"I did some things that even a lot of people who believed in me and loved me didn’t think I could do.”
In sports, just like in life, you have to take advantage of the opportunities when they’re presented to you. You never know when you may have just one chance to capitalize on a situation that can change the course of your life.
Padres pitcher Brian Tollberg seized his opportunity to become a major leaguer about as well as you could expect and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’ to tell his tale.
Tollberg pitched at the University of North Florida and drew slight interest from the big leagues, but ultimately went undrafted. He began the first step in what he likes to call his “scenic route” to the majors when he accepted a role pitching for the Chillicothe Paints in the upstart independent Frontier League.
The league, which is thriving today, was then in just its second season and had no reputation for developing major league talent – because, well, it just hadn’t been around long enough.
Tollberg took advantage of that opportunity and after one fantastic season in Chillicothe, he signed with the Brewers as a free agent. After going to the Padres in a minor league trade in 1997, Tollberg worked his way up to AAA. In 2000, he was 6-0 with a 2.83 ERA through 13 starts for the Las Vegas Stars, when the majors came calling.
The Padres planned to send Woody Williams down to AAA for three starts to stretch himself out, and Tollberg was going to be the pitcher temporarily plugged into Williams’ place in the rotation for those three starts.
But, as we know, the best laid plans so often go awry; and Tollberg threw a monkey wrench into the situation.
Tollberg took the mound for his big league debut against Matt Williams, Luis Gonzalez, and the first place Diamondbacks and threw seven one-hit innings on the way to a 3-1 win.
Start two was slated for Cincinnati, where he was going to face Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin, Dante Bichiette, and a Reds team that was stacked with hitters. Tollberg carried a shut-out into the eighth inning in that start, on the way to a 5-4 win.
Tollberg was named Player of the Game in each of his first two starts and was named National League Player of the Week his first week in the majors. He parlayed his three-start tryout into four big league seasons. Talk about taking advantage of the opportunity presented to you.
In addition, Tollberg was the first player from the Frontier League to make it to the major leagues and to this day, the award for the league’s best pitcher is called the Brian Tollberg Award.
His path to the majors is a great lesson for all young players out there and an inspiring read for baseball fans of all ages, so please join us as we go Spitballin’ with Brian Tollberg.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Tollberg! I don’t think we’ve ever had someone on Spitballin’ who has had a major professional baseball award named after him, so that’s exciting. But before we get into that, let’s go back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?
I started playing tee ball at the Boys & Girls Club in Hollywood, Florida at five years old and then took a step up to Little League after that. I always loved the camaraderie. It’s a little slower-paced game than basketball or football and that paired well with how I was built mentally. I moved to Bradenton, Florida when I was in third grade and continued playing there. I was a Red Sox fan back then. Roger Clemens was someone who I admired and offensively, I admired Wade Boggs. I got a chance later in my career to meet those guys at some functions. It was a great experience knowing that as a kid, I had their posters on my wall and now I was golfing with them.
We lived on a corner lot in Bradenton, and my dad would come home from work at about 5:30 in the afternoon from his hour-and-a-half commute from Clearwater and I would be sitting at the door waiting with my glove, wanting to play catch. I would work on my pitches and play these accuracy games. I have a lot of friends who had that as a recurring memory for them; me and my dad playing catch on the sidewalk all the time. I liked working on the aspects of getting better. It wasn’t necessarily the gameplay that excited me.
June 20, 2000: San Diego Padres starter Brian Tollberg works the fourth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix. This was Tollberg's first major league start and the Padres won 3-1. (Photo: MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty Images)
Your path to the majors was pretty unconventional, making the jump from independent ball after your career at Manatee High and North Florida. Did you have any teams interested in drafting you before you went the indy ball route?
I played for Dusty Rhodes at North Florida and he’s very highly regarded in the baseball world. We had some guys my sophomore and junior year get drafted pretty high. When I was a junior, Todd Dunn, one of our outfielders, was drafted in the first round. I was the ace of our staff, and a lot of times I would pitch eight innings on Friday and then close on Sunday. I didn’t have the best numbers because my arm was fatigued being utilized that way.
I thought I might have some interest. I didn’t think I would be a high draft pick by any means, but maybe a later round. My coach told me the same thing, but also told me about this new league starting in Ohio called the Frontier League. A couple of my teammates were going up to the tryout and he told me I should go as well. I wasn’t going to go up to the tryout, but my mother told me I would never know unless I tried. I ended up being the only one of the group to make the team. After the fact, my college coach said the White Sox were interested in signing me as a free agent, but he told them I was committed to the Frontier League.
