On any given day, a baseball game has a cast of characters, all playing unique parts. The players, the coaches, the front office — and the bat boy.
John Neglia is one of those characters. Some fans may know him simply as “the bat boy;” a familiar face to those who watch enough Blue Jay baseball. But behind the curtain that is the uniform, Neglia prefers another name — batman.
“I would say people didn't start referring to me as the ‘batman’ until 2015,” Neglia told Bluebird Banter. “That was the first season I decided to grow a beard. [I] haven't shaved it since [and] we've had some pretty good success since then, so I think I'll keep it for a while.”
Since 2015, the Blue Jays have reached the American League Championship Series for two seasons in a row — including a wild comeback in the 2015 division series, when Jose Bautista hit the eventual game-winning home run. What was it like to be in the dugout in that moment?
“There was just an eruption! Everybody knew it was gone right off the bat. [It’s] hard to put into words the emotions of that inning, but it's pretty safe to say I'll never experience anything quite like that again... Fun fact, I was the first person to pick up Jose's bat after he tossed it.”
Earlier in the frame, when the throw back to the mound hit the bat of Ranger Shin-Soo Choo, there was “a lot of confusion and anger” in Toronto’s dugout. For the players, it was “very frustrating,” Neglia says.
“There was so much confusion about the rule. It seemed like the players, the coaches and the umpires had three different interpretations of the rule. No one really understood what exactly was going on... After they ruled to allow the run, the frustration almost turned into anger. [Almost] like, ‘We cannot lose this game that way.’"
Those in the crowd exhibited a similar reaction. Fans, in response to the ruling, threw trash — most notably, cans of beer — onto the field, some of which hit fans in the lower levels.
Despite the multitude and emotion of the moment, it isn’t Neglia’s favourite memory with the team.
“[It was] winning the division in Baltimore in 2015, by far. Baseball is such a long season; a grind, really. It's so tough to win a division, especially the AL East. It was just such a feeling of accomplishment, especially [when] breaking a string of 20 consecutive seasons without a playoff berth.
“From July through to the end of the season, [it] was the most fun I've ever had in my life.”
On a day-to-day basis, Neglia spends most of his time preparing the dugout and clubhouse for the game. He usually arrives at the ballpark five hours early.
“The first few hours is a lot of going through what was used the night before, double checking all the bats, the helmets, talking to each individual player to see if they want to use or do anything new equipment wise, that kinda stuff. At 4:30, the team goes out for batting practice. Once we're done on the field, I go straight into setting up the bench.”
For Neglia, preparing the dugout for game time is the most meticulous part of the day. “There are Powerade coolers, water coolers, towels, gum, seeds, bats, helmets, pine tar, rosin, bat weights, all sorts of things that need to be brought out in advance of the game. Along with that, certain players prefer their things placed in specific spots on the bench... A good portion of the day is spent on the dugout.”
In the clubhouse, Neglia spends his time organizing for the players and ensuring that no player is lacking anything they need for the game, such as a jersey or pants. “Generally, just making sure all the washrooms are stocked, lounge is clean [and] everything is cozy and comfortable for the guys.”
Neglia’s interactions with the players and staff are that of a teammate. “This is my 10th season with the club, so I've developed pretty strong relationships with the players and coaches. For me, it's easy to have conversations and talk baseball with the guys, just because we're all so comfortable with each other.”
Of course, as with any environment, there are certain players that Neglia is closer to. “For me, I would say Marco Estrada is probably my closest friend on the team. We hang out a lot outside of work.”
It may be a little known fact, but the Blue Jays had a rough start to this season (sarcasm intended). Toronto began 2017 with a record of 2-11, the worst start in franchise history, but have since turned their fortunes around, winning five consecutive games and three straight series, even with Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ on the disabled list.
How did Toronto turn the season around while there was still time left to do so? Neglia says that the mentality and actions of the team haven’t changed at all, but cites a constant stream of injuries as the reason behind Toronto’s losses.
Two or three years ago, the Blue Jays were also in an extended slump, but that team bounced back in a different manner.
“One day, a few of the veterans decided to try and loosen things up. They arranged for a few baby lions and tigers to be brought into the clubhouse! It was kept pretty quiet so no one had any idea when they showed up. It was a lot of fun [and] everyone seemed to enjoy it.”
Neglia has always been a Blue Jay fan. He grew up just north of Toronto, in Woodbridge, and played for the Vaughn Vikings, a triple-A rep team.
“[I] was fortunate to have people that worked for the Blue Jays come watch [some] of our players. I got to know some of them pretty well and kinda just found myself [in] the right place at the right time. They happened to have a job opening in the clubhouse and I jumped on it.”
Neglia first joined the team in 2008 as the left field ball boy, then became the bat boy in 2009. Edwin Encarnacion, a fan favourite, arrived with the Blue Jays via trade midway through the 2009 season.
“He was great for us. [He was] a quiet player, but he definitely had a presence [in the clubhouse].”
When Encarnacion returned to the Rogers Centre last week with Cleveland, Neglia says it was odd to see him in another team’s uniform, but it was good to catch up with him, nonetheless.
What comes next? Neglia says that he’d like to stay with the organization for an extended duration of time, but he isn’t quite sure of what that role may be. “I’m open to anything, really.”
“Sometimes it seems surreal to me that I actually have this job and how lucky I am... The best part is just getting to be part of the team. Being on the bench, in the locker room — just being a part of it all is pretty awesome.”
As things stand now, Neglia is happy to be Toronto’s batman. “For the time being, I love doing what I’m doing.” Who wouldn’t?
Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkColley.