Brian Tollberg Book: “The Long-Awaited Day” chapter

The Long-Awaited Day

 

“It’s easy to get here but hard to stay.”

 

I thought about Huck’s words of advice when I woke up on Tuesday, June 20, 2000 – the day I would make my Major League debut. My road to this moment had been long and challenging. It started the moment I left Bradenton for a 16-hour drive to the hills of southern Ohio, where my professional baseball career was launched in Chillicothe. There, I made $500 a month, lived with a farmer and his family, and helped teammates tend the ballpark grounds and the farmer care for his crops.

 

My professional baseball resume read like this:

 

  • One year in the independent Frontier League (1994, with the Chillicothe Paints)
  • One year in Single-A (1995, with the Beloit Snappers after I was signed to affiliated baseball by the Milwaukee Brewers)
  • Two and a half seasons in Double-A (1996, with the El Paso Diablos; and, after I was traded to the San Diego Padres, 1997 and part of 1998, with the Mobile Bay Bears)
  • The equivalent of two seasons in Triple-A (part of 1998, all of 1999 and part of 2000 with the Las Vegas Stars)

Through those years, I existed on no more than $1,700 a month (my Triple-A salary), shared tiny apartments with teammates who shared my big league ambitions, endured exhaustive road trips in cramped buses, typically subsisted on lousy diner food. I spent periods rehabbing from injuries and watching as other teammates were called up to the majors while I remained in Triple-A. Today, it was finally my turn. After all those years focusing on a goal that was not guaranteed, I would live a dream I first envisioned when I was playing t-ball on a dusty field back in Bradenton. I would step on the mound at Bank One Ballpark in a few hours and face the Arizona Diamondbacks as a Major League pitcher.

 

After waking up, taking a shower and getting dressed, I read an array of faxes that were brought to my room. It was 2000, so this was years before it was common for everyone to carry a laptop and a smart phone wherever they went. The faxes were from family members, friends, and college and minor league teammates congratulating me on getting called up and wishing me well in my debut.

 

This was the most exhilarating and uneasy day of my life. I was simultaneously excited and uncertain. Would I be good enough to succeed at this level? Would I embarrass myself or others who believe in me?

 

I didn’t want to humiliate myself, get knocked out in the first inning and have people say, “Well, at least you got to pitch in a major league game.” The club was giving me three starts to see if I belonged in the majors long-term. When it was time for Woody Williams to return from his rehab stint, I wanted to create a favorable impression for the Padres before they optioned me to Triple-A.

 

 

Remembering how hard I had worked for this promotion provided some comfort and inspiration.  I had earned this promotion. Luck did not bring me here. The Padres organization believed I could handle it or they wouldn’t have called me up. I centered my mind on that thought so I could effectively focus on the rest of the day. I couldn’t afford doubt. It was hours until game time, but luckily I had other tasks to occupy my mind.

 

When I left Las Vegas for Tucson, it was a four-day trip, and had four collared shirts and two pair of jeans in my suitcase.  I would soon have an expanded and more stylish wardrobe since the clothes I had requested at Macy’s the previous day were ready.

 

The mall was located across the street from the hotel, so I walked over and met with my personal shopper. The fact that I was working with a “personal shopper” felt amusing since I didn’t even have a sport coat or suit back in Las Vegas. I smiled as I glimpsed in the mirror while trying on the suit jackets, pants and shirts selected by the personal shopper. “Yes, I have worked hard to earn the part, now I look the part too,” I thought.

I gathered the choices to stock my new wardrobe, thanked him and returned to the hotel where I was meeting Kevin Walker for lunch.

 

Hanging out with Kevin not only took my mind off the pit in my stomach that gradually escalated as the hours before game time ticked away. Lunch gave us a chance to get caught up since he was promoted to the majors earlier in the season. I sought to absorb as many details from him as possible about life as a major league pitcher on and off the field.

