Holy Toledo!April 16, 2012
Superstitious ballplayers tend to shy away from having the number 13 stitched on their uniform. But not Wisconsin Timber Rattlers pitcher Tommy Toledo (@TommyToledo13), who wasn’t lucky enough to nab his numeral of choice when he arrived in Appleton.
“I never thought of it being unlucky, I was always number 13 growing up,” said Toledo, an 11th round pick of the Brewers in 2011 who settled on wearing number 14 pitching for Milwaukee’s Class A affiliate. “Every year, I don’t know why, I had it. I was born on the 13th (December) and just kind of ran with it.”
You wouldn’t blame the right-hander if he decided to run as far away from that unlucky digit once he began his professional baseball career. Toledo’s moments in the sun while pitching for the University of Florida were interrupted once by an arm injury and then a second time in a split second blur.
Rewind to the 2010 season and the Gators March 14th game against Charleston Southern. A line drive back to the box belted the young pitcher with such vicious aim it smashed Toledo’s face into bloody submission, a carom so violent the stitch marks from the baseball were tattooed into his skin.
“I’m not the first person to get hit and I won’t be the last,” said Toledo, who seems nonchalant about the incident some two years later. “It’s unfortunate and just bad luck and something I just had to get over.”
Toledo doesn’t shy away from recalling that fateful day on the bump. It has been both motivational and therapeutic, allowing him to return to the pitching mound without reason to pitch in fear.
“It was something I had to learn from, something that had me sidelined for a little bit once again, but it’s just something I had to come back from,” said Toledo.
Toledo’s back-story is more grueling when you consider it was the second year in a row he was sacked from the game he grew up playing constantly as a kid in Tampa. His freshman campaign with the Gators began well but ended with question marks. His location was off and pitch speed in decline thanks to a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Surgery and rehab corrected the flaws in Toledo’s talented arm, but it didn’t prepare him for that game changing moment.
In a blink, the ball left Toledo’s hand, rocketed off the bat of Charleston Southern’s Derek Smith, and collided into Toledo’s unprotected right cheekbone.
“That was the hardest part because I worked hard in the off-season the year before to get back and gain strength in my arm because I had sat out the year before,” said Toledo. “I lost a lot of weight and that was probably the hardest thing for me to come back from. I had to try and gain the weight back again, try to eat right and get back in the weight room.”
Because Toledo had to endure weeks of heeling prior to surgery to repair multiple facial fractures, he stomached milk shakes every day for two months, and was roped off from eating anything of substance. That meant a diet of mashed potatoes, eggs and baked beans while he tried to recoup the 20 pounds he lost waiting to regain a sense of feel in his face.
Despite having metal plates inserted into his right cheek to help stabilize the damage, Toledo bounced back for a second time in his collegiate career, flicking away his fear of being a human target on a pitching rubber 60 feet, six inches away.
“I remember my first time back, it was actually a practice game, an intrasquad game where I was coming back to pitch live again,” recalled Toledo. “I didn’t even think about it, I just wanted to get out there and throw because I was just so tired of sitting on the sidelines. I just wanted to pitch, and I remember the first batter hit a chopper right back to me, but I didn’t even think about it. I gloved it, threw him out at first and that was it.
“I got over it, just like that.”
From there, it was a chance for Toledo to flourish instead of flinch. He was a key cog in the Florida bullpen in 2011, going 6-3 with an ERA of 3.41 in 27 games. Toledo recorded the final out against Mississippi State to send the Gators to the College World Series, a fitting finale for a player who endured so much on and off the field in Gainesville, and a moment that endeared Toledo to stick around the program despite two chances to bolt to the professional ranks.
“I knew I wanted to get a full year of college in and have a good season and the Gators were so amazing…they took care of my surgery and I wanted to give something back to them as well because they gave so much back to me,” said Toledo. “I wanted to get healthy, one hundred percent, and play a full year and have a good season.”
After shaking off an offer to play out of high school when San Diego drafted Toledo in the 3rd round in 2007, he balked at a 2010 32nd round selection by Minnesota. Healthy and happy in 2011, Toledo finally said yes to the Brewers when his name was called.
“I thought it was a great decision because I wanted to get my education,” said Toledo, who needs one semester to get nine more credits to earn his degree in advertising. “I knew I wanted to stay in school and get my education. I could have done it, could have played pro, but I think I made the right decision.”
His first taste of professional baseball included five starting assignments with the Brewers Pioneer League rookie team in Helena. The early plan in Appleton has been to use Toledo out of the bullpen giving the 23-year-old a chance to unleash his best stuff in relief.
“I just want to get out there and throw, so whatever they have in mind for me I have no problems with,” said Toledo. “I would like to start, but I’ll come out of the ‘pen…either way, it doesn’t matter to me because I just love being out there being able to throw. When I came into college I came in relief, so I’ve had a little background in both.
“I attack with the fastball, try and jump ahead of hitters. They know I’m going to go out there and compete, I’m not going to give up.”
On that fateful day on the hill, it was clear to everyone in attendance, including his parents Pete and Lidia, that Toledo was a true gamer…a poster child of perseverance. Knocked down but not out, a courageous Toledo actually exited with little assistance and left the game knowing full well this was only the beginning, not the end.
“That never crossed my mind,” said Toledo. “That’s the one thing my Dad always kept preaching to me was don’t think about it. And I didn’t think about it. I looked in the mirror and saw myself as a baseball player and I never thought that was going to stray me away from the game.”
What could have morphed into a recurring nightmare has instead inspired Tommy Toledo to chase his dream without fear of another unlucky occurrence.
“Right now, I’m already living the dream,” said Toledo. “Making it to the big leagues is definitely my ultimate goal, and I’m still working at it. Given the opportunity to play every day is just an unbelievable experience and that’s my dream, and I’m living it right now.”
(Photos by Brad Krause)
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