Note: This is an excerpt of the biography I am writing for Brian Tollberg, whose inspirational story saw him ascend from lightly recruited college pitcher and undrafted free agent to several seasons in the minors and then reaching the majors.
Chapter One – The Call
I woke up early on Father’s Day in 2000. At the time, I was pitching for the Las Vegas Stars, which is the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A affiliate, and we were beginning a four-game series in Tucson.
Life in the minors is not one of glamour, fame, or fortune. Guys are there for one purpose and one purpose only – to make it to the majors. I was determined in spring training that 2000 would be my year. Someone was going to notice me this season, and I was going to finally get my chance in the big leagues. I felt a sense of urgency since I had played in the minors for five years. My window of opportunity was closing so “the call” had to happen this year. My drive, focus and tenacity were heightened.
I had experienced an elbow strain the previous season and saw teammates like Buddy Carlyle and Stan Spencer leaping me to the majors. They were deserving of the call, no doubt about that. Yet it is natural when you are working hard and posting solid numbers – and you are just one phone call from the majors – to feel anxious about when your time will arrive.
During the first month of the season, Darrel Akerfelds (or “Ak,” as we called him; he was our pitching coach at Las Vegas) made a mechanical adjustment with my delivery and something clicked that wasn’t there before. I was hitting my spots and making few mistakes. I was locked in the proverbial zone for several months. In June 2000, my ERA was 2.83. I was 6-0 and had other numbers that drew attention, like a 1.08 WHIP and a 5.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio. WHIP – which stands for Walks and Hits Per Innings Pitched – is one of the most important stats in baseball. After all, if you don’t have command of your pitches, and you cough up an abundance of walks and hits, you are not going to excel at any level. I was pitching better than ever in the minors. Even on days when I didn’t have my best stuff, I felt confident as long as two of my four pitches were effective.
I felt that as long as I performed effectively, I would at least get attention in the offseason when I was a free agent. I figured I would at worst get a spring training invite from a team as long as I posted solid numbers at Las Vegas. Still, I hoped that the call to the Padres would happen. At Triple-A, you are one injury away from getting called up. Some players follow every at-bat, start or relief appearance of their counterparts at the Major League level. Yet it is critical that you maintain your routine and the work ethic that brought you up the minor league ladder.
I was brimming with confidence when we departed for the journey from Las Vegas to Tucson. Since it was a short road trip, I didn’t bring many clothes and supplies. As I said before, it was Father’s Day. I woke up early, called my dad and then took the treatment van to the ballpark. In the minors, there are two vans – one for players who need treatment or want to get early stretching, weight training, throwing and other work done; and another that departs later for players who just want to arrive at the stadium at the required time for pre-game preparation.
There is a lot less structure in Triple-A than in rookie ball or Single-A ball. Some players choose to remain at the hotel and not venture to the park until they were required. At the hotel, all I would do is watch TV or play cards. There are only so many times you can sleep in until noon, go walk around a mall, etc. Baseball was my passion, and I wanted to fully immerse myself in the atmosphere, so I would always get to the ballpark as early as possible. I could watch TV and play cards there when I wasn’t throwing, lifting weights, stretching, running or getting treatment in the training room. I loved being at the park, whether it was in the clubhouse or on the field and felt I was a lot more productive when I went to the park earlier.
On this particular day, I planned on getting some running in, but before I did, “Ak” approached me in the clubhouse. I was not scheduled to chart the game that night, but I had charted the previous night’s game. Between starts, pitchers in the rotation are required to keep charts – either the gun chart or the game chart. The gun chart tracks velocity readings for both teams’ pitchers while the game chart tallies our team’s hitters and defensive outcomes.
He asked me to join him in the office to discuss the charting of pitches I had done the previous game. I figured he wanted to know what happened on a certain series of pitches, or perhaps I recorded a slider when it was actually a curveball. His request to review the charts with me was not out of the ordinary, but typically that conversation did not happen behind closed doors. The moment I walked in the office, though, I knew this meeting was not about pitch charts.
Along with “Ak,” there was our manager, our hitting coach and the trainer. The scene reminded me of the day I was traded from Milwaukee to San Diego during spring training in 1997. “Was I being traded again?” I thought to myself. Even worse, maybe I was getting released. “Why would they trade me or release me with the season I am having?” I asked myself. A knot abruptly arose in my stomach. There was an awkward silence in the room.
Instead, the news was positive. It was the best news I could have hoped for on that day. “I have a proposition for you,” Darrel said with a grin, breaking the silence. “I know it’s not your night to chart, but if you chart the pitches tonight (Sunday), you can pitch in the big leagues on Tuesday. What do you think?”
My mind was racing. Was this a joke? No, I was told, it wasn’t. Rodrigo Lopez was being optioned from the Padres to Las Vegas, and veteran starter Woody Williams was returning from the DL and needed a minor league rehab stint. He would get some work at Las Vegas for two weeks and I would be called up to fill a rotation spot. I would likely get three starts, be optioned to Triple-A and possibly return to the majors when rosters expanded in September, Darrel explained.
