Bullpen Catcher

Greetings PawSox Fans!

We are 135 days away from 2014 PawSox Opening Night and only 35 days away from Christmas! The days are flying by taking the colder weather with them. We do have to put up with more cold days and some of the S word stuff. I don’t like to mention that S word but it rhymes with glow.

What would be a better gift than PawSox tickets? Think about it. Every time the lucky persons who received the tickets come to a game, they will be thankful. They probably wont wear that goofy looking tie that someone else gave them, but they will certainly use your gift of tickets. A very practical and fun gift. The ultimate gift is surprise the person with PawSox Premium Full Season Tickets….the same seat for every game, every time! But it doesn’t stop there, you can also attend the Season Ticket Holder BBQ at no extra charge! But wait there’s more! Season Ticket holders also get to take batting practice on the field!  hats right! Season ticket holders are allowed to take the field, get set in the batting cage and take some swings from the pitching machine!  When you’re done hitting, pick a field position and grab some grounders and/or pop-ups.

What? You say you still want more? Stop the Madness! You also get early admission to special events and discounts in the team store! How’s that? Lets not forget the special BBQ with the PawSox manager and some players exclusively for the season ticket holder. And last but not least, during batting practice and/or fielding, you can head to the bullpen to try pitching! Now my friends that is a gift! You could get a someone a Ginsu knife set, one of those “Set it and Forget it” rotisseries or maybe even a Chia Pet….However during the entire summer the recipient of your gift will be enjoying all the fun and excitement that everyone enjoys at McCoy Stadium.

On those firework games when you hustle to get your tickets to get the best seats, that wont be a worry. Giveaway nights, nope not a problem, same seats….even when a major leaguer plays at McCoy for a rehab………..the season ticket seat is waiting! To top it off, the PawSox can offer payment plans! So head on out to McCoy for a Greet & Seat or Flex Tickets to Build your Own Plan! No crowds to fight, no trips to the store and no stress. During the Season Ticket Holder batting practice you can strap on some catching gear and give catching a try. Perhaps you could be a Bullpen Catcher.

The bullpen catcher is a behind the scenes guy. The guy that does what he is asked. Their duties do not only include catching, they may also be asked to play first base or other position to get a player some extra work. They may be asked to throw batting practice or hit some fungo’s. Of course their main responsibility is to get a pitcher ready to come into a game.

The PawSox have had a few different bullpen catchers over the last few years, but that one I remember most is Joe Voccio. Joe was the BR catcher from 1993-1995 and again from 2001-2007. After showering, eating and getting dressed, we would spend some time together outside the clubhouse entrance where the autograph collectors, telling jokes, discussing current events. We always had some great yuks. Joe would also spend some time withe the fans.

I keep in touch via FaceBook and still have some laughs. He is now involved in politics having recently getting elected to some position in Connecticut, which always makes for some great debates. Joe lives in Brooklyn, Connecticut with his lovely wife and two beautiful very talented daughters. Unlike the ball players, Joe would put in a full days work at his job with the Rhode Island Housing, head over to McCoy Stadium, go through his warm ups like the players, change from his warmup uniform to game uniform and head out to the bullpen.

Throughout the years, Joe was surrounded with and caught for some of the best pitchers in baseball. How did Joe end up being the bullpen catcher for all those years? Joe explains it, “I played baseball and hockey in high school and played baseball at Rhode Island College. While in college I interned for TV sports anchor Frank Carpano at WJAR.  Several years later, PawSox President Mike Tamburro happened to mention to
 Frank that the team was looking for a bullpen catcher and asked if he knew of anyone.  Frank recalled that I was a catcher for Rhode Island College and Mike Tamburro eventually invited me to McCoy.”

“When I arrived at McCoy I thought I was there for a tryout but Mike brought me to the clubhouse and introduced me to Manager Buddy Bailey.  The next thing I know, I am in a uniform and heading out to the bullpen.  It was a crazy, whirlwind evening….especially since a I got into a fender-bender on my way to McCoy!  What a night!”

