Minor Leaguer takes tools to every position
Indians' Class A utility man Toole plays nine positions in one nine-inning game
Nights like last Saturday aren't supposed to happen for guys like Justin Toole.
Baseball's often-cruel existence rewards certain players with an unforgettable day every once in a while. (A pitcher will throw a no-hitter. A slugger will hit three home runs.)
But for a life-long utility man like Toole, from Cleveland's Class A Carolina Mudcats, baseball is generally resigned to playing wherever he's needed, whenever he's needed, with little glory.
Last Saturday, however, was Toole's version of a perfect game, when he played all nine positions -- including pitcher -- in one game.
"You get a bit of attention for being good at something that you don't really get a lot of recognition for," said Toole, who didn't commit an error at any position in his club's 4-2 win over Salem. "It's definitely something that I think makes baseball unique. It's cool being the utility guy, and being able to showcase that."
It takes a special player to be able to play all nine positions in a single game. In the history of Major League Baseball, only four players -- Bert Campaneris, Cesar Tovar, Scott Sheldon and Shane Halter -- have done so.
For Sheldon, it was a reward for all the hard work in the Minors, where he made himself as versatile as possible to make a big league roster.
"In my situation, I think it was more of a celebration of a long-time Minor Leaguer that was willing to do anything he could, including learning a catcher position, to get to the big leagues," Sheldon said. "It was a celebration and a showcase of what I could actually do."
The feat is a bit more common in the Minor Leagues, because of its entertainment value. But it's still incredibly rare.
Perhaps no one knows the type of player capable of the feat better than Mudcats manager Edwin Rodriguez, who also managed the Marlins in parts of 2010 and '11. Rodriguez estimates he's had five players play all nine positions under his management, including current A's outfielder Jonny Gomes.
"They have to be athletes, and they have to be guys that have a love for the game," Rodriguez said, when asked what kind of player he looks for.
Generally, the pitching aspect isn't an issue, Rodriguez said, because most of the players who attempt the feat have pitched before -- either in college or at a lower level. It's the catching, he said, that can be the trickiest part.
For Gomes, the memory of his doing so is a special one, he said, given how hard it is to play one position -- let alone nine.
"It's cool just to separate yourself a little bit," Gomes said. "It's actually really hard to play every position or any position. There are some Gold Glove first basemen that couldn't play the outfield if their lives depended on it."
Athleticism has always been a part of Toole's game, even if top-tier talent hasn't been. He spent his first two seasons at the University of Iowa as a middle infielder and a relief pitcher, and upon his arrival in the Indians system quickly learned first base, third base and outfield.
Even though Toole is hitting just .232 this season, it's no secret that his versatility and his do-anything mindset are helping him stay afloat as a 25-year-old Minor Leaguer. Of course, that isn't a knock on Toole by any means, as utility men play vital roles on every big league roster.
Pointing to himself as an example, Sheldon said Toole could have a bright future ahead of him because of the niche he has carved.
"If he's able to play all of those positions, it's just going to help add to his resume in potentially getting a big league job," Sheldon said. "That's what managers look for and need in many cases."
Before he even met Justin Toole, Rodriguez hatched a plan for the night that he would eventually dub "Toole Time."
In his first season with the Indians organization, Rodriguez arrived at spring training and was told of Toole's versatility.
"Edwin, this season, made a joke at the beginning of the season that I would be playing all nine positions in a game," Toole said. "I thought he was joking."
By August, Rodriguez had begun laying out a Little League-esque spreadsheet denoting who would be playing where in which innings.
"They had a 'Toole Tracker' on the big screen, they had a very nice graphic of where he was going to be playing that specific inning, and the fans were all into it," Rodriguez said. "The players, they were definitely all into it. We all had a lot of fun."
Typically, that's how it works. The event is planned precisely and then executed. Detroit's Shane Halter completed the feat on the final day of the 2000 season, and manager Phil Garner had the entire day planned out.
But that wasn't the case for Sheldon, 25 days earlier. He and manager Johnny Oates had discussed it, but the plan was to do it at home, later in the season.
The Rangers, however, found themselves behind, 10-1, in a game against the White Sox in the second inning of a meaningless September contest.
"He looked down at the end of the bench and said hey, you want to do it now?" Sheldon said of Oates.
Two innings later, Sheldon was catching. Then he was at first base. Then he was at second base. And, eventually, he was in the history books.
By and large, the pitching aspect is the one players most look forward to on game day. To this day, Sheldon claims bragging rights over Halter because of his strikeout, compared with Halter's walk.
But it was catching that had Toole on edge before his feat.
"I had never really done it before, except for a handful of times in my life," said Toole, who worked several bullpen sessions both as a pitcher and a catcher before his big night. "I was nervous about it."
To his credit, he worked a clean frame behind the plate. Then, in the ninth, he allowed two solo home runs, before striking out two hitters to preserve a 4-2 Mudcats victory.
For Buster Posey, who accomplished the feat at Florida State, ironically enough first base was the toughest position.
"I think the kicker is, you have to be able to catch," said Posey, who now plays plenty of first base for the Giants. "Because I don't think [coach] is going to throw a regular center fielder behind the plate."
When Tovar accomplished the feat for the Twins in 1968, he got the start on the mound, and moved to catcher in the second inning after a scoreless first. He went 1-for-3.
Campaneris, the first to accomplish the feat in 1965 with the A's, began his quest at shortstop. He went 0-for-3 and was the only one of the four to make an error, doing so in what would be his only game in right field of a 19-year career.
Halter had undoubtedly the best game of the four, going 4-for-5 with three RBIs. He scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth of a 12-11 Tigers victory.
Sheldon, who essentially only played a half of a game, notched one hit in two at-bats. Does Sheldon think anyone will be joining his exclusive club?
"It takes a special set of circumstances for it to happen in the Major Leagues," said Sheldon. "There are traditionalists in the game that may frown on it, or may not care for it too much."
For a utility man not used to the spotlight, the next few days can become tiresome.
"I got home that night, and I was pretty amped up, and I had a little bit of trouble going to bed," Toole said. "The next couple days, you start to feel the effects of it. You're tired and a little worn out from all the excitement."
But despite the after-effects, Toole cemented himself in a very exclusive club. It's a club he said he had never thought of until he saw Posey's accomplishment.
Sheldon faded into relative anonymity, playing 61 games the following season before heading back to the Minors for good. Halter played four more seasons, but hit below .240 in three of them.
Such is the fleeting nature of a utility man. They hustle, they grind, they fight, and they rarely produce anything for the baseball record books -- except for Campaneris, Tovar, Sheldon and Halter, and a handful of Minor Leaguers.
"Good power hitters put up good power numbers, pitchers that throw hard get a lot of strikeouts," Toole said. "For guys like me that are the utility player, we're the guys that fly under the radar."
Not last Saturday. Nine innings, nine positions, one game -- for a utility man, that's as good as it gets.
"We're not the guys that get a lot of attention," Toole said. "When you get to do something like this, it's pretty cool."