“So this is a certainty, not a possibility?” I asked. The decision had been made. I was headed to the majors. The Padres were starting a series against the Diamondbacks in Phoenix. I was instructed that I would meet the team there. The trainer and the clubhouse attendant would drive me from Tucson to Phoenix in the morning.
I wanted to yell but I couldn’t. A Triple-A clubhouse requires decorum when you get “the call.” Triple-A rosters are typically stocked with the following mixture of guys:
- Players who have spent time in the majors and are striving to get back
- Longtime minor leaguers who are fighting and hoping for just a taste of the bigs or to prolong their time getting paid to play baseball
- Highly regarded prospects whose time on the biggest stage is inevitable
- Overachievers who were never expected to advance past Single-A yet are so close to experiencing the ultimate baseball player’s dream.
I was part of the latter category, and my time had finally arrived after five and a half years of toiling in the minors. Yet I didn’t want to disrespect anyone in the locker room since all of us want “the call” and we all know how it feels when it is not you who is chosen.
My mind was racing with excitement. My roommate, former Major League pitcher Huck Flener, asked me what they said behind closed doors. “Nothing.” “Are you OK?” he added. “Yeah, I got called up,” I said, matter of factly, even though I wanted to scream as loud as I could.
Next thing you know he yells to anyone who would listen in the clubhouse, “Tolly is going to the big leagues!”
I was fueled with adrenaline, and before I got my running in, I went to a pay phone to call my parents. The line was busy. They were on the Internet. That was the age of dial-up service. I called my agent and then called Dusty Rhodes, my college head coach at the University of North Florida and told him the news. “It’s about time,” he said. “What else did you have to do to show them you are ready?”
I called my parents again, but the line was still busy. About that time, Brett Dolan walked by. He was the play-by-play broadcaster at Tucson, who we were playing against that night. He was also the broadcaster at Single-A Beloit when I was there. Beloit is the Milwaukee Brewers’ Single-A affiliate in the Midwest League, and we won the Midwest League championship in 1995. Brett was working his way through the minors with the ultimate dream of reaching the big leagues himself, and he shared in my exhilaration. (Brett finally made it to the Astros in 2006 and spent 7 years as one of their broadcasters.)
I decided to start pre-game running before I tried to call my parents again, and I ran until I couldn’t run anymore. It was June in Tucson, so it was steamy hot – the type of dry heat where you seemingly start dripping with sweat the second you step outside. The temperature was 101, but I felt such an emotional high that I barely noticed. I returned to the concourse and picked up the phone. This time, it rang. My dad answered. He was surprised to hear from me again since I had called just a short time earlier to wish him a Happy Father’s Day. He asked me if everything was alright.
“I got some information…I’m going up,” I told him.
My dad is the most prominent influence in my life, knowing when to push me and motivate me, and when to back off. There was a brief silence after I told him the news. Overcome with emotion, he handed the phone to my mom before talking to me again a few minutes later.
The man who spent so much time playing catch with me, even when he was exhausted from work – the man who offered me encouragement through all the ups and downs of high school, college, independent league baseball and affiliated minor league baseball – teared up on the other end of the line. His voice cracked with obvious heartfelt sentiment.
“As soon as he said he was going to the majors, my mind was immediately flooded with all those memories of when he played T-ball, Little League, American Legion ball and high school ball. I thought about all the challenges he went through as a kid who was a good player and worked hard but was never the best player on any of his teams. I also thought about how, out of all the highly regarded and heavily scouted kids he had played with and against, it was Brian who was getting the call to the majors, beating tremendous odds to reach a dream he had since he was a little boy,” my dad, Gary Tollberg, explained.
Before we finished talking, I told my parents someone from the front office would be contacting them to schedule flights for them from Tampa, and my brother, Jeremy, from Boston. Knowing that the most important people in my life would be there to support me on one of the most exciting days of my life eased my nerves, at least a little bit.
I celebrated after the game by having dinner with Huck, who spent parts of three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1990s, including their World Series championship team in 1993. He told me that the atmosphere in the majors would be different. “Don’t speak until you are spoken to. If someone talks, answer. Be pleasant. Be yourself. And this might sound stupid, but remember it is easier to get there than stay there. Never be content about just being there. Don’t change your work habits. Don’t think you can rest just because you are wearing a big league uniform.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Huck’s words were pinpoint accurate, especially the advice about never changing the work ethic and routine that carried me through college and the minors.
It was a two-hour drive from Tucson to Phoenix. I stayed at a Red Roof Inn on Sunday night, and checked into the Ritz-Carlton on Monday. That, itself, is a microcosm of the enormous differences between the majors and minors. I was nervous, not knowing what to expect, as I walked into the lobby. Fred Uhlman Jr., San Diego’s assistant GM at the time, met me and gave me a contract to sign for a prorated amount of the Major League minimum salary. A player’s income substantially changes when he is placed on the 40-man roster, even when he is still in the minors.
