Olympics-Baseball-Toyota's cute 'relief' cart gets mixed player reviews

YOKOHAMA, Japan, July 31 (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp.’s carts carrying in Olympic relief pitchers on a big leather glove of a seat may be popular with TV viewers, but players range from outright fearful to those keen to hop on board although few of those who get the pleasure seem to know how to enjoy the 17-second, 67-metre trip.

Mexico’s Teddy Stankiewicz said he was “a little bit” upset starting pitchers like him do not get a lift. His counterpart in a Friday game, Angel Sanchez of the Dominican Republic, expressed no fear of missing out even though his bullpen colleagues in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and now the Games get transport.

Team mate Jose “Jumbo” Diaz prayed before a trek, while U.S. outfielder Tyler Austin said he had zero interest “getting in that thing.”

Israel’s Jeremy Bleich said the break from jogging to the mound enabled him to flush memories of his disastrous outing the day before.

“You already have adrenaline going, your heart rate is already up given you’re going into the game, so it gives you a second to catch your breath,” he said.

NPB rookie Ryoji Kuribayashi described “strong trust” in the Toyota creation but the drive forced a new routine. It ended up fine: He pitched a perfect ninth inning on Saturday for Japan.

Gimmicky bullpen carts emerged after 1950 in professional leagues but had disappeared by 2000 for no clear reason. In between, teams fashioned golf carts into giant baseballs or caps and even a boat. Scooters, motorcycles and a Toyota Celica coupe also brought in relievers from far-flung warm-up areas.

Some NPB teams keep the tradition. Yokohama BayStars, whose stadium is hosting Olympic games, have long used Nissan Motor Co vehicles, from the Bluebird to the Leaf.

Tokyo 2020 organisers sought a comfortable ride for a practical reason. To keep games fast, Olympic rules allot relievers 90 seconds to throw their first pitch once they step onto the field.

The cart starts from below seats at the outfield corners, where fully obscured bullpens - one of which Reuters toured - offer small televisions for game-viewing, a mini-fridge stocked full of water, basic chairs and portable air conditioners.

Drivers drop relievers near the closest corner base, about 14 metres short of the pitching mound and leaving over a minute for the allowed eight practice tosses.

Toyota led design for the two bullpen carts, which are among at least 200 battery-powered “accessible people movers” (APM) the Japanese automaker developed for and leased to the Games. In other sports, the maximum-19 kph vehicles are meant to give ailing athletes “relief,” according to Toyota, which organisers say will decide how to re-purpose them after the Games.

The belt-less mitt seat oddly obstructs handlebars. A painted baseball diamond decorates the artificial turf floor, and rear lights resemble a ball’s two red seams. Drivers tap a screen stickered with country names to activate an electronic banner on the grill that flashes the team’s three-letter abbreviation followed by “GO!GO! TOKYO 2020.” It all gets a scrubbing post-game.

For baseball, Toyota ditched roofs and rails for clear TV shots. But pitchers have not delivered Hollywood material. None have waved, posed or jigged across the first five games, part of why the carts themselves have stolen the show.

Mexico’s Fernando Salas inched his right foot and contorted his body as if ready to leap well before his destination. Diaz, the Dominican, took the time to adjust his belt, and team mate Dario Alvarez surveyed the outfield with a bored look on his face.

Israel’s Jonathan de Marte chewed gum, but fellow reliever DJ Sharabi sat stone-faced. U.S. pitcher Anthony Carter picked at his glove.

If any offer a parting “arigato,” or “thank you” in Japanese, they sure have not moved their lips. (Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Hugh Lawson)