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.
The Major League Debut
I had literally made this walk – the walk from the dugout to the pitcher’s mound – thousands of times dating back to when I was playing in the youth baseball league in Bradenton. Yet this was far from a casual stroll at a Boys & Girls Club game where a smattering of parents sat on metal bleachers and the opposing team’s clean-up hitter had mustard on his face and uniform from a hot dog he inhaled in the dugout. This was the majors, and the cleanup hitter I would face was Matt Williams and not an 8-year-old with a mustard-stained shirt.
I felt jittery as I started my warm-up pitches. When the final warm-up pitch was thrown, Carlos delivered a strike to Bret Boone at second base, the ball was thrown around the horn before it was tossed to me by Phil Nevin, our third baseman. Tony Womack was Arizona’s leadoff hitter, and as his name was announced, I walked to the back of the mound, my heart pounding like it never had before.
“This is what a heart attack must feel like,” I thought. Fortunately, I had little to eat back at lunch with Kevin because I also felt like I was about to vomit. I gathered myself, though, because I didn’t want to be on Baseball Tonight for puking on the mound or air mailing a ball far and high from the plate, like Nuke LaLouche hitting the mascot in Bull Durham.
The enormity of what I was about to do hit me. I remembered back to when I was a kid in Bradenton and had posters of Major Leaguers in my room, wanting to be a big leaguer like every other kid who played baseball but never truly envisioning that I would have the talent to perform at the same level where they played.
I stepped on the rubber, looked in at Carlos for the sign and threw my first Major League pitch – a fast ball for a strike. On the next pitch, Tony hit a firm two-hopper to third base. It was a routine grounder, but he was known for his speed and was thrown out by just a step. I immediately realized how much faster the game was at this level.
“Use your defense and just work ahead. Don’t worry about striking everybody out; trust the guys playing behind you to do the work. At this level I can do that,” I told myself. “Strike one. 0-1 every hitter. Strike one, that is all I need.”
One batter, one out. I took a few more deep breathes, and then retired Jay Bell and Luis Gonzalez. As I walked back to the dugout, I thought, “At least I didn’t get knocked out in the first inning and put my team in a huge hole.”
As a starting pitcher, each time you step on the mound you want to give your team at least six strong innings, and seven ideally. On this night, I was focused on one batter at a time, and not looking ahead to the seventh inning. I was immersed in tunnel vision.
I didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning when Steve Finley grounded a single up the middle. Ryan Klesko hit a solo home run in the fourth to give us a 1-0 lead. Ruben Rivera added a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0 in the top of the fifth. In the bottom of the fifth, Travis Lee scored on an unearned run, but Klesko hit another solo shot in the top of the sixth to give us a 3-1 advantage.
With two outs in the fifth, Jay Bell stepped to the plate again. Before the game, when I met Carlos in the bullpen and he prepared me for throwing 10 to 15 change-ups, he also said we would use the shake off a few times.
When you are an established pitcher at your respective level, and you don’t like an offering the catcher calls, you shake your head “no” to decline the sign, and the catcher displays another one. That happens in pro baseball, but there is also the “shake off” when the catcher calls for you to say no to his signal. This causes added uncertainty for the hitter about what you will throw next. As a pitcher, you want the hitter to overthink.
I was ahead in the count with Bell and had two strikes when Carlos called for a shake off. I threw an ideally located fastball on the inside corner. As the umpire rang him up with strike three, Carlos tossed the ball back to the mound and jogged to the dugout. I started walking to the dugout as well when I saw Bell rip off his helmet, bounce it off home plate and argue the called third strike. He was ejected and replaced by Craig Counsell in the Diamondbacks lineup.
As each inning passed, I grew more comfortable and the butterflies subsided. I wasn’t an established Major Leaguer like Woody Williams, so likely Smitty and Bochy would not stick with me for long if I got into trouble, especially with a slim 3-1 lead. I imagine that they expected around five innings from me, and that Donne Wall (one of our long relievers) was told before the game to be ready. You never know what to expect from a pitcher making his Major League debut.
I survived the fifth. Dave Smith approached me in the dugout, put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and asked me how I was feeling. “Fine,” I coolly replied before getting a drink of water and taking a seat. He did the same after the sixth. Following the seventh, with the score still 3-1, I told Smitty, “I have one more inning and then we can turn it over to Hoffy to close it out.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” he said, “But you’re done. Hell of a job tonight.”
As I sat in the dugout, I could see the television cameras in my peripheral vision at both ends of the dugout. The red light on top of the camera beamed brightly, indicating I was on the air. I wanted to look like I belonged, and I didn’t want to do anything embarrassing, so I kept my game face and watched as we batted in the top of the eighth.
I looked at the scoreboard and noticed my pitching line: seven innings, one unearned run, one hit, seven strikeouts, three walks. “Wow, I only gave up one hit?” I thought. I was in hyperfocus on the mound and even in the dugout when I was pitching, and I didn’t even realize the score or how many hits I had allowed.
