Once a Philadelphia Phillies’ all-star pitcher on the mound, Ricky Bottalico can’t help but cringe each time Gabe Kapler makes the call to his bullpen.
Not so much because it’s been wildly inconsistent much of the season, with no fewer than nine different pitchers recording saves among the 23 he’s used—plus two position players. Its more so because of the uncertainty that must reverberate around the pen each time the phone rings.
Take it from one who’s been there, relievers like to know their roles so they have a general idea when to expect that call to be for them and can be adequately prepared. That’s simply not happening with this team.
And it’s driving Bottalico, now in his—believe it or not 11th season—as pre and post-game analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia, up the wall.
“That would drive me nuts, absolutely crazy,” admitted the 48-year-old Bottalico, who recorded 116 career saves — 34 during his 1996 all-star season in Philadelphia –with a 3.99 ERA in his 12- year career with the Phillies (twice), Mets, Cardinals, and Brewers.
“There were a couple of years I went into a season and wasn’t really sure if I’d be the closer or setup man,” he added. “But I always wanted to have some kind of idea, because I was the type of player who worked on that adrenaline rush. Bullpen guys are simple. You let them know what’s going on, that’s that.”
Only Ricky Bo has been around the game long enough to know it’s no longer that simple. The advent of analytics and the pre-occupation with pitch counts have turned each game into a three-plus hour ordeal, usually filled with countless pitching changes.
From his studio chair, Bottalico sees it all through the unique lens of someone who’s lived it. But he goes beyond simply explaining to the viewers what they’re watching. He identifies with them as a fan, but not the so-called “homer” who only sees the positive and excuses everything else.
If a player is not hustling, he will let you know about it. If a player forgets the number of outs or makes some other mental error he will call them on it, just like the guy sitting at home.
While many former players who go on the air see no evil, Bottalico is sort of a modern-day Howard Cosell.
He’ll tell it like it is because he believes fans deserve nothing less.
“He’s a fan of the team, but at the same time if they fail to do something they should he calls them on it,” said his longtime on-air sidekick, Michael Barkann.
“I think most folks respect him for that, especially since he played the game and knows what should happen and when,” said Barkann. “But what I like is you can argue with him a little bit and he doesn’t take it personally. We’re just having a conversation.”
Often those conversations are about the current state of baseball. “The game has changed so much,” said Bottalico, who grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and played at Central Connecticut State where he went undrafted. He then signed as a free agent with the Phillies in 1991 and was in the majors by 1994.
“I understand you want to use numbers. I get that you want to go with percentages, but I still like the eye test. That tells you a lot more about a person than what a number possibly can.”
During his playing career, Bottalico was just as blunt about his performances on the mound.
“I had the ability to look myself in the mirror after a game and say I stunk,” said Bottalico, who wonders if his honesty is the reason he’s never worked for one of the major networks or even as a game analyst in the booth.
“I didn’t hide it. When you don’t hide it and say how you feel I think the fans appreciate it. I don’t attack players on a personal level. I go after what’s happening on the field.”
While it may look like he’s made a seamless transition, Bottalico gives credit to some of the best.
“When I played I sat in the back of the plane and in the seats behind me were Larry Andersen Harry Kalas,” he revealed.
“I hung out with those guys a lot. I liked learning what they had to say and what they were thinking from the outside looking in. I think that made the transition easier for me.”
More than a decade later, Bottalico has established himself on their level, even though it bugs him today’s relievers often don’t get to finish “their own messes,” as he puts it.
“What makes you a good reliever is you have to be able to work your way out of bad situations,” explained Bottalico. “I was never one of those guys who felt really comfortable having a safety net behind me.”
“But I don’t blame Gabe. The Phillies hired him for who he is. They wanted a guy who’s very confident and passionate and really wants to protect his players. That’s what they have.”
When it comes to Ricky Paul Bottalico what Phillies fans truly have is one of their own. A guy who won’t sugarcoat what’s happening between the lines and will always keep them informed.
Apparently, once an all-star, always an all-star.