'Bullpen Dad' Cishek contemplates future
NEW YORK – Steve Cishek released a fastball to James McCann in the bottom of the fifth inning on Tuesday, a caught foul tip ending a 1-2-3 relief appearance. As the 36-year-old right-hander walked off the mound at Citi Field, the Nationals dugout erupted calling for the ball. Cishek slipped it into his pocket as he made his way to rejoin his team.
There was a potential significance to Cishek’s rainy Oct. 4 outing, magnified by the significance he had in the Nats’ bullpen. Cishek had entered the final series of the season contemplating what would be next in his 13-year Major League career.
“I’ve got some decisions to make, for sure, coming up – some tough decisions – in terms of whether to keep playing or not,” Cishek, a father of three young daughters, said last weekend at Nationals Park.
Cishek signed with the Nationals as a free agent in mid-March, marking his eighth club since being drafted in the fifth round by the Marlins in 2007. He was eager to embrace the role he had stepped into in recent seasons.
“Over the last couple of years, it dawned on me that I’m not young in the game anymore,” Cishek said with a laugh. “I’ve kind of wanted to be around and be able to help guys – especially the young guys who are new, haven’t been in the big leagues – kind of show them the way just like I was when I first got called up.”
Described by himself and others as a quiet leader, Cishek took a personal approach. When he noticed there were adjustments a pitcher could make, or if they simply needed encouragement, he would sit down next to them for a one-on-one conversation.
“He’s been my guy,” said Jordan Weems. “He’s been doing this a long time, he knows the ins and outs. So bouncing things off of him and him helping me and just being there, it’s been awesome to have him in the ‘pen with me.”
Cishek was inspired by the veteran pitchers who mentored him early in his career. He jumped from Double-A to his Major League debut in 2010, and he arrived to the Marlins with a lot to learn.
“I was so naive,” he said. “I never had Spring Training in the big leagues before I got called up, so I was completely lost. … I didn’t really know anybody up there, so I was obviously pretty nervous walking in there.”
Brian Sanches and Burke Badenhop took Cishek under their wings that season. The following year, Randy Choate did the same. The most valuable advice Cishek received was Sanches’ emphasis on establishing a routine, a suggestion he has implemented throughout his career and imparted on others.
“You have a lot of downtime in the bullpen, and you converse a lot in those early innings,” Kyle Finnegan said. “Him reminiscing on games and his career, it’s just been fun for us to soak it all in because, besides him, it’s a very young bullpen. He’s been somebody that we’ve all looked up to.”
The longevity of Cishek’s experience was magnified this season when he pitched alongside Hunter Harvey, whose older brother, Kris, was Cishek's roommate in the Minors. Harvey has known Cishek since he was 12.
“He’s been a big [influence],” said Harvey, adding, “Having him out there, his presence and knowing you’ve got a guy during the game you can talk to that’s kind of been in about every situation you could probably be in in the big leagues, to get some knowledge is awesome to have."
Cishek completed the year 1-4 with a 4.21 ERA in 69 appearances across 66 1/3 innings. It was four frames shy of his career-high from the 2018 Cubs, where he was teammates with Carl Edwards, Jr., who was inspired by Cishek to have a strong season.
Cishek concluded 2022 with 737 career appearances, tied with Ron Perranoski for 87th on the all-time list. For every outing he made, the relievers kept track of his progress on the leaderboard. They were rooting for him the same way he poured himself into their success.
“He’s like our bullpen dad,” said Finnegan. “He’s just such a nice guy.”
From bullpen dad to dad of three, this offseason Cishek will consider which roles he will have in 2023.
“I’ve been weighing it for a little bit just because I like to have a plan going into the next season of life,” Cishek said. “Right now, I’m looking forward to bringing my girls to school, dropping them off and picking them up. I love that. Right now, that’s my goal early on, is just to enjoy that time with them."