I only had casual clothes, and a small selection since we had been on a short road trip to Tucson. Arizona was the first stop on a 12-game road trip for the Padres. Cincinnati and Los Angeles would follow. I was told that players are required to dress properly on the charter flights. Jeans and collared shirts (like golf shirts) were not going to be allowed. So my next stop was a nearby mall to get sport coats, dress shirts and dress pants for the flights. I had maybe $2,000 to my name, and I told the guy at the department store my situation, and that I needed to mix and match as much as possible since I was on a budget. The clothes would be ready, he said, within 24 hours. That would allow me to pick them up before we left for Cincinnati – after I made my major league debut on the mound.
Later that day, Carlos Reyes (a reliever with the Padres) said he was heading over to the ballpark early and asked me if I wanted to join him. He drove past the security guards to the players’ parking lot and walked me to the visitor’s clubhouse where I saw my locker with a Padres jersey adorned with “Tollberg” on the back. That is a surreal moment, seeing your first Major League jersey, especially for a 27 year old who didn’t get a prolonged chance in high school until my senior year and spent years as an unheralded starter at the University of North Florida, the independent Frontier League Chillicothe Paints and five additional minor league stops.
My first sight of the visitor’s clubhouse at Bank One Ballpark was similar to my experience when I walked in the elegant Ritz-Carlton lobby. I wasn’t at the Red Roof Inn anymore. Compared to the cramped and sparsely furnished locker rooms in the minors, the visitor’s clubhouse at Bank One Ballpark was the Ritz Carlton of clubhouses. The chairs were stylish and cushioned. The locker area where you sat and stored your belongings was wider and more spacious. The walls were lined with multiple TVs, and even the visitor’s clubhouse has several attendants in the majors who bring you anything you need.
I would chart pitches for our starter, Stan Spencer, that night. Randy Johnson was on the mound for the Diamondbacks. The same Randy Johnson who was voted a first ballot Hall of Famer in January 2015. The same Randy Johnson who threw so hard and was so intimidating that some Major Leaguer hitters were visibly nervous when they stepped in the box.
Bank One Ballpark was spacious, lavish and fairly new. It was the Taj Mahal compared to the minor league stadiums to which I was accustomed. I thought about when I played for Chillicothe and the games when stadium workers outnumbered the spectators in the stands. I was literally and figuratively miles and miles from the hills of southwest Ohio, where my pro career was launched.
Kevin Walker, a left-handed reliever, had the adjoining locker and asked if I wanted to throw. I knew Kevin from our time in the minors, and it was nice to see a familiar face who understood all the emotions and thoughts circling through my mind.
I dressed quickly and remembered what Huck said before I left Tucson. Stay focused. Don’t detour from my routine. When I stepped onto the field, I thought about the scene from Bull Durham where Crash Davis tells his minor league teammates that, in the majors, the ballparks are like cathedrals and they play with white balls. I looked all around me and envisioned the energy of the stadium with 30,000 boisterous fans.
“I will be pitching here in 24 hours – pitching for a Major League team, in a Major League stadium against Major League hitters,” I told myself, remembering when I was a boy and my bedroom walls were lined with posters of my favorite big league players. Back then, I never imagined I would ever be where they are professionally, but here I was, wearing a Padres uniform.
I tried my best to act no differently than when I was at Triple-A as far as game preparation. I didn’t want to break my routine. I hoped and prayed I didn’t get knocked out in the first inning the next night. “Trust what I have done,” I told myself. “It has gotten you this far,” I added in a conversation with my mind.
I was in the midst of a light dumbbell workout in the corner of the training room when Trevor Hoffman, the Padres Hall of Fame closer, spoke to the trainer in an intentionally elevated voice. “If you just got called up, would you introduce yourself or big league everyone?” Trevor had an entertaining sense of humor.
That broke the ice. I told him I was just doing what I was told. He laughed and we made our introductions. Dave Smith was the Padres pitching coach. He had a long and successful career as a reliever, mostly with the Houston Astros, and he was my pitching coach in Triple-A back in 1998. That made me feel a little more comfortable since he knew my strengths and weaknesses, understood my tendencies and was confident in what I could do. I met with Dave, manager Bruce Bochy and some other teammates before the game and started getting acclimated to my new experience in the big leagues.
The Padres won the National League pennant two years before and reached the World Series, where they were swept by the New York Yankees. Few players remained from that club, but looking around the clubhouse there were guys any baseball fan would know, like Tony Gwynn, Ryan Klesko, Phil Nevin and Bret Boone. I had played in the minors with a group of guys on the roster, including top prospects like catcher Ben Davis, outfielder Mike Darr and starting pitcher Matt Clement, so there were some familiar faces in the room along with Kevin Walker.
I did the game chart that night. Stan injured his forearm, which incidentally kept him on the disabled list for the remainder of the season. We lost on a walk-off walk, which is a rare occurrence. I called my parents after the game. They confirmed they would arrive at the stadium in time for my first Major League appearance.
The bed at the Ritz-Carlton was more comfortable than any I had ever slept on, which was helpful because the next night I would make my Major League debut against a team that sat atop the National League West standings and would beat the New York Yankees in one of the most memorable World Series ever a year later with mostly the same lineup.
I wanted to close my eyes and open them again the next morning after a sound night of rest, but it wasn’t so simple. The clock was ticking towards a dream that every kid who loves baseball envisions, but few ever get the chance to fulfill. I would be one of the few, and I didn’t want to fail.