Archive for November, 2013

What do you want to be when you grow up?  It’s a question we ask from childhood all the way through college.  As an adult, though we may be “grown up”, we sometimes still struggle to find an answer.  It’s a question, which for many people, can change as frequently as the seasons.

Justin Toole is not one of those people.  He has known, since before he can remember that he wanted to be a baseball player, and despite an unusual and sometimes rocky path, he’s found his way there.

Like many professional athletes, Toole was born into a baseball family. His father and mother coached at the local high school and his brother and sister both played baseball and softball respectively.  Growing up, he fell in love with the game, helping out his dad as a batboy and joining the team on road trips until he was old enough to play. A Derek Jeter fan he favored shortstop, but got experience all over the field, playing wherever his team needed him the most.

After a successful high school career at Lewis Central in his hometown of Council Bluffs, Iowa Toole went on to play at the University of Iowa.  As a Hawkeye he continued to excel both athletically and academically, and the idea of playing professional baseball felt less like a distant dream and more like a plausible reality.   That is, until he suffered an injury in his senior season playing against Big 10 rival Michigan State

“When I broke my arm everything kind of stopped, I wasn’t sure what the future was going to hold.”

His arm healed, but the damage to his draft stock was done, and Toole went undrafted in the 2009 Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft.  Rather then hang up his cleats he signed to play Independent baseball with the Sioux City Explorers.  However, after a little over a week of playing in Sioux City Toole awoke in his host family’s basement to a phone call.  His dream was coming true, the Cleveland Indians wanted to sign him as a professional baseball player.

Since signing with the Indians on July 7, 2009, Justin Toole has played at every level in the Indians’ Minor League system, including here in Mahoning Valley.  Though some players dislike moving from team to team, Toole has enjoyed the benefits.

“I’ve been able to learn not only from all the different coaches and managers but also different teammates.  It’s definitely something you have to have a passion for.  It’s not your typical lifestyle.”

Toole’s passion for the game is infectious and his enthusiasm is apparent not only when talking about home runs but in the daily grind of getting better.

“The beautiful thing about the game of baseball is that you play 160 games and you get to play every day.  You can go out on a Monday and have a horrible day and wake up the next day with a clean slate and learn from the day before.”

He has learned that Minor League Baseball is a world where a player’s draft round can mean more than their current statistics and every success and failure is not only recorded but analyzed.  So how does an unsigned free agent like Toole not only survive but thrive?  His answer is simple, he doesn’t give up.

“There are so many things out there that are out of your control.  One of the things you can do is control what you have going on.  You can control your attitude and your effort…I’ve gotten to where I am not because I’m the most talented player.  I didn’t throw the hardest or run the fastest; I didn’t hit the most homeruns.  A lot of the reason I’ve gotten to where I am is that I believed that I could do it.”

When reflecting on the rigors of Minor League Baseball Toole recounts an analogy, “If you look at baseball it’s based around sports cars.  When you watch ESPN you’ll see the Ferrari’s, Porsches and the Mazaratti’s, all the good looking cars that draw people to the game.  What you don’t see are the Ford 150 trucks and the heavy duty stuff that people do behind the scenes.  Those are the players who make it to the major leagues and make the game what it is.”

During his career, Toole has not only shown tenacity, but versatility.  This was never more evident than on a late summer night two seasons ago while playing for the Class A Advanced Carolina Mudcats.  On August 25, 2012, the Mudcats gave him the opportunity to play all nine positions in the span of a nine inning game.   Toole’s performance gained national media attention and he was even contacted by a Cleveland based t-shirt company, Fresh Brewed Tees, who created an “I Play The Field” shirt honoring his accomplishment.

What is most impressive about Justin Toole’s game two Augusts ago was not just his versatility as a baseball player, but how he is using that game to positively influence the lives of others.  The following offseason, Toole added “author” to his growing list of accomplishments and published “9 in 9: Nine Life Lessons Learned From Playing Nine Positions in One Nine Inning Baseball Game”.

When asked how he came up with the idea to write the book Toole responded, “I’ve always wanted to do that but I wasn’t sure how to go about it.  Then everything kind of came full circle; different things in my career and lessons I’ve learned.  They may not have been the most fun but they got me to this point.  The game was a way of telling my story”.

