When Nature Calls, Phillies Relievers Have a Place to Go

HATBORO, Pa. — It’s the top of the ninth inning at Citizens Bank Park, and the Philadelphia Phillies’ relievers are at it again. They have already blown one lead, with Jeurys Familia and Seranthony Domínguez giving up homers in the seventh. Now after a comeback, the game has unraveled with closer Corey Knebel on the mound.

The Miami Marlins win it, 11-9, and from his living room couch in the suburbs here, Matt Edwards sighs.

“Celebrating some of these guys is really hard,” he said.

Indeed it is: The Phillies are the only National League team without a playoff appearance in the last 10 years, and their bullpen is an annual adventure. Nostalgia can be an enticing escape (beer helps, too), and nobody celebrates the past quite like Edwards, a 45-year-old telecommunications salesman with a wife, Cheryl, two young sons, a Great Dane — and a shrine in his downstairs bathroom to retired Phillies relief pitchers.

“We’re highly aware that we weren’t one of the five starters or any of the guys on the field,” said Chad Durbin, who spent four seasons as a Phillies reliever. “But, you know, we had our moments. So when we’re remembered, we embrace it.”

Durbin logged 225 games for the Phillies, postseason included, with a 4.07 earned run average. He pitched for five other teams, but as far as he knows, none of their fans have his picture in their bathroom. As you might guess, Durbin does not have a presence at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., either.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “But I do in the Relief Room.”

The Relief Room started with pictures of just two relievers: Tug McGraw and Brad Lidge. It has expanded exponentially.Credit…Caroline Gutman for The New York Times

The Relief Room is what Edwards calls his bathroom, because that is where one goes to relieve oneself. That’s the joke.

Edwards played third base in Little League and left field in men’s softball. His sons are not pitchers. His favorite active player is a first baseman, the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins. But like a comedian who finds endless material by staying committed to the bit, Edwards has crafted a brand around players who get no respect, no respect at all.

“I remember opening packs of cards, and you’d see a mustache and think, ‘Oh, that’s Mike Schmidt’ — and no, it’s Dan Schatzeder,” he said in his home office, which overflows with artifacts that do not quite fit in the 3 feet by 8 feet museum around the corner.

“But that was the joy of going through cards, trying to find that guy. Well, now I don’t want the Mike Schmidts or the Bryce Harpers. I want to champion the guys like Schatzeder and Andy Carter and Amalio Carreño, because nobody does. Celebrating the little guy that nobody remembers is more memorable than talking about the stars, because everybody knows about them.

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“Nobody knows about Tyson Brummett. He’s one of the cup-of-coffee guys. That’s why this was made into a cup of coffee — enjoy a cup of coffee with Erskine Thomason.”

Edwards reaches for a custom-made mug with the black-and-white visage of Thomason, who pitched the ninth inning of a loss on Sept. 18, 1974, in his only major league appearance. The definitive statistical website, Baseball Reference, uses a blank headshot with a question mark next to Thomason’s name. That would be blasphemy to Edwards.

He knows that Thomason was the subject of an NFL Films documentary and that the filmmakers, who followed him all season, somehow missed his only game and had to restage the footage. He also knows that Brummett pitched one game in 2012 and later died in a plane crash. He knows that Carter was ejected from his first major league game, and Carreño from his last.

And, of course, he knows that Schatzeder spent many years as a high school physical education instructor in Illinois.

“If you look at that guy, you can totally envision him in a sweatsuit with a whistle around his neck,” Edwards said. “That’s awesome. Who’s going to sing his song from the top of a mountain? If not me, then who?”

For Edwards, there is sincerity in the satire. He remembers when a high school classmate got drafted by the Mets, how thrilling it was that a major league team wanted someone he knew. Fewer than 23,000 people have ever played a game in the majors; you could put them all into old Veterans Stadium, with more than 40,000 seats to spare.

They all have stories, if they happened to have pitched in relief for the Phillies, Edwards considers it is his mission to tell them. An English major at the University of New Hampshire, Edwards reads widely on his subjects, plucking fun facts on each and organizing them by date on his computer. He sends several tweets a day to a modest group of followers with a few famous names — famous to Edwards, at least.

“He loves Tom Hume,” said Scott Eyre, a lefty specialist from the late 2000s, referring to a bespectacled righty of the 1980s. “He would probably pass out if Tom Hume went to the Relief Room.”

Edwards provides plenty of Phillies-related reading material for his guests. Credit…Caroline Gutman for The New York Times
Scott Eyre, a former Phillies reliever, signed a custom toilet set for the room. Credit…Caroline Gutman for The New York Times

Eyre did, in early 2020, after an autograph appearance nearby. (Edwards wore his Hume T-shirt for the occasion.) Eyre, who only knew Edwards from Twitter, became the first reliever to actually relieve himself in the Relief Room. That was natural, since he hung out with Edwards for hours, well past 1 a.m., drinking beers, opening old packs of cards and telling tales of Chuck McElroy, Dan Plesac and other honorees he knew.

