As the game headed to the eighth inning, Buffalo Bisons pitching coach Bob Stanley motioned to the bullpen. It was time for John Stilson to get ready to enter the game for the Herd – and time for Eric Simoncelli to get to work.
Simoncelli puts on his mask and mitt to receive the reliever's pitches along the first-base side of Coca-Cola Field.
It's a baseball job hidden in plain sight – that of bullpen catcher.
You won't find his jersey number listed in your program or find his name among those in the Blue Jays organization. But for a relatively anonymous job, it's a pretty sweet summer gig.
"I mean, it's baseball. Finding any way to make money with baseball was an amazing opportunity," said Simoncelli. The Hamburg native is in his fifth year of serving as the Bisons bullpen catcher, becoming part of the legend and lore of professional baseball.
Simoncelli's first introduction to the gig came in 2012 when the Bisons hosted the Triple-A All-Star Game. He was an incoming freshman at D'Youville College and his coach Leo Dandes, son of Jonathan Dandes, the president of Rich Baseball Operations, helped put out a call for catchers to work the home run derby and help with the All-Star Game.
Simoncelli eagerly volunteered, getting the opportunity to catch Matt Harvey and be the on-field catcher when Bisons' slugger Valentino Pascucci won the home run derby.
"I don't think I really thought it through to be honest, but I was like, let's do it," Simoncelli said. "I had a great time. I was like I want to do this all the time."
The next year the Bisons found themselves looking for a bullpen catcher. They called Simoncelli, who tried out and got the job.
Five years, two affiliations and three managers later, he's still enjoying his summer gig as bullpen catcher.
Simoncelli's job at its most basic level is to take practice and warm-up assignments that the catchers on the roster don't want to take.
Bisons catchers Raffy Lopez and Mike Ohlman can need a break from the physical toll of squatting behind home plate. And so Simoncelli is there to let the pitching staff get in its work without adding stress and strain for Lopez and Ohlman.
A typical game day for Simoncelli starts around 2:30 p.m. when he joins the pitching staff on the field for stretch. Some days he catches a side session – a starting pitcher getting in some practice in between his starts. Other times he's working with a reliever who is getting in some additional work.
Then he heads to the outfield, shags balls during batting practice, and hangs out until game time.
That's when he heads to the bullpen, where the first few innings are usually filled with interesting discussions and the occasional game or two to keep the staff in the game and ready for duty. And that duty can come at any time.
"As a starter it's easier. You know when you're pitching," Simoncelli said. "But the life in the bullpen, you never know. It could be the second inning and there's a call coming down to you or it could be three hours later and it's the ninth inning. Especially for those guys, their life is so interesting because sometimes you get a call and it's like, 'Hey we need you in two hitters.' So you have five minutes, maybe, to get up there and get ready.
"So they really can't be creatures of habit too much in the way that they live down there because every day is so different. They can be creatures of habit in their game-day preparation but once you're down there, you never know what baseball is going to ask of you that day."
The time he spends with the pitching staff – stretching, chatting, catching – helps create a comfort level and develops trust. Because as cool as the job may be, he needs to be on his game to help prepare the pitchers for a successful outing.
"You see the pitchers, just physically looking at them, they're OK throwing to him," Lopez said. "You do develop a little bit of a trust in the sense that, 'OK, my pitcher is going to be ready to go in the game. My pitcher's bullpen is going to be a successful bullpen' because they trust him and feel comfortable throwing to him. When that happens, you as a catcher feel a little more comfortable in letting someone else do that."
Learning all the time
While Simoncelli gives Lopez and Ohlman some much needed breaks, the catchers in turn share their knowledge of the game, how they work with pitchers, and how to receive the ball.
Because bullpen catching isn't as easy as squatting and catching.
"There's a lot of the little intricate stuff about the right way to receive," Simoncelli said. "I mean it's really just catching a baseball but there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. Especially when it's coming as hard as these guys throw. If you do it wrong, it can hurt.
"I think the most beneficial thing I ever learned was just that you have to relax. When I started, the ball is coming hard and fast and it's easy to get really tense about it. The more tense you are, the faster the ball comes. So the more you relax, the slower the ball comes to you and it makes it a lot easier."
Lopez said that Simoncelli is eager to learn about baseball, catching, and handling different types of pitchers. The extra knowledge served Simoncelli well during his four-year playing career at D'Youville where he set program records at the Division III program in hits (101), RBIs (61), doubles (25) and games played (114). Last year he served as the team's assistant coach as he continues his course work to get his doctorate in physical therapy.
Simoncelli is leaning toward a sports career with his physical therapy degree, spending some extra time chatting with Bisons strength coach Jason Dowse and athletic trainer Voon Chong. Regardless of where his career will take him, Simoncelli has earned a master's degree in pro baseball.
"I learned more about baseball, how to be a teammate, more about life from these guys than anything else," Simoncelli said. "It's fun to be around and on top of that you get to make a little money through baseball."