Jacksonville Sports Day

FEATURE: Jimmy Leo: From Flagler to the Majors

ST. AUGUSTINE – For the vast majority of baseball players, the path to the Major Leagues is a long and winding road through the small towns of America and ending up in the bright lights of the big cities. The life is not glamorous as they are filled with long bus rides, but will finally progress to charter flights and five-star hotels as they get close to their dreams.

For Jimmy Leo, his path was never meant to be so direct, but opportunity knocks in the most unusual of ways.

The Boca Raton, Florida native came to Flagler College in the fall of 2011 as a walk-on catcher looking to hone his skills on the developmental team. He played sparingly on the varsity team during his four years, mainly serving as a bullpen catcher for the Saints pitching staff. Little did he know what impact that job would have on his future in baseball.

“I am so proud of Jimmy,” said Flagler head baseball coach Dave Barnett. “We talk about being a team player and Jimmy was that guy. He made everyone on our team at Flagler better. His work ethic and personality made him one of our most respected players.”

The role of a bullpen catcher is to help get the starting pitcher ready before the game as well as warming up the relief pitchers during the game when the coach calls down wanting to get someone ready. He is an integral part in the ultimate success of a pitcher when he gets into the game.

After graduating from Flagler with a degree in sport management, Leo was able to stay in baseball when he took a job with the Miami Marlins as a video intern for its Rookie and Class A level teams in Batavia, New York and Jupiter, Florida.

He then moved on to the Oakland Athletics organization and served in a similar capacity as a Minor League video assistant in Mesa, Arizona. With the Athletics, he and the development coordinator were responsible for accumulating video and TrackMan data from the various Minor League affiliates of Oakland. They used both programs to put together a comprehensive report on players for coaches and front office staff.

During the 2017 offseason, the Atlanta Braves contacted the Oakland Athletics for permission to talk to Leo and give him a tryout. His time with the Marlins had paid off as a former front office employee he met there was now with the Braves organization. Atlanta was in need of an additional bullpen catcher and Leo, who had performed those duties with the Marlins Minor League affiliates, had already done that job and made an impression.

“I was still working for the Athletics and had just started big league spring training camp (late February) when the Braves asked to interview me for the position,” said Leo. “The Braves flew me into their complex in Orlando, Florida. I was given a tryout in which I caught a couple of bullpens and threw batting practice to a couple of hitters. Most of the coaching staff was there, including Hall of Famer Bobby Cox, to watch me throw. That made me nervous as these were well-versed baseball people and I had not been active on a field for about three months.”

Leo was able to talk with the members of the coaching staff throughout the tryout and the remainder of the day consisted of getting acquainted with front office personnel. Then he watched a spring training game before flying back to Arizona.

“Two days later I received a call and found out I was offered the position,” said Leo. “An immediate rush of excitement and emotions hit me when I received the news. It was a dream of mine, since I was a boy, to reach the Major Leagues. I knew by the time I had graduated high school that playing in the Majors was not going to be in my future.

Not many know the day-to-day life of a Major Leaguer, let alone that of a bullpen catcher. Jimmy’s home game schedule for a typical night game usually consists of getting to SunTrust Park around 1 or 1:30 p.m. Being one of two bullpen catchers, he split duties with the other catcher in pre-game responsibilities. Leo will prepare the bullpen for the game that evening. That entails taking all necessary bags to the bullpen, which includes the catcher’s bags, bullpen bags and a couple boxes of baseballs to rub them down for use.

The bullpen must be kept in meticulous order. Items like sunscreen, rosin bags, weighted balls, stretching bands as well as snacks are within easy reach of the players.

“Once everything is organized inside the bullpen room,” said Leo, “I take the tarp off the two mounds and fill the bullpen bag with balls the pitchers will use to warm up.”

Pitchers will arrive around three hours before the game and will begin to stretch and throw. After they loosen up some will throw to Jimmy on flat ground or will head into the bullpen to work on mechanics. After throwing, the pitchers take batting practice.

“After pitchers BP,” said Leo, “the regular players will then hit and I head to the outfield to shag. I have been throwing BP to the third group of hitters.”

After grabbing something to eat in the clubhouse, Leo heads back to the bullpen to wait for the starting pitcher who gets there about 35 minutes before first pitch. Sometimes he will not warm up the starting pitcher. That depends upon who the starting catcher is that day. Other than that, he will wait for the phone call from the dugout, during the game, to prepare a reliever.

“This is the most exciting part of the job to me”, said Leo, “because I get to be involved in the process of preparing them to enter the game.”

His responsibilities are not just for the home games. Leo travels everywhere with the team. The routine is the same from park-to-park, but travel days add a new component.

“I arrive at SunTrust Park and drop off my personal bag and board the bus that takes us to the airport,” said Leo. “We then fly to the city we are playing in, take a bus from the airport to the hotel and call it a night. There are bus times that take us from the hotel to the field.”

As of Sept. 13, the Braves lead the National League’s East Division with an 82-64 record. They hold a 7.5 game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies. Atlanta is looking to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 when it lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games in the divisional series. Leo is enjoying the ride.

“The team atmosphere is easy going and relaxed,” he said. “There is great chemistry amongst everyone from the rookies to the veterans to the coaching staff. Winning helps and that’s the ultimate goal, but we are really lucky to have a team comprised of professionals who are really great people.”

Leo has nothing but great memories when he reflects on his time at Flagler. He gained experience for his current job while playing with the Saints and he is very thankful to have had that opportunity.

“It is known that I did not contribute on the field as much as I would have liked to, but Coach Barnett found use in my abilities through other means,” said Leo.

Leo redshirted during his sophomore year and was able to serve as a student coach. He travelled to road games, coached first base, threw batting practice, hit fungos, and more importantly he caught bullpens during the games.

“I am grateful to Coach Barnett in his allowing me to contribute and be a part of the team,” said Leo. “It wasn’t what I had planned on doing as I wanted to play and help my team win, but I now understand it was just as important a role looking back.

“Before my senior year started,” added Leo, “I began to think about what I wanted to do with my life and I knew I had to be involved in baseball in some capacity. Not once did I ever think to myself that I want to be a Major League bullpen catcher. That seemed too far off and unattainable. Having this job is my proudest achievement and I know it would have not been possible without my experience during the years I spent at Flagler.”

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