“A few days later, my wife gave birth to our first daughter.  The card on the very first bouquet of flowers we received read:  “Congratulations from the PawSox Family”.  After only a couple of games, I was being received into the family!   I don’t know how they figured out which hospital we were in but genuine kindness like that is never forgotten.”

I asked Joe some of the best pitchers he caught for and who were his favorite pitchers. “There are too many to mention!  I really liked to catch Ken Ryan…he had a great fastball, great change-up and a hammer of a curve ball.  Wrentham’s Jeff Plympton was fantastic to catch.  He had control, a major league slider and, frankly speaking, he deserved more time in the big leagues.  Speaking of control pitchers who could stick a great slider, Allen McDill and Craig Breslow were my favorite lefties to catch.  Ryan Cameron had the best change-up.  So did Joe Nelson. He called his the “Vulcan” change-up!” I shared with Joe my dealings with Joe Nelson.

Joe played for the PawSox in 2004 and came back in 2010. He was a great guy and had a great sense of humor. Fellow Pitcher and Joe would always be laughing about something like what prank they were going to pull next. When Joe Voccio mentioned how Nelson had his “Vulcan Change-up” I had to laugh because he would always say he invented it. The Vulcan change-up was a pitch that would be delivered with the Vulcan grip….Like Dr. Spock from Star Trek.

Vulcan Nelly

Nelson always had that smile and was always upbeat. On the mound, he was all business, but off the field, he could make a living doing stand-up comedy. During a road trip the PawSox had a day game in Durham. After the game we headed to Charlotte. Since it was a day game, and Charlotte is just about a two-hour drive, it wasnt really that late when we checked into the hotel in Charlotte.

Chad Pronto and Nelson said they were going to oder some pizza and some cluckers. (cluckers are like chicken nuggets) They placed the order and they were laughing. Seeing them laugh, I knew something was brewing. I was down in the lobby just chatting with some of the folks, when the pizza guy arrived. There was this walkway on the second floor of the hotel that overlooked the lobby. The walkway had this wooden rail and I saw Pronto with a video camera. I was right, something was up!

I followed the pizza guy up the elevator and Pronto had the camera ready. Suddenly out of the room comes the big yellow chicken! He yelling in a high voice, “Where are the Cluckers, those are my friends and family!” The pizza guy was stunned at first, and then started laughing hysterically as Pronto continued filming! Nelson had dressed up like a chicken!

Chicken

Where did this chicken costume come from? He must have had it packed with him! He did indeed have it packed with him! Never a dull moment.

Nelly

 

     Joe Voccio tells me that the bullpen pitchers always have something to entertain themselves while out it the pen. I asked Voccio if he misses the drive to the McCoy and then the long drive back to Brooklyn, CT. He told me that he doesn’t miss the drive, but misses the atmosphere of McCoy Stadium, Mike and Ben, the team and the fans.

     ” I’ve caught many pitchers that went on to Boston after passing through Pawtucket.  From Aaron Sele in 1993 to Jon Lester in 2007, there’s no shortage of guys that drove the Route 95 express.  The truth is that many guys earn their opportunity to pitch in the Major Leagues with success and consistency.  But what most people don’t realize that there is a razor-thin difference in ability between the guys who get that chance and those that don’t.”

    When asked about some of the best pitchers he caught, he told me the list was long, but gave me several that came to mind. “Curt Schilling, Ken Ryan, Jonathan Papelbon, Bronson Arroyo, and Jon Lester.” Voccio spoke about how it was catching for Curt Schilling, “The Curt Schilling rehab assignment in 2004.  Before Curt helped break the 86-year old curse, he spent some time in Pawtucket trying to bounce back from his ankle injury.  Catching Curt was incredibly exciting and eye-opening at the same time.  Schilling would throw so hard and get so much rotation on the ball, the ball looked smaller coming from his hand than from anyone else.  Combine that with his impeccable control, I had finally experienced what it was like to catch an elite pitcher.”