Kevin Walker entered in the bottom of the eighth and retired the Diamondbacks in order. Stottlemyre pitched well, limiting us to three runs (two earned) and six hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks over 7.2 innings. Arizona relievers Dan Plesac and Matt Mantei kept the score 3-1 as Trevor Hoffman entered in the bottom of the ninth.
Trevor gave up a leadoff double to Luis Gonzalez before getting two quick outs. With the tying run at the plate, I knew that a win in my Major League debut would be erased with a home run. My heart pounded again as Trevor pitched to Greg Colbrunn, getting ahead in the count before striking him out with his trademark change-up.
As the team exchanged high fives in the middle of the field, Trevor collected the ball from Carlos as he always did when he recorded a save. He typically kept the ball, but on this night, he reached out and handed me the ball. A game ball from future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman was a nice end to my first appearance as a big leaguer. Bruce Bochy, our manager, playfully said, “Where the hell has this guy been?”
While walking off the field, I was stopped by representatives from the Padres and Diamondbacks broadcasting crews. I was named “Player of the Game” and they wanted an interview. “Of course,” I answered somewhat stunned.
I looked up above the dugout and saw my parents, brother and friends. They were beaming with ear-to-ear grins. I thought of all the conversations my dad and I shared over the years talking about this very moment.
All I ever remembered wanting as a young boy was to play Major League Baseball. I don’t know if the dream happened first and my dad enhanced it with encouragement, playing catch and giving me a push when needed; or if the dream stemmed from my dad’s enthusiasm and support of a game I loved. All I know is that I loved playing baseball more than any other activity or sport. I was never the best hitter or pitcher on any of my teams – from youth baseball all the way through high school, college, the minors and the majors – but I achieved success through discipline, resilience and fundamentals mixed with talent that was cultivated with hours and hours of preparation and practice. All of that was instilled by my dad. Without his presence, my baseball career might not have extended beyond Bradenton.
I was excited about sharing those thoughts with my dad, but beforehand I needed to take part in the two interviews and head to the clubhouse. I asked a security guard to escort my family to the tunnel outside the clubhouse so I could spend time with them before getting showered and dressed.
The interviews were fun and rewarding because I could take a breath, relax and reflect on what I had just accomplished. I also saw how difficult it was to talk with a headset on, since you hear your voice as you are talking and it is very easy to lose your train of thought. I returned to the clubhouse to put ice on my right arm, and a group of 10 media members were waiting by my locker. In Triple-A, there was one, maybe two, writers awaiting a player’s comments. On this day, reporters from newspapers, radio stations and TV stations wanted to talk.
“Boch” handed me the lineup card as another souvenir from my debut, and before I spoke to the media, I excused myself for a moment so I could say hello to my family. I talked to them for a minute, and they briefly recounted their favorite highlights from the game. I mentioned that I needed to get back to the clubhouse for the interviews, and to get showered and changed, and that I would meet them out in the tunnel so we could determine where we would go for dinner.
After I answered all of the media’s questions and took care of everything else in the clubhouse, I returned to the tunnel and gave my dad the game ball and the lineup card. My dad was enthused about meeting Tony Gwynn as Tony left the locker room. Tony didn’t play that night. He was 40 and hampered with injuries, yet he still managed to bat .323 in 140 plate appearances before hitting .324 in 112 plate appearances the next year, his 20th and final big league season.
While talking with my family and friends recounting the night’s events, Ryan Klesko pushed out a bucket of ice with a bottle of Dom Perignon chilling inside to celebrate my first Major League win. That bottle remains unopened to this day, a lasting memory from an unforgettable night.
After I showered, my family and a buddy from high school who had been interning for the Las Vegas team had dinner at the TGI Friday’s inside Bank One Ballpark. I don’t remember what I ordered, but I do recall watching ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and viewing the clips from our game. They showed a few of my strikeouts, Ryan Klesko’s home runs and Jay Bell’s ejection. After the highlights, the final results (runs, hits, errors) appeared on the screen along with the winning and losing pitcher.
W – Brian Tollberg (1-0)
L – Todd Stottlemyre (8-5)
I sat there glancing at the TV and gained more affirmation. I had indeed finally achieved my dream of reaching the big leagues, and I earned the win in my debut.
“It’s easy to get here but hard to stay.” Those words from Huck remained my motivation. I caught the attention of the Padres front office, Bruce Bochy and Dave Smith with what I think anyone would call a respectable first start. Yet one win does not translate to a long-term Major League roster spot, and I had two more starts to make it a difficult decision to send me back to Las Vegas when Woody Williams was ready.
I celebrated the moment with my family. Now it was time for my first big league road trip, and my second Major League start that awaited in Cincinnati.