart, so you don't want to change your entire routine for one place, even if it's your home ground. But I do believe that at least one of us will be driving it by the end of the year.”

“Ooh, that's a good question,” Weems replied. “Maybe Ferrer? Ferrer could pack a punch.”

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And how did Jose A. Ferrer, a 23-year-old freshman, feel about that prediction?

“No, no, not yet,” he said in Spanish through a team interpreter, beaming a big smile. “Finnegan, for example, is one of the older, more experienced pitchers in the bullpen and he doesn't. So I just tried to follow the example of the older ones.”

Last September, Steve Cishek, then a 36-year veteran, insisted the relievers take over the wagon for some bullpen bonding (the team was on course to 107 losses, so what the heck right?). Everyone listened and Finnegan said he enjoyed the ride and would consider doing it again. To get his current teammates into the wagon, he may need to channel Cishek or Doolittle, the wagon's original and eternal champion.

After Doolittle rode the Diamondbacks' bullpen cart three times in 2018 and made three saves in a four-game streak, the Nationals asked if he'd ride a cart if they added one. The answer, of course, was “yes” and was offered without hesitation. The car debuted in August, five years ago this month, but had no passenger until Doolittle returned from the injured list in early September.

As on each of his subsequent trips, Doolittle put one foot on the dashboard, cupped his glove to his face, and concentrated on his breathing. Drivers are not allowed to speak to players unless the players speak first. They are told in practice that this is the player's office, and most pitchers mentally brace themselves before taking the mound. Doolittle, as friendly as he is, didn't engage with Morgan during the first player drive or after. Rosenthal was the first Nationals substitute to speak to Morgan, completing his drives in April 2019.

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As the cart approached the shelter that September night, Doolittle said just one word to Morgan: “Here.” Morgan hit the brakes and the left-hander jumped out. In Washington, as in many baseball cities in the 20th century, a divisive tradition emerged. The Diamondbacks' shopping cart is not currently in use. Instead, it stands at the main entrance to Chase Field where fans can use it to take photos.

“It's just as practical as anything else,” said Doolittle, who is rehabilitating a knee injury at the Nationals facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. “Especially now with the pitch clock you only have about a minute and a half left in, get comfortable, do your warm ups. Your heart rate is already high enough because you're about to play a big league game. And in so many places the Bullpen Hills are a little different from the Wild Hills, perhaps in height or slope. So do you really want to feel like you can catch your breath while trying to warm up and get comfortable on the hill, especially in a place like DC where it's so humid in the summer?

“I've always felt it was a way to work a little smarter. And the fans seem to love it too. You know, I also think the guys are nervous because someone will say something if they have a bad trip after driving the cart like they don't mean it seriously enough. This is stupid. I thought about that at first, but no. Put your feet up! Feel the wind blow through your hair. Life on the open road, you know? The open warning lane. There is nothing like it.”

Asked for his pitch, Morgan stepped back and held out his arms like he was about to appear in a musical. He grinned a little. He seemed to know this was his chance.

“Okay,” he said, cheering himself up. “Save your energy. Relax. Let yourself be driven. Go to that special place, and when you step onto that field, you're ready to rock and roll. light up. I mean honestly, how do you say no?”

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