Allow Richard Bleier to explain when his deep friendship with Mychal Givens took hold — a relationship that anchored, entertained and at times elevated this year’s Orioles bullpen — in a manner only he can.
It happened in a July 2015 game between the Double-A Bowie Baysox and Harrisburg Senators at Bowie’s Prince George’s Stadium.
“I remember Mike coming into a game, probably a start that I dominated, maybe the day after, and he came in to close out the game and gave up a home run to Brian Goodwin,” Bleier said, though his seven innings of one-run ball for Harrisburg happened two nights before. “This is when I was with the Nationals [organization] and he was with Bowie.
“The next batter, he smoked the guy in the back. Drilled him. Clearly on purpose. So then in ’16, the next year, the Orioles came to New York [when Bleier was with the Yankees] and we were running in the outfield and we crossed paths. I said, ‘Hey, I remember you from last year. You drilled one of my teammates. I always wondered what was going on there.’ He told me his whole explanation. It made no sense.”
And so it was that Givens’ first home run allowed in over a year, and the frustration that arose from it, brought together a pair that might seem like polar opposites, from their backgrounds to their upbringings.
The way they’re described by the Orioles’ relievers tells it all.
“They’re just like brothers,” Tanner Scott said. “That’s all I can say. Exactly how brothers act, that’s Richard and Givens.”
“We call Bleier Ms. Givens and Givens Mr. Givens,” Shawn Armstrong said. “They’re a married couple. Mr. and Mrs. Givens. That’s what they are.”
How their relationship manifests itself on a daily basis in the Orioles bullpen isn’t always affectionate. When Armstrong joined the Orioles on a waiver claim in April, he just wanted to sit back, blend in and observe. What he saw was two bullpen leaders who did the exact opposite.
“They talk junk to one another, every single day, continuously,” Armstrong said.
“You can tell that they’re just like any other friends. They bicker back and forth sometimes and get in each others’ heads, and they’re talking calm the next two minutes about something random,” Paul Fry said. “It’s a funny dynamic, I guess.”
Sometimes, however, it takes permission to laugh at what they say to each other.
“I’d ask Fry when I first got here, like, ‘Are they serious?’ ” Armstrong said. “He said, ‘No, this is every day.’ Then three, five days of being here, you realize, this is part of it.”
“Our relationship together is very entertaining to everyone else,” Givens said.
It seems there are a couple of different conversations between the two. There are the random tangents that happen during the endless hours of waiting in the bullpen, and debates that cover myriad topics.
“There’s never a doubt in my mind that I out-debate Mike in any debate we have,” Bleier said. “Sometimes I let him think he won because I feel bad that I’m so right, but most of the time, I have to prove him wrong. And I have the facts to back it up and stuff. It gets really hard to argue.”
Givens, of course, disagrees. There are also the baseball-related arguments, where two men who have spent three years seeing each other at their best and worst don’t sugarcoat their words, not even in a season in which having a friend to pump you up might not be the worst thing.
When Givens allowed a game-tying home run Sept. 14 against the Detroit Tigers, Armstrong asked him afterward whether it was a good pitch. Bleier did not let Givens answer.
“ ‘Absolutely not, it was right down the middle. It should have been hit out of the park,’ ” Armstrong recalled Bleier saying. “It’s that kind of blunt honesty they have with one another that makes the relationship fun.”
Bleier said neither has ever crossed the line.
“I don’t think there is a too far,” he said. “It’s nothing but good times. We’ve never, ever had an issue where he was mad at me or I was mad at him. There’s never been any relationship problems. It’s been all good. It’s been a good time, especially this year.
“As we get older and more experienced, you don’t have to be so concerned about things as a rookie. ‘Oh, what’s this person thinking about me?’ We can kind of let our hair down and be ourselves a little bit more.”
Passing it on
The pair’s unusual dynamic doesn’t take away from the respect they’ve earned from the rest of the bullpen, or the importance of what they try to pass along.
Givens joined what was a first-rate Orioles bullpen in 2015, alongside All-Stars Zack Britton, Darren O’Day and Brad Brach. Bleier made his major league debut in 2016 as part of a star-studded Yankees bullpen with Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances before joining the Orioles a year later.
They know the difference between the great bullpens and the struggling 2019 Orioles bullpen, which finished at the bottom of baseball in many statistical categories. Bleier and Givens tried to show that the next day’s work doesn’t change with the previous day’s results, and pointed out during tough times that everyone in the bullpen has had success at some point.
“They’ll go into the video room, and they will sit you down — they did it with me — and you’ll watch all of your strikeouts that you’ve ever had in the big leagues, or all the nasty pitches you’ve thrown,” Fry said, noting his sit-down came in June, around the time he was sent to the minors. “They’ll have a hype video session. They did that to me earlier in the year, and it was pretty fun.”
Givens said the fact that he and Bleier used those methods themselves, and had the experiences they did in high-octane bullpens, allowed them to teach.
“The struggles me and him went through, it happened,” Givens said. “You try to teach other guys that you’re going to go through the struggles, but we had a point in time [in August] when we were the best bullpen in baseball. That gives you a little spark, and shows that we have it. We just have to be consistent and be together, and I think me and Bleier got the fortune to be with one of the best bullpen guys with Brad and Zack and Darren, elite bullpen guys who, when you give us the ball, the game is done.
“Just teaching those guys to have fun and trust your stuff. I think we’ve done a great job and for those guys to soak in the information, go out there and have fun with it.”
‘We’ll never lose contact’
For all their optimism, there’s also brutal honesty that tinges their friendship and can seep elsewhere. They are realistic about the fact that this buddy comedy might have had its last run in an Orioles clubhouse.
Givens, in his second year of salary arbitration eligibility, made $2.15 million this season and is due for another raise. He remains an attractive reliever should a team use him where he’s best suited, in a set-up role. Bleier is due for his first arbitration raise this offseason after a career-worst season. But he improved once healthy, and his 1.97 career ERA entering 2019 might make it a decent-sized salary increase.
It would be somewhat harsh if he wasn’t tendered a contract, but modest raises due to Tim Beckham and Caleb Joseph last fall led to them being cut loose. Neither Givens nor Bleier expects the possible changes on the baseball side to affect what they’ve built off the field.
Bleier, a Florida native, expects to make several more offseason trips across the state to support Givens’ charity, the Givens Back Foundation, and the inner-city baseball youth teams Givens sponsors and coaches.
“Mike does a lot of good stuff in the community in Tampa, so I try and make it up there and see him and play some golf and participate in his charity work, especially now, being three years deep together and going through the highs and the lows of major league baseball together,” Bleier said.
“We got lucky to have the last three or four years playing with each other on the same team,” Givens said. “Baseball is baseball. You’re going to have your closest friends and go separate ways. But we have to understand, this is how we started, and we’ll never lose contact with the friendship that we have.”