I have a couple of questions about the Frontier League. First, what were those first days of playing for the Paints like?
I was very happy getting my start there with the Chillicothe Paints in Ohio. I learned some of the finer points and when I got into affiliated ball, I was better for that. It was the second year of the league’s existence and I don’t think any of those original teams are still in that league. They have all graduated up to bigger metropolitan markets. It was a place to focus on the game and I was making $500 a month, pre-tax. I had a little bit of cockiness and told them I was there to get out of there. They told me that was exactly what they wanted, as well. They said they were trying to promote the league and grow it and if guys got signed out of the league, it would help that team and the league overall. The manager was Roger Hanners, and his son Chris was the owner. They were super nice. The front office was fantastic and so was the host family I lived with. Everyone was there for the betterment of our experience. They would cook for us and barbecue after games. I had never been to Ohio before and was planning on going back if I didn’t get signed the next season.
They said, “We know it’s not your day to do the pitching chart, but if you do it for us today, you can go pitch in the big leagues on Tuesday.”
But you did end up getting signed and it began a path to the majors that you mention as “the scenic route.” It took five seasons and there were a lot of ups and downs. Were there times you had to overcome doubt or even thought about giving it up? Or were you so focused on making it?
Baseball is a game of failure, so everyone deals with that from one time to another. I was never the best player on any team I ever played on. My dad would always tell me (that) when I moved up, I would struggle for the first year, but then figure out how to win the next year. My second year of AAA, I had a great year. I was second in the organization in strikeouts to Matt Clement, who was one of their top prospects. I went and played in Puerto Rico that winter and overextended myself a little bit. I didn’t give myself time to recover before spring training in 1999 and never felt right. I partially tore my UCL early in that season and saw a lot of guys get big league opportunities from that AAA team I would have been on. Mentally, that was one of the hardest times for me.
You eventually did get your chance and took advantage of it for sure. Let’s start with your call up in June of 2000. How did you find out you were going up to the Padres?
We were in Tucson on a four-day road trip. I was third in the PCL in pitching and felt I was pitching as well as I could pitch. My thought was to finish strong and hope to get a big league spring training invitation the next year. It was Father’s Day and I had already called my dad that morning using my calling card to wish him a happy Father’s Day. I always went to the park early to get my running and throwing done before it got hot, so I was at the ballpark. I got dressed and the pitching coach called me into the office saying he had a question about the pitching charts. I thought nothing of it, went into the office and he closed the door. It was a Sunday and the manager, hitting coach and trainer were in there too. I had been traded before and the room had that kind of vibe to it. They said, “We know it’s not your day to do the pitching chart, but if you do it for us today, you can go pitch in the big leagues on Tuesday.”
Brian Tollberg #55 of the San Diego Padres throws a pitch during a game against the Chicago Cubs at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The Padres defeated the Cubs 6-5. (Photo: Harry How /Allsport)
That’s a pretty incredible way to find out you’re going up! I love it. What were your immediate thoughts when you found out?
There had been plenty of people from years past who (had) said to wait by the hotel phone because I was getting called up and that never happened. I didn’t want to get my hopes up prematurely, so I asked if it was a done deal. They said Woody Williams needed to get sent down to get stretched out and I was taking his spot for three starts and I was coming back down. I was elated. I went out and tried to keep my cool. My roommate was there and he asked me what they wanted. I shook my head and said, “Nothing, it was no big deal.” Then he said, “Come on, what did they want?” I told him I was going to the big leagues and he yelled out to everyone about it. I went to a concourse payphone and tried to call my parents, but it was busy. I called my college coach and talked to him, I called my agent and talked to him. Then I tried my dad and it was busy again. I went out and ran about 20 poles to get the energy out.
I am guessing eventually you got a hold of your parents?
Yes, I went back up to the concourse and first I saw the old play-by-play announcer from when I was in Single A in the Brewers organization and got to tell him. Then I got my dad on the phone and he asked why I was calling back since I had already called him that morning. My parents were my biggest supporters growing up, so to be able to get them on the phone and tell them that all of the time they spent in their lives following me around, chasing my dreams, was worth it. It was a special moment.
What was that first big league experience like for you?
