It’s a comforting truism: Whenever you think you have it rough, you rarely have to look far afield to find someone worse off.
Ask Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez.
The impressive 22-year-old rookie has the least major-league service time of any hurler in the Jays bullpen, which among other things means he’s the current custodian of the backpack.
In this case, it’s a shouty grey-and-taupe camouflage number that clashes nicely with Toronto’s team colours.
The bag is inarguably an upgrade over its most recent ancestor – red and white with the children’s cartoon character Lightning McQueen in bas relief.
It’s downright fashionable when compared to those foisted on some of his peers.
“I’ve seen other teams’ and I’m actually pretty content with what I’ve got. It beats that big, bright pink back-pack (Milwaukee Brewers reliever and former Jays pitcher Jeremy) Jeffress has on his back walking out to the bullpen,” the fresh-faced Californian said.
Baseball is a sport of unwritten rules and don’t-ask-why traditions, and the bullpen carry-all is one of the more charming – and zanier – ones.
Yes, it’s a tool of rookie subservience, the familiar kind that cuts across most sports – the NHL equivalent is sending the first-year players out to pick up the practice pucks – but it’s also another way to integrate youngsters into the club.
“You know as a rookie that’s what you’re getting yourself into, especially going down to the pen. But yeah, it really does make you feel part of something. It grooves you in to talking to some of the veteran guys on the team,” he said.
At the same time, pro sport is hierarchical, and this is a job that comes with expectations.
So there was Sanchez this week sitting on a leather sofa in the spacious visiting team’s clubhouse in Miller Park, stuffing the bag with care after having foraged for provisions amid the vast array of food on offer. “I’m a little OCD, so it’s got to be somewhat nice and neat,” Sanchez joked about his packing technique. “You just need to make sure you’re on top of it … if the other guys ask for something that they need or whatever it may be, just make sure you get it done.”
It’s not clear when the tradition started, or where – rookies have run errands for as long as the game’s been around, garish school-kid backpacks have come into vogue in the past half-decade – it’s widespread in baseball at all levels.
“As a starter I never really had to do it, but in Triple-A right after the all-star break I got sent to the bullpen, while I was there I had to do it, obviously I knew what I was getting into when I got up here,” he said.
Typically the bag contains sunflower seeds, chips, bottles of sunscreen, muscle liniment and candy – lots of it.
In an era where pro athletes of all stripes are becoming acutely sensitive to the importance of a stringent, healthy diet, baseball remains a bit of a throw-back; there is an ample supply of gum, sweets, and fried food.
Relievers, whose trade requires them to spend the bulk of games in a state of suspended animation, can occasionally get peckish.
“It’s mostly candy. Some people prefer chocolate, some people prefer Laffy Taffy, Airheads, it’s just personal preference really,” Sanchez said. “Usually I get two or three series out of it then it’s time to repack. I try to get the repackaging done before I get told to.”