A pilgrimage to see a Phillies fan’s bathroom, it’s safe to say, is nothing Eyre ever expected to do. A California native now living in North Carolina, Eyre once had a no-trade clause to Philadelphia. When the Cubs sent him there in 2008, he asked Jon Lieber, a teammate who had played for the Phillies, what to expect.

“He goes, ‘Dude, you’ll love it there, and they’ll love you,’” Eyre said. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You’re a stand-up guy and you are who you are.’ And that was exactly right. If you go out and do your job and own up to the mistakes you make, they’ll still love you. They just want to yell at you for a little bit, and that’s fine.”

Eyre came to understand the essence of the Philadelphia fans: They always expect to win, no matter the circumstances, and they also want to be heard. Failure then feels like a personal affront and gives the fans license to boo. But they embrace players who make no excuses and genuinely show that they care.

Take Mitch Williams, the only man alive to give up a walk-off homer to lose the World Series, to Toronto’s Joe Carter in 1993. Williams, known as the Wild Thing, is a folk hero to Phillies fans and duly honored in the Relief Room.

“On an easy level, it’s the mullet and the headband and stuff like that, but he busted it every single time out there,” Edwards said. “His bravado, his machismo, the way he strutted around. You could tell he didn’t want to walk anybody, he wanted to just fire strikes and get everybody out. But he was accountable, and that’s huge.”

Edwards’s collection of memorabilia and reading material spills over into his home office. The Relief Room may eventually expand.Credit…Caroline Gutman for The New York Times

Williams is among the few well-known relievers in Edwards’s gallery. Most made a smaller impact, like Kyle Abbott, Josh Lindblom and Wally Ritchie, who all follow Edwards on Twitter. They are among the 300 or so faces lining the walls of the bathroom, mostly on baseball cards but dozens on larger photos, like the one of Renie Martin above the mirror.

“There’s something new in there,” Edwards’s mother, Joann, told him when she noticed it. “He’s looking right at me, and I don’t like his face.”

Martin pitched only briefly for the Phillies, but Edwards loves that he appeared for Kansas City in the clincher of the 1980 World Series, when Tug McGraw closed out the Phillies’ first championship. After the second, in 2008, Edwards’s father, Jim, hung two photos above the toilet: one of McGraw and the other of Brad Lidge, both celebrating in October.

Edwards bought the house from his father a few years later, kept the McGraw and Lidge photos and added everything else — the bar of soap depicting Sparky Lyle, the commemorative Ron Reed soda can, the four-sided Kleenex dispenser with Porfi Altamirano, Warren Brusstar, Tom Hilgendorf and Barry Jones.

The handle on the cabinet is the barrel of a Don Carman broken bat; a retired Phillies groundskeeper sent it to Edwards. Greg Harris, an ambidextrous reliever, inscribed his photo: “Using both hands in the Relief Room.” The artist Dick Perez, once the official artist of the Hall of Fame, donated an original portrait of Hilgendorf — a hero of Edwards’s for once saving a drowning boy from a swimming pool.

Gene Garber, whose 19-season career included 250 appearances for the Phillies, has one of the larger tributes in the room.Credit…Caroline Gutman for The New York Times
Steve Fireovid only appeared in six games for the Phillies, but he signed a supersize card of his for the wall in the Relief Room.Credit…Caroline Gutman for The New York Times

“And then that whole ‘10 cent beer night’ thing in Cleveland,” Edwards said. “He’s brained with a chair, gushing blood — and the next game, he faces six batters and gets six outs!”

If you need some time in the Relief Room, there’s a basket with issues of vintage magazines like “Phillies Today,” with Steve Bedrosian and Jeff Parrett in firefighter gear on the front. There’s a collection of McGraw’s comic strips from the 1970s and a Guess-The-Mustache flip book. (Failure to recognize Altamirano results in the automatic loss of a full letter grade.)

There are tentative plans for Relief Room expansion, Edwards said, if he and Cheryl can move the washer-dryer out of the adjacent mudroom. For now, though, Edwards needs a spot for his newest treasure: the game-worn cleats of Toby Borland, a slender sidearmer from the 1990s. His buddies, Brain and Mike Carroll, bought them for $30 on eBay.

The cleats could fit easily on the wall above the toilet, which is mostly blank space. But that section is sacred, Edwards said, reserved strictly for relievers from the championship teams. The Phillies have improved lately but are still recovering from a slow start. They might need to summon the spirit of McGraw to make this their year.

“Cheryl’s like, ‘There’s so much space there, do something else with it,’” Edwards said. “I’m waiting. That’s the point. That’s the optimist in me: I’m going to fill this wall.”

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