TAMPA — The commemorative sign, with Carlos Tosca's retired No. 2 in blue, stands out among the five former greats celebrated on King High's centerfield fence.
Tosca never played for the Lions. Never played pro baseball. The outfielder's playing career included getting cut by USF.
But it's in this dusty dugout where Tosca, a 54-year-old Valrico resident, first cut his coaching teeth as an assistant in 1976 before his equally unlikely and historic rise from middle school teacher to major-league manager.
He's one of just seven men to become a skipper without playing pro ball. But as longtime King coach Jim Macaluso said, Tosca "made it," just like former Lions players Derek Bell and Tim Crews.
Tosca just made his own path.
"Everyone doubted him — those who didn't know him," Macaluso said. "But he overcame the odds."
Tosca, now the Marlins bench coach, returns home today for a three-game series at the Trop against the Rays, whom Tosca beat in his managerial debut with the Blue Jays on June 3, 2002.
"A dream come true," he says.
For the son of Cuban immigrants, Tosca's "dream" career, sparked by his father's passion, started from scratch as a do-everything minor-league instructor and lasted three decades.
"I never envisioned this," Tosca said with a wide grin. "I'm truly blessed."
'A baseball guy'
Macaluso could see it from the start.
He saw it when Tosca, 5 feet 7 and 160 pounds dripping wet, sped around the outfield for his summer team. He noticed it when Tosca would watch the baseball "Game of the Week" on Saturdays with his father and grandfather, absorbing each play like a sponge.
Tosca and Macaluso would drive to Atlanta for the Braves' series with Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine" in the '70s. Tosca studied third-base coach Alex Grammas, how he hit the fungo bat, how he flashed the signs. When Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson made substitutions, the two would put themselves in his shoes.
"This guy," Macaluso said of Tosca, "is a baseball guy."
So when Tosca's college career (two years at Florida College, one at USF) was over, it was Macaluso who gave him his first job, as pitching coach for the Lions. Tosca wasn't a pitcher, but it didn't matter.
"He was a great teacher," Macaluso said.
Tosca's first big break came in 1978 thanks to his former USF coach, Jack Butterfield, who was the Yankees' vice president of player development. Butterfield asked him to work the summer in Oneonta, N.Y., which he did. That led to Tosca opening up extended spring training the following year.
To do so, Tosca quit his teaching job at McLane Middle School and dived in.
He quickly turned himself into a jack-of-all trades, somebody who could teach pitching, catching, infield, outfield. If they wanted a cleanup crew, Tosca could do that, too. In rookie leagues, you sometimes had to.
"Carlos was somebody who was good at everything," said Buck Showalter, an ESPN analyst and former major-league manager who worked with Tosca in the 1980s in the Gulf Coast League.
"No job was beneath him. And he'd outwork you."
After Tosca spent 17 years as a minor-league manager, racking up 12 winning seasons (932-827), Showalter brought him to the bigs as his bench coach, where "Six-Gun Tosca" derived the reputation of being a straight-shooter and baseball savvy.
In 2002, Tosca got his big shot.
Midway through his first season as Blue Jays third-base coach, Tosca took over for the fired Buck Martinez. His debut, a 6-1 home win over the Rays, "was like my wedding night — it went by so fast, I don't remember any of it." His tenure was cut short in August of his third season (191-191), when an injury-depleted Blue Jays fell 17 games under .500.
Tosca understood the business, saying he hopes it wasn't his last shot. But he's at peace if it was.
'When he speaks, guys … listen'
Before each game at Dolphin Stadium, Tosca can be in constant motion. The ardent reader engulfs scouting reports like his favorite Ernest Hemingway novels. He chats up players and hits grounders to start infield practice.
Inside the dugout one balmy May afternoon are three men who say Tosca is a main reason they are there today, insisting his legacy goes beyond a title on a lineup card.
There's fellow Tampa product Luis Gonzalez, an 18-year veteran and World Series champ. Gonzalez played under Tosca with the Diamondbacks.
"Carlos has seen it all," Gonzalez said. "You don't have to play in this game to understand everything. When he speaks, guys on the team listen."
There's Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, whom Tosca coached for Bradenton of the Gulf Coast League in the early '80s. He shaped some of his managing after Tosca and runs most decisions by his mentor.
"He's got the complete package — philosophy, handling players. He's about as stable a man comes," Fredi Gonzalez said. "And he's grounded."
But Tosca's biggest inspiration was to his son, Matthew, a violinist who recently played a solo at Carnegie Hall. Matthew, 18, one of the least experienced violinists to be accepted to Mannes College, auditioned after just two years of private lessons.
"My dad kept telling me it doesn't matter what people tell you," he said. "If you work at it, you can accomplish anything."
After all, Tosca is living proof.
Joe Smith can be reached at joe firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tosca's coaching journey
1978-79: Oneonta Yankees (New York-Penn League)
1980-82: Bradenton Yankees (Gulf Coast League)
1983-84: Greensboro Hornets (South Atlantic League)
1985: Sarasota Yankees (Gulf Coast League)
1988-90: Kissimmee Royals (Gulf Coast League)
1991: Baseball City Royals (Florida State League)
1992: Baseball City Marlins (Gulf Coast League)
1993: Kane County Cougars (Midwest League)
1994-96: Portland Sea Dogs (Eastern League)
1997: Charlotte Knights (International League)
1998-2000: Arizona Diamondbacks bench coach
2001: Richmond Braves (International League)
2002: Toronto Blue Jays third base coach
2002-04: Blue Jays manager
2005-06: Arizona Diamondbacks bench coach
2007-present: Florida Marlins bench coach
No experience necessary
Managers who didn't play pro ball:
Name, team, record
Ed Barrow 1903-04 Detroit, 1918-20 Boston 310-320
Hugo Bezdek 1917-19 Pittsburgh 166-187
Judge Fuchs 1929 Boston Braves 56-98
Ted Turner 1977 Atlanta 0-1
John Boles 1996, 99-2001 Florida 205-241
Carlos Tosca 2002-04 Toronto 191-191
Dave Trembley 2007-present, Baltimore 72-86