 

Kevin talked about his debut, and described how he was performing well so far. We talked for an hour, but I had little to eat because of the butterflies. My pay scale for meal money was significantly upgraded as a big leaguer. In the minors, players receive around $21 per day for food. In the majors, it was close to $100 a day. I had $1,200 of meal money in my pocket for the remainder of the road trip, so I figured it would be appropriate to pay for Kevin’s lunch.

 

I pulled out my wallet, but our server informed us that “the gentleman in the corner” had taken care of the bill.  We turned in the direction she was pointing and saw Ryan Klesko, the Padres’ veteran first baseman, and his girlfriend sitting in a booth.  He nodded to us and we thanked him for his generosity before walking back to the hotel.

 

For the next few hours, I sat in my room collecting my thoughts. “Don’t change what got you here,” I told myself. I was locked in all season at Triple-A. I felt confident about my pitches, and my mental and physical preparation. There was no need to change anything now. Execute pitches and throw strikes, change speeds, keep hitters off balance and command both sides of the plate. That recipe was effective against the guys I faced in Triple-A. Though I would soon be pitching against players whose baseball cards I owned in my collection back home, I wasn’t about to adjust my starting day routine, pre-game preparation or in-game approach.

 

 

 

I didn’t go early to the field on days that I pitched in the minors, so I decided to stick to the same routine on this day, even though it was my first start in the majors. I was religious about my routines, especially on the days I pitched.

 

Just as there are two vans that take players from the hotel to the ballpark in the minors, there are two buses that transport you from a grander hotel to a lavish stadium in the majors. I took the second bus and arrived at Bank One Ballpark three hours before the first pitch.

 

This was a special day, and I wanted to soak in every moment while not deviating from my routine. I introduced myself to a few new teammates with whom I didn’t talk the previous day, put on my uniform, walked down a tunnel and stepped onto the field. Like I did the night before, I envisioned the stands packed with boisterous fans. It was Fireworks Night at Bank One Ballpark, and they were expecting around 30,000 spectators. I wondered how it would feel to have the attention of that many people directed right at me on the mound. The largest crowd I had ever pitched in front of at that point was about 10,000 in Triple-A.

 

I joined my teammates who were stretching by the on-deck circle while the Diamondbacks took batting practice. The scoreboard posted each team’s starting lineup, and it read, “Brian Tollberg: Making His Major League Debut.”

 

Trevor Hoffman, who was stretching nearby, looked up at the scoreboard, read what it said and told me, “You’re making your big league debut? Good luck with that!” Not only was Trevor one of the greatest closers in baseball history, but he also led by example with his preparation for the game, how he handled disappointment and the way he communicated with his teammates. His sense of humor keeps the atmosphere loose, and that light-hearted comment made me laugh and calmed my nerves, if only for a moment.

 

Most baseball players are superstitious, and I was no different. I maintained a ritual that supported my success (or perhaps my success supported the ritual). I didn’t want to mess with the possibility of throwing off my game because I had unnecessarily changed part of my routine.  “This is like any other game that I had pitched this year,” I tried to convince myself. “You are just taking the mound at a major league stadium instead of a ballpark in the Pacific Coast League in Triple-A.

 

Back in the clubhouse after stretching and batting practice, I took a seat in front of my locker. “This is just any other game,” I continued in my mind as I read an old pitching book written by Nolan Ryan. The pages were weathered and worn from all the times I flipped through studying photos that detailed picture-perfect mechanics. I bookmarked the most important sections.

 

Headphones covered my ears as I listened to my usual pre-game music mix that included groups like Metallica, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Korn. Perhaps there were guys here and there who listened to country music or something more relaxing, but this was no time for easy listening music. My routine featured hard rock that would pump my adrenaline.

