Last Thursday, I took a trip out to Pen Island.
Never heard of the place, you say? In the world that is Hillsboro Ballpark, if you cast your eyes beyond the outfield fence in right-center, you will see the island, a small enclosure that is home to the Hops bullpen staff. If you walk along the grassy berm from either right or left field, you can find your way to the spot.
While I was there, the islands residents told me many strange and magical things regarding the places nature and inhabitants. Im not sure which tales are truths and which are fiction, but I am sharing what I learned with you, as it reveals a lively and close-knit bullpen, one that Patrick Smith said is the best to which he has belonged.
Will Locante claims that J.R. Bradley originated the name Pen Island. The moniker happens to be an amusing double entendre though the players say that was coincidental and the supposed reasoning behind the name is decidedly less juvenile.
Its mainly because obviously its a bullpen, Locante said. We kept the pen at the very end. Were kind of in our own little island. Were isolated out here like were on an island.
Everyone wants in, but once you get in, you cant get out, Smith revealed.
The teams relievers are the islands permanent residents bullpen pitchers have lifetime passes, Locante said, while catchers and starting pitchers get day passes. On that particular day, starter Ben Eckels and emergency catcher Ryan Kinsella were in on day passes.
They have to be on their behavior or theyll be exiled at any point, Smith deadpanned. Well have lifeboats shipping them straight back to the mainland.
Part of the charm of Pen Island is the fun the players have while getting there before games. Instead of trudging over from the home dugout, the islanders travel in style.
We like to high-five the fans when we run out, and then we do something kind of entertaining running out here, Locante said. Because obviously thats a long run/walk, and so we might as well make it entertaining for people.
Once, Bradley said, they played follow-the-leader by miming the driving of a school bus out to their destination.
We acted like we were driving a school bus and picking kids up from the bus stop. That was rehearsed out in the parking lot, Smith said. Im pretty sure we sold more tickets on (the first-base) side of the stadium after we started doing it.
Given that a number of the islanders do not get into every game and those that do typically throw for an inning or two there is plenty of time for talk. There are no secrets between the residents, Locante said.
The topics of conversation that the players divulged are what you would expect from young ballplayers with time on their hands: girlfriends, politics, religion, style and critiques of players jogs to the mound.
The island sounds like, well, a ball, and it is, but it is a dangerous place as well.
Weve encountered everything this year from blood-sucking insects to giant ants, to blistering sun on the back of our necks to floods when the rains happen to gale-force winds blowing in, Smith recalled.
Another hazard is the fans. Some have tried to steal equipment and have heckled the island residents as they loosened up. Once, Locante recalled a couple of Oregon State fans decided to razz former Oregon star Jimmie Sherfy.
Those are small burdens to bear, though, compared with the tradeoff.
Ive been in bullpens where no one really are friends with each other. We just kind of coexist, Locante said. Lets put it this way: When the seasons over, and we go home, Im going to miss all my Pen Island boys.