“People think professional baseball players are these ultra mega talented people who don’t make mistakes.  The more you get to know and play with these guys the more you realize yes they are talented but they work extremely hard.  A lot of kids when they’re young give up on dreams because of preconceived notions that professional athletes, doctors, bankers or lawyers are so much more talented or smarter or different then anyone else.  Actually, they are just like everyone else.  They just work hard, follow their dreams and never give up.”

What’s makes “9 in 9” such an enjoyable read is Toole’s ability to stay relatable to the reader and true to himself.  He’s a 27 year old guy who likes county music and watching sports center.  He also just so happens to be a professional baseball player.  Toole’s story takes the reader through each inning and each position played of the August 25, 2012 game, while reminding them that in life, and in baseball, it’s not always about the score but the plays that you make to get there.

Maybe following our dreams is as easy as taking a page from Justin Toole’s book

Everyone has a story.  Some are simple and predictable, and you know the ending before you finish the prologue.  Others feel more like a Goosebumps book, with every chapter forcing seemingly life altering decisions.

One of my favorite aspects of working in Minor League Baseball is the opportunity to meet and talk to many different types of people and hear their stories.  Fans, boosters, scouts, reporters, families, players and coaches from all over the county and the world come out to Eastwood Field over the summer, and they all have experiences to share.

Throughout the offseason I’m going to interview several former Scrappers in an attempt to give you an insight into their offseason life and tell a little of their story. This week I was lucky enough to speak with 2013 Scrappers first baseman, Nellie Rorriguez.

Nellie Rodriguez looks like a ballplayer.  With his broad shoulders, wide stance and boyish grin when Rodriguez’s bulky 6’2 250 pound frame walks into a room, there is no mistaking that he was born to play baseball.

“I’ve been playing since I was three years old” said Rodriguez.  “Even at that age I had quite a passion and love for the game.”

That passion has fired the New York City native through countless practices, conditioning sessions, workouts and of course, baseball games.

At nineteen, Rodriguez leads a far from typical life.  February through August he wakes up, works out, goes to practice, and then plays baseball.  There are no weekends, there are no vacations, and there are fewer off days then you have fingers.

His life fits in a suitcase because as a baseball player, he can relocate at anytime with only a few hours notice.  Every three to five days he finds himself on a bus to a new town and new hotel.  He travels the country the way many of us wish we could, one ballpark at a time.

Like many kids who go away to college at his age, Rodriguez spends months without seeing his friends and family.  When asked one of the highlights of the summer Nellie didn’t hesitate to answer the Scrappers trip to New York.

“You don’t get to see your family everyday like you do in the offseason.  Being able to see them for a week, seeing my friends and family just pumped me up to play at a higher level and have fun.”

On the above mentioned trip to New York the Scrappers faced McNamara Division rivals the Staten Island Yankees and Brooklyn Cyclones.  The team was one game separated from a twelve game losing streak, but during the six days in New York they took two games a piece from both Staten Island and Brooklyn winning back-to-back series for the first time that season.

A little home cooking and family time did him well and in Rodriguez’s first game back in his home state he went 4 for 5 with a double, two homers and five RBI.  He went on to have four more multi hit games, another homerun and two more doubles giving him a .464 batting average for the two series.  Rodriguez’s performance was noticed by both the Indians and the league garnering him Indians Minor League Player of the Week and New-York Penn League Player of the week honors.  To state it simply, he put on for his city.

When asked about the greatest moment in his career Rodriguez could have answered the series’ in New York, the 2013 New York-Penn League All-Star Game, getting drafted in the 15th Round of the 2012 MLB First Year Player Draft, or shattering Manny Ramirez’s high school home run record (both attended George Washington High School in New York City).  Instead, he values his two walk-offs at Eastwood Field.  Still a teenager, Rodriguez demonstrates something most adults struggle with, putting a team’s success over an individual’s stellar performance.

When asked how he plans on spending his down time over the next few months, Rodriguez responded like any average teenager,  “hangout with my friends, go to the movies a lot, go bowling, and just talk about life”.  For those, who are fortunate enough to listen, his story is far from average.

Listen to some of Nellies 2013 Hightlights: