Before starting his professional baseball career with the Single-A Advanced Jupiter Hammerheads, JJ Bleday got to learn from a member of the Miami Marlins organization whom he considers a legend.
No, it wasn’t Derek Jeter, who drafted him No. 4 overall in this year’s MLB Draft.
It wasn’t Don Mattingly, a fellow New York Yankees legend who manages the team.
The “legend” Bleday refers to is veteran corner infielder Neil Walker.
“He’s a legend in my area,” Bleday said.
Bleday grew up in Titusville, PA, a small town close to Pittsburgh, where Walker grew up. He moved to the Florida Panhandle after his sophomore year and played college ball at Vanderbilt University, where he hit an NCAA-leading 27 home runs while leading the Commodores to a national championship.
Bleday said he met Walker during his childhood on the flight back to Pittsburgh from Arizona. Bleday was attending a baseball showcase that his brother was in while Walker was at teammate Joel Hanrahan’s wedding. Hanrahan was the closer for the Pirates around the same time Walker’s career was beginning to blossom.
The two took a picture together and a decade later they meet again as members of the same organization.
The two met during batting practice the day Bleday signed with the Marlins and Walker recognized him.
“I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or trying to be nice,” Bleday said. “It’s crazy how that comes around. He’s a legend in Pennsylvania. He’s won state titles in both baseball and football in Pine-Richland and that’s one of the biggest levels of High School in Pennsylvania in terms of 5A and 6A. He’s a good role model and great player and it’s crazy to share that with him.”
“He made me feel really old,” Walker said with a smile. “He said he followed the Pirates when he was a kid and he remembered watching me when I first got up to the Major Leagues in 2009-10. He definitely made me feel old.”
Batting practice is a small sample size when trying to assess a player’s skill but Walker seemed impressed with Bleday at the cage.
“He’s got a short swing. He’s got really good hands, getting the barrel to the ball,” Walker said. “Just in batting practice, you can kind of tell those things. And on top of being a good hand/eye guy, he’s got power, so that’s kind of a mixture that you look for in guys that’s pretty rare. It’s typically either one or the other. Guys who are power guys but don’t quite have the contact skills but he seems to have both and have a lot of skills as a hitter.”
While taking batting practice, Bleday made sure to learn from Walker and other veterans on the Marlins. Bleday said the most important lesson he got from them was on time management.
“You’re going to always have time with family and friends when they come and watch you play and all that,” Bleday said. “Make sure you are a little bit of selfish when it comes to staying back in your routine and getting back to the middle of playing baseball because that’s your primary objective.”
Having signed a one-year deal, Walker is likely to be traded by the MLB Trade Deadline and despite Bleday starting in High A, it’s not certain whether or not both will be playing on the same field by the time JJ debuts. Maybe the stars aligned when Walker signed and Bleday got drafted by the same team at the same year so he could have that rare moment with the local legend.