North By Northwest…The Vancouver Canadians Team Up With SportsKartz For The 2014...
SPORTSKARTZ FEATURED IN NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE
A Veteran Returns to the Mound: The Bullpen Car
Bullpen cars last roamed ballparks nearly 20 years ago, whisking relief pitchers to the mound during games. Christopher Hill never forgot them.
As vice president for business development of the Sugar Land Skeeters outside Houston, Mr. Hill works for a team keenly interested in putting fans in the seats; it just finished first in average attendance in its first season in the eight-team Atlantic League.
The Skeeters lured Roger Clemens, 50, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner, out of retirement to pitch twice for the team. To entertain the home crowds, Mr. Hill came up with not one but two furry mosquito mascots: Swatson and Moe. Then he went to work on finding a bullpen car.
“We had to design it,” he said. “There is no product line for these, and it had been a long time since someone had done one.”
According to a 2007 article for ESPN.com by Paul Lukas, the first bullpen car was believed to be a “little red auto” that the Cleveland Indians used in 1950 to transport relievers to the mound, saving time at their cavernous ballpark. The last bullpen car in the big leagues was actually a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a sidecar that the Milwaukee Brewers used in 1995, the article said.
But once nearly every big league team had a bullpen car; it was typically a tricked-out golf cart with a gigantic replica of the host team’s cap as the roof. The Yankees used a pinstriped Datsun in the 1970s before rats chewed the engine cables. (The Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan once said: “I could never play in New York. The first time I ever came into a game there, I got in the bullpen car and they told me to lock the doors.”)
Looking for someone who could build a bullpen car with all the bells and whistles, Mr. Hill called Alex Restrepo, whose business in southeast Houston focuses on custom audio units for cars, boats and motorcycles.
Mr. Hill knew enough to suggest that Mr. Restrepo start with the chassis of a golf cart. Mr. Restrepo was up for the challenge — “It’s a tough economy, and you’ve got to be imaginative,” he said. But he was just a boy when bullpen cars were popular. “So I went to Google, like everybody else,” Mr. Restrepo said.
He found photos of old bullpen cars and photos of die-cast toy bullpen cars that were being sold on eBay. Mr. Restrepo, in his late 20s, said, “So I start looking at the years, and I’m saying to myself, ‘Man, some of these things are 30 years old!’ ”
Mr. Restrepo said the project took four or five months, and he often had his employees pitching in when they were not busy with other jobs. Finally, he pieced it all together: a battery-run golf cart with a baseball-shaped body, made from fiberglass and wood, with a replica of a Skeeters cap on top held up by two bats. Mr. Restrepo did not forget bells and whistles like leather seats, neon blue lights, a sound system, a backup camera — and a bubble machine.
Mr. Hill found a corporate sponsor for the car: Texas Direct Auto, an online automobile dealership with a showroom in nearby Stafford. The company happily paid the Skeeters to slap its logo on the front.
The car was a bigger hit than Mr. Hill imagined. Fans actually applauded when it took pitchers into the game the first weekend it was used, he said. The Skeeters have tried to use the car as much as possible in the community, for things like store openings.
Mr. Hill said “five or six” ball clubs, both major league and minor league teams, called to find out more.
Another who called was Mark Sofia, 46, of Tampa, Fla., a retired police sergeant from Rochester who for a time ran youth hockey programs for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a National Hockey League team.
A fan of the minor league Rochester Red Wings as a youngster, Mr. Sofia said he grew up with the Red Wings’ gimmicks for wooing fans — like women in hot pants and go-go boots who swept the bases to the “William Tell” Overture. When he stopped working for the Lightning, Mr. Sofia picked up the idea of making bullpen cars as a marketing tool for baseball teams.
He flew to Houston to see the Skeeters’ car. He found a golf-cart fabricator near his home in Florida that could make bullpen cars.
He floated his idea past Dan Mason, the longtime general manager of the Red Wings, who agreed that bullpen cars would be a way to market any team. “Many of your partners are looking for ways to get their messages out,” Mr. Mason said.
Texas Direct Auto plans, for example, to park the Skeeters’ bullpen car in its showroom during the off-season. Mr. Mason said the car could be driven up and down the street on the day of a game to help sell tickets.
Pitchers have never seemed to enjoy being driven into a game in a bullpen car, but Mr. Mason said that was practically beside the point. “There are plenty of other uses for a bullpen car if the pitchers themselves decide they’d rather run or jog in,” he said.
Mr. Sofia, who has a Web site, www.sportskartz.com, is optimistic that he will have a model to take in December to the Baseball Trade Show in Nashville, also the site of this year’s winter meetings. He would not disclose his planned sticker price. (A new golf cart can be bought for around $7,000, so a customized bullpen car would most likely go for about twice that amount.) But teams, he said, should be able to afford one, especially if they can find a sponsor as the Skeeters did.
Jessica DeMarr, director of business development at Texas Direct Auto, said: “It’s a real easy way to market, but it’s not like, ‘Hey, we’re marketing this to you.’ This was a real fun way to reach out to kids. They’ll want to take pictures with the car.”
Like the bobblehead doll, the bullpen car might make a comeback, becoming part of future baseball lore. When the Mets clinched the National League East division title in September 1986, a fan took over the bullpen car and drove around the outfield — before it conked out. Mr. Sofia is hoping for a much longer and prosperous run.
By DAVE CALDWELL
Published: October 11, 2012
A version of this article appeared in print on October 12, 2012, on page F3 of the New York edition with the headline: A Veteran Returns to the Mound: The Bullpen Car.