    Voccio continued, “The following year in 2005, Schilling was rebounding from his ankle surgery and Boston had plans for him to return as a closer.  Excitement was growing as most fans were hoping for another Red Sox championship.  All of New England was awaiting Schilling’s return to Boston.  McCoy Stadium was no different.  Schilling’s McCoy tune-up had everyone at a fever pitch waiting for his appearance.  The pitcher who went in the game before Schilling was actually met with disappointment.  His name:  Jonathan Papelbon.  A short time later, I answered the phone and told Schill to get loose.  As I warmed him up the crowd around the bullpen began to swell and buzz.  With Curt ready and the bottom of the inning over, I opened the bullpen gate.  As Curt ran onto the field, I heard a thunderous cheer louder than any other I heard in all my seasons at McCoy.  It was an electrifying moment that gave me goosebumps!”

   I do remember that game clearly, it was a standing room only crowd.

McCoy for schilling

    Once Schilling got up to warm-up, it was like the entire crowd moved over to the bullpen to get a picture of him. It was one of the many memorial moments at McCoy. After the game, we were walking Schilling out ot to his vehicle he said he wouldn’t mind signing some autographs. Well, I’m sure you can imagine how that went. Here we were in the middle of the parking lot with a mob scene. No barricades, just a sea of people who surrounded Schilling pushing and poking at him with things to sign. Several times we had to stop and I would ask everyone to please step back a bit. Subsequently he made it back to his vehicle without anyone stepping on or crushing his ankle.

    I asked Voccio how was it like when you weren’t in the bullpen, before or after the game, you know outside the bullpen, “I used to love to hang around and chat with Ben Mondor outside his field-level office.  It was fun to see his regular guests like Dwight Evans or Jim Rice. It wasn’t uncommon to see Ben with Red Sox legend Frank Malzone, Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan, or local celebrities like Patrice Wood.  My favorite was Dominic DiMaggio.  It was always great to talk with him because he was such an accomplished gentleman yet so humble.”

Voc & Ben

     How about inside the clubhouse? “The clubhouse is also a great place!  I would laugh out loud watching pitching coach Mike Griffin enjoy reruns of Seinfeld or Jeff Plympton would conduct a Kangaroo Court.  Sometimes, it was cool to just chill out and watch the post-batting practice cribbage game.  Or stand clear when Jon Lester took his bow and arrow target to the vacant batting cage.  But if you want to talk about entertainment, I would just pull up a chair and watch Dustin Pedroia dominate the ping-pong table and trash talk every game along the way.  Yup….he has always been like that but there isn’t a better teammate!”

       So you had a pretty good experience with the PawSox Joe? “What I saw as the common thread with  The Pawtucket Red Sox.  What Ben Mondor and Mike Tamburro resurrected almost 40 years ago has not only provided an opportunity for developing ball players but also a valuable example.  The PawSox have always demonstrated that:  if you’re going to compete, earn respect and reach your potential, then you need to be prepared to work hard, make yourself valuable to the people you serve, and to be a big part of the community.”

      “That example has been applied in many different ways by the players and staff people who experienced it.  For me, that example has become a big part of who I have been—especially away from McCoy Stadium.  I have many great memories of Ben Mondor and he was a mentor in so many ways.  Mike Tamburro is extending Ben’s legacy every day and I can’t think of a better tribute to him.”

       The bullpen catcher has a unique job indeed. They have to always be ready to go. The phone rings, you put on your mask, and say let’s have at it! You’re surrounded by players who at times have millions of dollars contracted and your right in the mix. Someday you may even get to Fenway Park…..Joe did!

Voc fenway

 

        I would like to thank Joe for his time. The fire plugof a guy who loves the game of baseball and loves, and is very proud of his family. Hope to see Joe during the 2014 season. He very well knows that the whole PawSox organization is……….”Here For You!”

Love hearing from you!                                              rickm@pawsox.com

Yours in Baseball,

Rick Medeiros

1 Comment

Great story Rick, well written. And Joe Voccio is truly a Great guy, great Family man, and was respected by all that worked with him.

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