MANSFIELD, Ohio -- There is an area at the Historic Ohio State Reformatory that was once known as the "bullpen." It's the mess hall area where the state's most hardened criminals passed through, herded like cattle, on their way to work in the yard. Tony Sipp and two of his Indians teammates, outfielder Trevor Crowe and pitching coach Tim Belcher, passed through this area Wednesday afternoon during a tour of the reformatory, as part of the team's winter Press Tour. The building, which hosted a Town Hall session for the Tribe's fans in this area, was abandoned by the state in 1990, but it has lived on as a filming site for such movies as "Shawshank Redemption" and "Air Force One."
Sipp stood in the same spot where many a man once did his time, and he came to one conclusion. "I'll take my bullpen over that one any day," he said with a smile. Sipp's bullpen is, of course, the one inhabited by his fellow Tribe relievers. It's the bullpen he cracked in his rookie year in 2009, and it's where he hopes to be on Opening Day in 2010. The 26-year-old Sipp certainly stated his case to remain in that 'pen in the second half last year. In his third of three stints with the club, Sipp went 2-0 with a 2.88 ERA in 36 games, becoming the go-to, late-inning lefty that Rafael Perez had once been. But Sipp knows that it's a new year, and he still has to prove himself, particularly as the Indians are once again plotting to rely on Perez in setup situations. "What I did last year proved I can produce up here," Sipp said. "And that's really all that I'm going off of. That's what I'm basing my entry into Spring Training off of. I have proven that I can be there, and I want to start there. I've been working hard all offseason to try to keep my spot. But I do have [Minor League] options, and you never know what can happen. Baseball's a crazy game." Sipp learned that the hard way last year, when he was twice demoted after thinking he was in the bigs to stay. Called up from Triple-A Columbus on April 22, Sipp found himself sent back down a month later. In between, he posted a 4.26 ERA while walking eight and striking out nine in 6 1/3 innings. "The first time, I just got my feet wet, went out there a raw student, because I didn't really have any expectations," Sipp said. "They sent me down and said I walked a few guys. But I looked back at my situations, and they were situations where I couldn't give up a hit. They were close ballgames where I didn't want that batter to beat me. So when I went back down, it was a little discouraging." Sipp came back on June 1, but he was demoted again eight days later, despite not allowing a run. Like a prisoner praying on an acquittal, he felt the punishment didn't fit the crime. "I did everything right and still couldn't stay," he said. "I didn't know that was a part of baseball. I thought you had to do something wrong to get sent back down." The Indians let Sipp settle in the third time around. They told him not to look over his shoulder and worry about his fate, because they had every intention of letting him stay and letting him grow, even if it meant taking his lumps from time to time. "Just having that reassurance helped me," Sipp said. "I knew I had a secure position, and I started to have fun all over again." Sipp's ERA from Aug. 1 through the end of the season was a dazzling 1.14 in 25 games. He struck out 29 and walked nine in 23 2/3 innings, and he and Chris Perez formed an effective bridge to closer Kerry Wood. For the season, Major Leaguers batted just .194 off Sipp. His average against was actually slightly better against right-handers (.179) than left-handers (.208), so he proved he doesn't have to strictly be a matchup guy. Belcher said he's expecting more of the same from Sipp this season. "He was pretty effective for us," Belcher said. "You look at it, and he had far less hits allowed  than innings pitched  and more strikeouts  than innings pitched. He has a big, power arm, a power breaking ball and feel for his changeup. He'll definitely be in the mix [for a spot]." Sipp feels he deserves a spot and that he's done his time in the Minors. But as long as he's not doing his time at the Ohio State Reformatory, he's doing just fine. "This place," Sipp said, "is a little creepy."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.