Pitcher Jeremy Bleich was lathered up in the bullpen, and he needed to relax.
The reliever for Team Israel had just warmed up at Yokohama Stadium to face the U.S., and his mind was racing with thoughts of the game-winning run he allowed in a crushing extra-inning defeat the night before. He only found some peace when he plopped himself down in a strange-looking vehicle with an even stranger-looking chair.
As both dugouts watched, Bleich sat in a bullpen cart with a seat shaped like a baseball mitt and took a 300-foot ride that was just long enough for him to collect his thoughts. This was his Tokyo Olympics moment of zen.
"It gives you a second to catch your breath," Bleich said after a scoreless outing.
Bleich isn’t alone in his appreciation of the bullpen cart. Piloted by a ball boy, the vehicle is the least crowded means of transport in Tokyo — and quickly becoming its most popular. It’s the star of an Olympics that relies on all manner of motorized vehicles, including a network of slow-moving buses, automated taxis in the Athletes’ Village and remote-controlled cars that zip javelins around the athletics infield.
The bullpen cart drives just a few hundred feet at a time, and those short journeys are spectacular. The seat is an enormous baseball mitt. The carpeting is green, with the white outline of a baseball field. An LED board on the front flashes the words "Go! Go!" The sight is especially hilarious when it’s ferrying an enormous Dominican reliever named Jumbo Diaz.
"To be in that glove, riding in the stadium like that, was pretty cool," said American reliever Ryder Ryan.
The Tokyo Olympics brought back baseball to the Games for the first time since 2008. They also brought back an even older baseball tradition: bullpen carts are largely seen as a goofy relic of the 1960s, like the Monkees or the New York Mets.
The breadth and variety of bullpen-to-mound transportation over the years has included regular golf carts, a Harley-Davidson scooter in Milwaukee, and a nautical-themed buggy in Seattle called Tugboat. In the 1970s, the Yankees briefly partnered with Japanese auto maker Datsun to drive relievers into games in a four-door, pinstriped sedan, cementing their place as the only baseball team without a sense of humor.
The iconic, most lasting design, which spread through the league like stirrups, was the golf cart shaped like a half baseball with a baseball cap on top, propped up by a pair of bats. It offered style, comfort, and all the growl of a 12-horsepower engine. A 1967 Mets cap cart sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 2014 for $112,500, roughly the price of a Porsche 911.
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They became so essential to teams that the Pittsburgh Pirates brought their bullpen cart — one of the baseball-shaped affairs with a black-and-yellow cap — all the way to Baltimore for the 1971 World Series.
But they were also so outlandish that pitchers eventually lost patience for them.
Bullpen carts pretty much disappeared in the States after that. Pitchers at the Olympics had heard stories about them and seen photographs of relievers riding into games with their 1970s mustaches and pastel uniforms, yet never ridden in one. A couple of Major League teams have occasionally trotted out that retro feel in recent years, rarely straying from the classic designs.
The primary places that have deployed carts for regular use tend to be in the minor leagues, in the same gimmicky vein as using golden retrievers for batboys.
At Japan’s Olympics, these vehicles aren’t just theater. They serve a serious purpose. They’re why ballgames here finish in a reasonable amount of time.
Ryder Ryan initially turned up his nose at this contraption that looks like an elementary school diorama on wheels. He had his own routine: a slow walk out of the bullpen gate followed by a jog for the second half. It’s his way of getting loose without tiring himself out. "I didn’t want to take it," Ryder says.
But international baseball rules are slightly different at the Tokyo Olympics than in the U.S. MLB pitchers can stroll to the mound and still have plenty of time to get loose, with a 2-minute, 5-second warm-up window—or 2:25 during nationally televised games.
At the Olympics, they’re governed by a stricter clock. Relievers have just 90 seconds to be ready on the mound from the moment they exit the bullpen onto the warning track.
"If you have to run, it takes time off the clock, so I took the cart," Ryan says.
Manufactured by Toyota, the cart is proving far more useful than the company’s other quirky technological contribution to these Games: a three-point shooting basketball robot. The cart actually speeds up the sport. The robot takes longer to shoot than Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It also helps explain why Team USA’s win over Israel on Friday took under 2.5 hours, which is also known as the fifth inning of a Red Sox-Yankees game. The breaks between innings are brief, and the pitching changes move along quickly.
"I loved it," said Alon Leichman, a pitcher from Israel. He had never experienced one before, even though during non-Olympic times he’s a pitching coach for the exact type of team that might have one — the Seattle Mariners Double-A affiliate in Arkansas.
Leichman is unlikely to go back there with a medal around his neck. He will, however, return to Arkansas with a story about flying 6,000 miles for a 15-second ride in a Japanese baseball glove.
"That’s what’s unique about this tournament," he said.