Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Former Rays prospect Andrew Toles goes from frozen foods to Dodgers outfield

LOS ANGELES — The experience gap in the Los Angeles Dodgers' starting lineup for its two National League Championship Series victories over the Chicago Cubs was so vast, the fleet-footed outfielder Andrew Toles would have a hard time covering it. On one end was Toles, in his fourth month in the majors. At the other was Chase Utley, who is in his 14th season. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he liked the seasoning mix because all his players, young and old, "are tough and they're not scared."

Toles, 24, not long ago felt burdened by the fear that comes with great promise. In 2013, the season after he was drafted in the third round by the Tampa Bay Rays, Toles was named the franchise's minor-league player of the year. He subsequently struggled with anxiety issues that spilled into his daily routine and precipitated his release before the 2015 season.

He was not the first member of his family to fall short of expectations. His father, Alvin, a linebacker who played at Tennessee, was drafted in the first round of the 1985 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints and played four seasons before sustaining a career-ending knee injury.

In June 2015, Toles' father, who became a long-haul driver, suggested that his son tag along on a trip with stops in Alabama, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Alvin suspected that a few days on the road would help clarify his son's path.

As he said he told his son often, "You can either spend your life doing what you love, or you can spend it doing something that feels like work." Like the loads of refrigerated goods, the message got delivered on the trip. Nights spent shivering in a cot in the truck, truck stop showers and a nonstop stream of talk radio programs left a lasting impression on Andrew Toles, who said, "No disrespect to those types of jobs, but I was, like, whatever I've got to do, I'm going to keep going forward because this isn't for me."

Back at home in Atlanta, Toles spent the rest of the 2015 summer in the weight room and the batting cage. He ran for conditioning and sat for hours studying his swing on videotape. He was ready for a return to baseball, but one more test loomed. As the 2015 season was winding down, his mother, Vicky, a teacher who played college basketball, prodded him to find a paying job.

"She said, 'You have to do something, you just can't stay at home,'" Toles said. The first offer of employment came from the Kroger grocery store in the Kedron Village Shopping Center in Peachtree City, Ga.

Toles said he was assigned the early shift in the frozen foods section. "I had to get up at 3:30 to get there at 4 o'clock," said Toles, who is not a morning person. "It was terrible. I had to go to sleep during the day and do it all over again, so it was rough."

He added, "I remember thinking, 'This isn't for me, either.'"

Still, a humbled Toles stayed with the $7.50-an-hour job, which his family took as a sign of his adversity-fueled growth. His older sister, Morgan, who played college basketball at Auburn and Florida State and is in her first year as an assistant coach at Kent State, said, "I was very shocked because his personality at the time was he was a little above certain things."

Toles had been working at the grocery store for less than a month when he fielded a more enticing employment offer. Gabe Kapler, the Dodgers' director of player development and a former Ray, remembered Toles as a dynamic two-way player with tremendous foot speed. He emailed him to gauge his interest in participating in the Dodgers' instructional league.

Kapler had done his due diligence and felt comfortable that the issues that had derailed Toles in Tampa Bay's organization were behind him. "We're always trying to strike the balance between being pragmatic and idealistic," he said. "In this case, we thought there was a lot of value in being on the spectrum toward idealistic."

Kapler's boss, Andrew Friedman, needed little convincing. Friedman, the president of baseball operations, had drafted Toles in 2012 when he was at the helm of the Rays' front office. Now, he offered a minor-league contract to Toles, who was grateful for the second chance and in a hurry to make up for lost time. And once the 2016 season started, it took him three months to climb the ladder from Rancho Cucamonga to Tulsa to Oklahoma City to the Dodgers, with whom he made his major league debut in July.

Over the rest of the regular season, Toles batted .314 in 48 games. And through Wednesday, he was hitting .333 in the postseason.

"To Tolesey's credit, he came in and worked extremely hard in spring training, and now here we are before Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, and he's playing in leftfield," Friedman said earlier this week while watching his team take batting practice.

On Wednesday night, in Game 4 of the NLCS, Toles appeared to drive in the game's first run with a two-out single in the second, but Adrian Gonzalez was called out in a close play at home, a ruling that was not overturned despite video evidence that he beat the tag. In the fourth, Toles made a throwing error that contributed to the Cubs' four-run dagger.

From major-league prospect to minor league washout to a starter on a team that is now in an increasingly intense battle to make it to the World Series: It has been a crazy ride for Toles. How does he process it? "You don't, really," he said. "You just go with it. Go with the flow. That's pretty much it."

Toles said his struggles in the Rays' system made his success possible this season. "All the stuff that I had to go through, that I experienced, it just kind of helped," he said. "I just feel like it's no big deal now. Nothing to lose."

Toles said his anxiety, which he has treated with medication and counseling, can be traced to his feelings in his late teens and early 20s that he had everything to lose. "That's it, pretty much," he said.

Joe Maddon, the Cubs' manager, held the same position with the Rays when Toles was in that team's farm system. He said he had no memory of him then. But he is impressed with what he sees now. "Love his at-bats," Maddon said. "Love the way he goes about his business. He's definitely engaged in the moment."

Roberts, meanwhile, believes Toles' inexperience is a strength. In a recent interview with MLB.com, he said: "He's so calm and cool. A little bit of the naiveté and not knowing how good the ballplayers are and just going out there and playing like it's his backyard."

Roberts described Toles' journey as "amazing." Toles' sister, in her job as an assistant coach, said she uses her brother as an example of how to handle adversity. "I actually had a conversation with a couple of our kids just last week," she said. "I brought him up in the context of how it's what you do in the midst of adversity that defines who you are."

But Toles, with more games still to play this October, remains more modest about what he has achieved. "Everyone has their own story," he said. "That's how I look at it. I'm just another dude on the team."

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