 

I shifted my attention from Nolan Ran’s pitching book to the scouting report since I had never faced any of the Diamondbacks hitters. The lineup was formidable:

  1. Tony Womack, SS
  2. Jay Bell, 2B
  3. Luis Gonzalez, LF
  4. Matt Williams, 3B
  5. Steve Finley, CF
  6. Greg Colbrunn, 1B
  7. Travis Lee, RF
  8. Kelly Stinnett, C
  9. Todd Stottlemyre, SP

About 20 minutes before the first pitch, I walked to the bullpen and spoke to pitching coach Dave Smith and our starting catcher, Carlos Hernandez, about strategy. “Smitty” was familiar with my assortment of pitches, my mechanics and my mental makeup since he previously coached me at Las Vegas. This was the first time I talked to Carlos, who was in his 10th major league season and would be traded to the St. Louis Cardinals at that deadline that July.

 

“What pitches do you throw?” Carlos asked.

“Curveball, two-seam fast ball, four-seam fast ball, slider and change-up,” I responded.

“How many change-ups do you throw in a game?”

“On average, about five,” I answered.  That was probably three more than I really threw. A change-up is important because it keeps hitters off-balance, but I admit that the change-up was my least effective pitch. I wasn’t overly confident with my change-up.

 

“Tonight,” Carolos said’  “you’re going to throw between 10 and 15 change-ups.  This is a good fastball hitting team and I want to keep you out of trouble.  They don’t have video on you, but I still want you to keep guys honest. You OK with that?”

 

He was right for two reasons: First, they wouldn’t get familiar with my selection of pitches until around the third or fourth inning, and I needed something to fall back on when I reached that point in the game.  Second, when pitching for the first time in the big leagues, it is natural to feel nervous.  If I found myself behind in the count 3-0, I would need to throw a change-up and surprise the batter.

 

This wasn’t the first time Carlos had caught a pitcher making his Major League debut. He is from Venezuela, signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers as an international free agent when he was 17, made his Major League debut with the Dodgers in 1990 and spent seven seasons with them, mostly as a backup. He finally got his chance as a starting catcher when he signed with the Padres as a free agent before the 1998 season. It was ideal timing since he was part of San Diego’s National League pennant winning club that lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series. Carlos was a well-respected and accomplished veteran, and I appreciated his guidance.

 

As game time grew closer, the reality of the situation exploded in my mind, and the butterflies became more prominent. The stadium was buzzing with 30,000 fans; the smells of hot dog and pretzels were evident. I thought of all the times when I attended games as a spectator, looked out onto the field and dreamed of a day when I would be out there with a big league uniform. That dream was about to be realized, but instead of excitement, I felt nauseous – like I was going to be sick.

 

Usually, I felt relaxed before a start, but I had trouble throwing strikes while warming up in the bullpen. I saw my brother, Jeremy, taking photos above me in the stands, and I knew that my family and friends were in the seats in the front row above the Padres dugout.

 

After throwing my last warmup pitch, I grabbed my jacket and headed to the dugout. “Focus on strike one and working ahead – just like you did back at Las Vegas, and just like you have always done back in high school, the University of North Florida, Chillicothe and all the other minor league stops.”

 

This wasn’t any other game, I finally admitted, but I had to treat it mentally and strategically like I did on every previous mound I had pitched.

 

When I approached the dugout, I saw my parents and smiled. If nothing else, at least they have great seats, I thought.

I took my seat in the dugout and watched as Todd Stottlemyre took the mound for the Diamondbacks. He entered the game with an 8-4 record and was known for being a fiercely intense competitor. I looked at the scoreboard and saw our lineup:

 

  1. Eric Owens, RF
  2. Al Martin, LF
  3. Ryan Klesko, 1B
  4. Phil Nevin, 3B
  5. Carlos Hernandez, C
  6. Bret Boone, 2B
  7. Ruben Rivera, CF
  8. Damian Jackson, SS
  9. Brian Tollberg, SP

I only had a few minutes to sit in the dugout. Stottlemyre retired the side in order in the top half of the first, and it was time for me to step on the mound for the first time as a Major League pitcher. The moment I had worked for since making that drive from Bradenton to Chillicothe six years before was finally here.

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