My first day I had to do the pitch chart and Randy Johnson was pitching for the Diamondbacks. It was very reminiscent of the explanation in Bull Durham where the balls were whiter and the stadiums were like cathedrals. Everything was just a little bigger and it was neat to experience that. I was very fortunate to win my first two games and be named player of the game my first two games as well, which ended up turning into winning the National League Player of the Week my first week in the big leagues. It couldn’t have gone any better.
Pitcher Brian Tollberg #55 of the San Diego Padres throws a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Jeff Gross/Allsport)
I think you’re selling yourself short there. Your first two games against the Diamondbacks and Reds you pitched 14.1 innings, allowed just two earned runs and had 14 strikeouts. Your first game you allowed just one hit over seven innings. These are lineups with guys like Ken Griffey Jr., Matt Williams, Luis Gonzalez, Sean Casey, Barry Larkin, Dante Bichette, and so many legit hitters.
If you had scripted it out, I wouldn’t have believed it. I just tried to treat them as any start I had been making in the minor leagues. If I was successful, great. I just didn’t want to embarrass myself. I had my parents out and my brother for my first start. My second start was in Cincinnati, so I was close to Chillicothe and some of those people came. The owner was there and a lot of the front office staff. I struck out Ken Griffey Jr. and had a shut-out into the eighth. It was a magical time. Instead of having those three starts and going back down, I ended up staying up there for parts of four seasons.
You’re really involved in youth baseball and have been for a number of years in a variety of ways. How satisfying is it to have become a major leaguer yourself and to now be passing down that knowledge to a new generation of kids who have dreams just like you did?
The things I did in my playing career have put me in a position to do what I’m doing now. It wasn’t to get to the big leagues, it was to be able to give back when I was older. To this day, I call some of the coaches who were instrumental to my success when I was younger, from Little League all the way up, because they make such an impact on you. Sports in general will beat you up, but baseball is such a difficult sport to be successful at long term. I have two young sons, 11 and 9, and I try to give them as much value, feedback, constructive criticism, or pat on the back when they need it.
I know how many doors the game has opened for me and if I can do that for younger kids, that’s great. A majority of young kids are going to be coached by volunteers or people who didn’t play or somebody’s dad. If I can be someone who can assist them in their growth and help them develop a passion for baseball, that’s great. If I can help them make a high school team that they may not have made or maybe earn a college scholarship, that just brings me so much joy in life.
Pitcher Brian Tollberg #38 of the Colorado Rockies during the 2004 MLB Spring Training Photo Day at Hi Corbett Field on February 28, 2004 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)
That’s such an awesome message and I can tell any young player who you work with will be getting great lessons in baseball and in life. Can you talk to our readers about what you are doing now?
I’m the pitching coach now at Tampa Jesuit, a nationally ranked baseball team here in Tampa. In five years, we have won two state championships. We were ranked number one in the country in 2020 when Covid shut us down. We have a ton of quality players here. They were successful before I got there. I just try to chip in and try just to make them the best players they can be in high school – and if they have the ability to make it, try to help them with college scholarships.
Also, my business partner and I just opened up a facility here in South Tampa called Arsenal Performance. We work with all ages from Little League, high school, travel ball, and college-age players. We try to make the student-athletes the best players they can be and being able to be a sounding board for parents as well. With the internet these days, there’s so much competing information and there are parents who are very intelligent people who don’t know where to turn. I try to shoot people straight and give them as much information so they could make quality decisions for their kids. I thoroughly love what I’m doing now. I love to see the kids’ progressions.
Fantastic! That is absolutely so needed in today’s baseball and athletic culture from reputable coaches like yourself. You have such a great baseball story and I am really happy you took the time to share it with our readers. One last question for you: when you think back to being a kid just wanting to play catch with your dad and think of all the great things you have done in the game, what are your reflections on your life in baseball?
I overachieved. I did some things that even a lot of people who believed in me and loved me didn’t think I could do. My grandmother, who didn’t know a lot about baseball, but loved me to no end, asked me during my minor league career when I was going to get a real job. To prove to people that I can have successes at a certain level was great. Looking back, I loved the grind of the game. I enjoyed the intricacies of the game, the monotony, the practice reps. I tell kids now, wherever you get in the game, you will learn so many life lessons that are going to make you successful in life. Whether its high school, college, or pro ball, the way you work with teammates, the ability to work harder than your competition, the focus, knowing how to fail, knowing how to succeed are things that are going to help you. I still love the game. If I’m walking by a Little League field I’ll even stop by to see what the pitcher looks like. The pitch clocks and bigger bases and some of the other stuff isn’t traditional baseball in my mind, but I love the game for better or worse.