A few dozen fans were allowed on the field to watch the Red Sox take batting practice before a recent game at Tampa Bay. They stared hopefully at the dugout, waiting for David Ortiz to emerge and perhaps sign a few autographs.
But one older man kept his eyes on a player taking swings from both sides of the plate in preparation for the game to come.
Lenin Rodriguez has thick, calloused hands from hitting endless ground balls to kids on dirt fields in Venezuela dreaming of a career in the majors. Rodriguez has been a scout for different teams and worked on his own as a trainer, developing players worthy of signing bonuses and taking his cut. His life is baseball.
Rodriguez’s teenage son now plays in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. But the player he came to see on this day was Sandy Leon.
It was about 10 years ago when Rodriguez first came across Leon playing third base and suggested that he try catching.
“Look at him now,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a great defensive catcher and he can hit. I have been telling people for a few years, ‘Watch for Sandy Leon.’ He’s showing everybody.”
Opportunity, hard work, and unshakable faith have turned Leon into an essential member of the Red Sox after he passed through waivers three times in less than a year without being claimed.
A player the Sox initially obtained to serve as minor league depth is hitting .350 with a .976 OPS in 55 games. Leon has 23 extra-base hits, 28 RBIs, and has drawn 16 walks.
“I don’t look at my stats,” Leon said. “Sometimes the scoreboard is right in my face and I turn away. I know it’s unbelievable.”
In less than half a season, Leon has compiled a 2.6 WAR in those 55 games, the fifth-highest mark among major league catchers. He also has thrown out 12 of 29 base stealers and helped turn around the rotation with his steady presence and advanced defensive skills behind the plate.
“He’s seizing an opportunity,” manager John Farrell said. “We all see a guy who has come into his own during this time period. You’re happy for the individual. He hasn’t changed one bit as a person with the success he’s now experiencing.
“We all see the foul tips and collisions at home plate. He is one tough SOB. You know what? He’s earned every bit of playing time with the way he’s performed.”
None of this seemed possible in spring training when Leon was the fourth-string catcher, destined for Triple A Pawtucket. He had played 41 games for the Sox in 2015 and hit .184 with two extra-base hits and three RBIs in 114 at-bats. Leon was released after the season and re-signed to a minor league contract.
“We liked his defense,” said Red Sox general manager Mike Hazen. “But we took him off the roster and he could have gone anywhere he wanted. Thankfully, he didn’t.”
The genesis of his breakout season came last winter when Leon played 53 games for his team in the Venezuelan League. He took almost no time off after playing 90 games for the Sox in the majors and minors.
“It was so many games that, frankly, we became a little concerned,” Farrell said.
Leon didn’t intend to play that much, and he nearly didn’t play at all. After spending five seasons with the Zulia Eagles in his hometown of Maracaibo, he was unexpectedly traded to the Aragua Tigers in Maracay.
Maracay was five hours away, and Leon was hesitant to spend so much time away from his family.
“I didn’t want to play, but they called me and said they really wanted me,” he said. “So I agreed. I was glad I did it. It was a good team and they treated me well.”
Leon had nearly 200 plate appearances. His statistics weren’t impressive but he felt he grew as a hitter.
“I got my confidence back,” he said. “I was playing every day for a good team and seeing a lot of pitches.”
Carlos Guillen, a three-time All-Star who played 14 years in the majors, was the general manager with Aragua. A successful switch hitter, Guillen talked to Leon almost every day and passed on some of his ideas about hitting.
“He told me to be more aggressive in certain counts and not miss my pitches,” Leon said. “Carlos is a great guy and he helped me a lot.”
Atlanta Braves first base coach Eddie Perez, a former catcher, managed the Tigers, and that helped Leon from a defensive standpoint.
Aragua advanced to the postseason and Leon flourished.
“It was good for me,” he said. “The playoffs in Venezuela are crazy. There are so many fans and it’s loud. That helped me stay focused on the game and concentrate on every at-bat.”
Aragua went all the way to the Caribbean Series in early February, the games to be played in the Dominican Republic. But Leon was worn out and decided to go home. Guillen called a day or two later.
“They said, ‘We need you. We’ll fly anybody you want to the games.’ So I said yes,” Leon said. “I felt I needed to be there.”
Accompanied by his wife, mother, and sister, Leon played six more games. The Tigers put the group up in a hotel in Santo Domingo and paid their expenses. Aragua fell a game short of the title and Leon returned to the Red Sox about a week later.
“They prepared Sandy well,” Rodriguez said. “He was timid as a hitter before that. He’s always been a hard worker and he started to come around.”
Until Rodriguez made his career-changing suggestion, Leon wanted to play third base like his father.
The elder Leon, also named Sandy, never played professionally but represented Venezuela in several international tournaments and developed a reputation as a good hitter. At 51, he still plays hardball in tournaments for senior players around Venezuela.
“My father calls me every day,” said Leon. “He’s excited about what is happening.”
Rodriguez encouraged Leon to catch, saying he had the instincts, strong arm, and sturdy frame that leant itself to the position.
“I became close with Sandy,” said Rodriguez. “I was like his second father. He didn’t have the quickness for third base. I advised him to catch, and we started lessons.”
The Washington Nationals signed Leon in 2007, and he made it to the majors in 2012.
“Sandy was a good defensive catcher, a leader, and a great teammate,” said Billy Gardner Jr., who managed Leon with Washington’s Triple A team. “But he never really hit. He had some pop but was inconsistent.”
Leon played 34 games for the Nationals over three seasons, going back and forth to the minors. He was designated for assignment just before the start of the 2015 season.
The Red Sox, at the same time, found out that catcher Christian Vazquez needed season-ending elbow surgery. A deal was quickly stuck, the Nationals accepting cash.
A series of injuries led to Leon getting more playing time in the majors than was expected. As always, he was a good defensive catcher with little production at the plate.
The same was true this year until June, when Leon was called up to serve as a backup. Only this time he hit.
“We got him to stand taller and use his hands more,” said hitting coach Chili Davis. “He was making up his mind to pull every pitch ahead of time. He trusts his hands now.”
As Leon earned more playing time, his confidence increased.
“It almost didn’t matter who was pitching,” said Davis. “For any player, success builds confidence. You can see he’s relaxed up there. But I never thought he’d hit like he has.”
‘He’s been huge’
Confidence is ultimately no match for reality. In his last 10 games, Leon is 8 of 36 (.222) with one extra-base hit. On Tuesday, he pinch hit against Tampa Bay with two on and two outs in the ninth inning and struck out on three pitches, never taking a swing.
He may not be heir to the throne of Jason Varitek, but as the Sox start a nine-game road trip in Oakland, Leon is indisputably their catcher.
“We needed him and he stepped up,” Ortiz said. “He’s such a humble guy, quiet all the time. But he’s been huge.”
Leon’s shaved head and thick, dark beard make him easy to recognize, and Red Sox fans have started to stop him on the street to say hello.
“After how I did in my first couple of years, to have that happen now is kind of funny,” Leon said. “I’m glad because it means I’m helping the team to win.”
Leon and his wife Liliana lead a quiet life away from the ballpark. They read the Bible together every day, occasionally kick a soccer ball around at a park or catch a movie if the Sox are off.
They were surprised to find authentic Venezuelan food at La Casa De Pedro, a restaurant a few minutes away from their apartment in Watertown. The owner, Pedro Alarcon, has become a friend.
In time, the Leons want to start a family. For now, they are enjoying a level of success that only a short time ago seemed unimaginable.
“We let God work for us. I know his hand is in this.” Leon said. “I don’t know what will happen, but it has been the best experience of my career. I’m blessed.”