Toole Uses All of His To Play All Nine Positions In a Night
By Mike Brandyberry
Little Leaguers and boys in the backyard always dream of playing all over the field and having the ball hit to them all night long. Few get the opportunity, and even fewer get the chance to do it professionally.
For Cleveland Indians minor leaguer Justin Toole, Saturday night was a reward and tribute to his versatility.
“At the beginning of the season he and the Indians told me he could play everywhere,” Mudcats Manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “Originally, I thought, ‘yeah right,’ but after working with him, he really could play anywhere.”
Toole, a utility infielder in the Indians system playing most of his season with the High-A Carolina Mudcats, played all nine positions for one inning each on Saturday night during a 4-2 Mudcats victory against the Salem Red Sox. He has had brief stints this year at both Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus, but has played in 77 games in Carolina, hitting .236, while playing five different positions before Saturday evening. Toole’s chance to play all nine positions started with a promise from Rodriguez.
“At the beginning of the season Edwin told me if I was still here at the end of the season, I’d have a chance to play all nine in a game,” Toole said. “He said he’s done it before with guys.”
Toole, a Council Bluffs, Iowa, native, was excited for the chance, especially since he says he didn’t go the easy route to being a professional. The Cleveland Indians in July 2009 signed him as a non-drafted free agent after he broke his arm during his senior year at Iowa. He was third team All-Big Ten from 2007-09, but had to prove his value and health briefly in an independent league before the Indians signed him.
Going through that helped build his versatility on the field, well in advance of Saturday’s opportunity. Then, after being given the promise at the start of the season, it was just a matter of when the chance would be there.
“Rodriguez told me about a week ago, and he said Saturday was Fan Appreciation Day, so it seemed as good a day as any,” Toole said. “We said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
“I wanted to find a way to reward him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been so valuable to the Mudcats and this organization this year I felt he deserved the reward.”
Rodriguez claims he has done this in the minor leagues about six times with players. The most notable player to complete the feat is, now Oakland Athletics, Jonny Gomes. Gomes and Rodriguez completed the nine-positions, in nine-innings feat when they were in the Tampa Bay Rays organization together.
Before Saturday, the only positions Toole had not played professionally were right field, center field and catcher. Rodriguez was clear that if Toole wanted to play all nine positions, he would have to practice where he was going to play, including catching bullpen sessions. Toole says he caught five innings during a college summer league game after his freshman year, but hadn’t caught before that since he was 10 or 11.
“I caught some bullpens in Potomac and Myrtle Beach,” Toole said. “It was one of those examples of practice being more difficult than the game, because I struggled during practice, but the game was better.”
Toole caught relief pitcher Rob Nixon, who struck out two hitters, helping Toole record two of his three putouts on the night. He started the night in right field and moved across the outfield before heading to first base in the fourth inning. He didn’t have a play in the field until the fifth inning, when he caught a pop-up and made a play on a groundball at second base, his most natural position.
After the first play, the ball kept finding him, as he made plays on groundballs at shortstop and third base in the sixth and seventh innings, respectively. Toole caught the eighth inning, then had to hit in the bottom half of the inning before warming up to pitch the final frame.
“I led off the bottom of the eighth inning and swung at the first pitch,” Toole said. “I grounded out to third quickly and got lucky with (Giovanny Urshela) hitting a home run and a couple guys working deep counts to give me time to warm up.”
Tribe farmhand Urshela hit two home runs during the game, helping spot the Mudcats a 4-0 lead before Toole took to the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning to try and close out the game. In 2005, he was the Class 4A Pitcher of the Year in Iowa and pitched in relief as a freshman and sophomore at Iowa before becoming the starting second baseman. Toole even pitched a scoreless inning at Kinston in 2010 as a professional.
“I didn’t really know what to think, having thrown an inning in Kinston,” Toole said. “I always joke around with the pitchers and remind them of my inning and tell them I don’t think pitching is that tough.”
Toole retired the first hitter on a fly out to right field. What he didn’t realize until the ball was hit was that Nixon, the eighth inning relief pitcher, was playing right field.
“I had no idea it was him out there until I saw him circling around it,” Toole said.
Nixon, who made the play, remained in the game so that he easily could return to the mound if the outcome of the game was in jeopardy. Nixon might have been close to returning to the mound, because Toole proceeded to give up back-to-back solo home runs to Salem Red Sox players Drew Hedman and Sean Coyle.
“They were absolute bombs,” Toole said. “If you get behind batters you have to throw fastball, and I put them right down the middle and they took advantage.” Toole says his fastball probably only tops out in the mid-80s.
After receiving a mound visit from pitching coach, and 15-year Major League veteran, Scott Erickson, Toole settled down.
“He came out and the whole infield came in, half as a joke,” Toole said. “But he kinda said, ‘Why don’t you try to keep the ball down,’ and he was right. Sunday he said I made him look like a genius.”
“The crowd was going crazy when I got to two strikes,” Toole said. “Some of the guys said they thought it was the loudest they’d heard the park all year.”
With the game official and the feat complete, Toole is impressed and admiring of his feat, not from the personal standpoint, but from the team aspect.
“It was cool with Jordan Cooper pitching so well, Giovanny hitting two home runs and Delvi Cid doubling off the wall during the game,” Toole said. “It was fun to accomplish something like this while winning and doing it in the team aspect.”
Even the Salem Red Sox admired Toole’s feat as it was still happening.
“Guys on the other team said some nice things,” Toole said. “A couple of them had some nice words for me when they came to the plate and I was catching.”
Most importantly, his teammates were supportive and enjoyed the evening, too.
“We had everything mapped out in advance, where guys would play when,” Toole said. “I think guys had fun, because some of them got to play out of position and in different spots for an inning or two, too.”
A fun night for Toole, his teammates, coupled with a win and a cheering crowd; just like in your mind when you’re playing in the backyard or Little League.
Photo: Tom Miller/Carolina Mudcats