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After the draft: life in minor league baseball

BY MOLLY IRENE OLMSTEAD | JUNE 07, 2012 6:30 AM

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The struggle for professional baseball players isn't making it to the Big Leagues. It's surviving the minors.

Justin Toole graduated from Hawkeye baseball in 2009 and was drafted by the Cleveland Indians, but he's yet to step foot on Progressive Field. The 25-year-old has played in nearly every level of the minor leagues: Rookie, short-season A, advanced-A, AA, and even short stints at the Indian's AAA team, the Columbus Clippers.

Toole is spending most of his fourth season with the Carolina Mudcats, the advanced-A affiliate.

He's batting .221 through 60 games with the Mudcats. Not so great given his .333 average with the Clippers.

"It's hard sometimes, the minor leagues," Toole said. "You can show up at the field, and you don't know if you're going to get to play on it or not. Sometimes you don't know if you're going to be in a new city the next day … But in the minors, we have a saying: 'Take advantage of every opportunity, whether it's low-A or AAA ball.' "

Iowa baseball coach Jack Dahm said Toole is a "perfect organizational player" because the former Hawkeye can play nearly any position. Toole played second and shortstop in college and even made 11 appearances as a pitcher. The former middle infielder has learned to play first, third, and outfield since being drafted.

The versatility protects him.

"Justin accepts any role you give him," Dahm said. "Because of his mentality of the game, he's a guy that they'll probably choose to stay in the organization."

Being knocked down a league or being released is a constant fear in the minors. Batting average drops below .200 for too long, they might let you go. Commit too many errors, they might kick you out. Day-by-day the big-league hopefuls play to prove that they're ready for the majors and also that they're worth keeping around in the farm system.

"I used to get nervous about getting released," Toole said. "I would say I played not to get released. Last year was my first year that I actually cherished every day of being able to do this, of being able to play professional baseball. I'm getting paid to play, and that's a dream. I'm trying to take that mentality into my games now."

Surviving in the minor leagues long enough to be called up to the Big Show is a mental battle. Having a bad game — going 0-4, committing an error, leaving men in scoring position — can crush a player's confidence. Toole said he's had to grow emotionally to be able to accept occasional failure and not let a bad outing affect the next game.

"Justin was always very hard on himself, a very determined young fella," Dahm said. "In professional baseball, you play every day, so you have to learn to care a little less. It can be tough in there when you're hard on yourself."

But what keeps Toole going is the fact that he's constantly improving.

Toole entered Iowa's program without being heavily recruited by anyone, Dahm said, and he didn't have a great freshman season with the Hawkeyes. He hit only .083.

But he hit .367 his sophomore year. And .395 his junior year.

The once barely noticed player set two school records at Iowa: Most hits in a single game (5) and longest hitting streak (25 games). Toole is also in the record books with the second-most hits in a single season (87), eighth-most runs (63), 10th-best batting average (.395), and 13th-most stolen bases (24).

"My brother has a work ethic like no one else I've ever seen," said Eric Toole, a current freshman outfielder with the Hawkeyes. "The minors have been a ride for him so far, and I know it's been hard at times … but I don't see him as a giving-up kind of person. He's in a good situation now, having been up to AAA a few times this year. It's going to take a really long time to give up."

Toole plays in a league in which players do frequently give up, however. They find a wife, get married, start a family. They realize they're barely making any money and traveling all the time. Priorities change, and the determination to be a big leaguer fades away.

But not Justin Toole. He's biding his time with the Mudcats, focused on the ball. He's not ready to walk away yet, not even after a wild ride through the minors, one that has had the utility player fielding six different positions on seven different teams in four years. Not even after making it to AAA, seeing some of his friends get called up to the Indians, but then being sent back down to advanced-A himself.

"I'm going to play for as long as I can, until I can't play anymore," Toole said. "This is the only chance in my life and I'm going to go out and do it until someone tells me I can't."

Follow DI Sports Editor Molly Irene Olmstead on Twitter.


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