Shadows moved across the baseball field at the University of Tampa as the late afternoon daylight faded. Brian Tollberg continued to throw. In two days he would pitch to a handful of hitters from the school’s baseball team in front of major league scouts. No bullpen session. Tollberg was going to stand on the mound, throw all his pitches and let them fly for the scouts.
“That way they can really see what I have,” Tollberg said.
How many scouts were expected? Two, maybe.
Tollberg heard as many as eight.
“Hey,” Tollberg said, “if only one shows up, I’ll throw just as hard for him as I would for a dozen.”
Tollberg is 36 now, nearly two years removed from his last major league spring training camp. First he retired. Then he reconsidered.
Now, the Manatee High graduate wants back in.
“I feel I have something left in the tank,” Tollberg said. “I never forgot how to pitch. It’s just a matter of letting people know I’m still interested in the game. I still have a passion for it.”
Tollberg owns an Edible Arrangements franchise in Tampa, not far from the University of Tampa campus. You can find him at the UT baseball field most days pitching to David Caveda, a Tampa attorney who serves as Tollberg’s catcher and confidant as the pitcher tries to find his way to a major league spring training camp.
The last one was with the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin during the spring of 2007. Tollberg had earned a spot with the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A team with no guarantee of being called up to the majors that season. He was 34, a veteran of four major league seasons from 2000 to 2003 with the San Diego Padres.
He won his first two big league starts in June 2000 and was named the National League player of the week. Not a bad debut for a 27-year-old pitcher who spent time in an independent league while he worked toward achieving his big league dream.
Tollberg pitched in 53 major league games, starting 52. He won 15 and lost 16. He was teammates with Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and future Fall of Famers Trevor Hoffman and Rickey Henderson. He has his memories.
The thought of returning to Triple A didn’t appeal to him. So he asked for and was granted his release.
“One of the worst days of my life,” Tollberg said.
He threw himself into his new business and became a baseball fan. But he had trouble sitting through games.
Last spring Tollberg found himself making a delivery to the New York Yankees complex in Tampa. He watched the pitchers go through a series of fielding drills. He recognized a few as ex-teammates.
“I thought, ‘You know what? I can still do that,’” Tollberg said.
So he went looking for his glove and someone to throw to.
Tollberg visited a former pitching coach with the Sarasota Reds.
He flew to Los Angeles to see Tom House, now serving as the pitching coach at USC. House liked the life on Tollberg’s pitches. House told Tollberg he could still get outs against major league hitters.
Tollberg returned to Tampa, worked himself back into shape and traveled to New Jersey, where he joined the Somerset Patriots, a team in the independent Atlantic League. Tollberg pitched for Somerset in 2006. He spent the final month of the season with the Patriots and helped them win the league title.
Now, Tollberg is working the contacts he’s made in professional baseball, hoping to gain more than someone’s ear. He wants to return to the game he left — prematurely, he now thinks — nearly two years ago.
“Yeah, I’m two years older. Yeah, I have to prove myself. So what?” Tollberg said. “I’ve had to prove myself my whole career. I don’t expect anybody to hand me anything. I expect to start out in Triple A and prove myself.”
Tollberg’s passion to pitch still burns.
He can still feel the rush of standing on the mound in a major league ballpark, the baseball held tight in his right hand. He can still hear the crowd when he got a batter to swing at his pitch and bounce into a double play or lift a lazy fly ball to center field to end an inning. He knows very well the thrill of walking to the dugout while 45,000 cheer his effort.
“I don’t think I’ll ever have baseball out of my system,” Tollberg said. “I won’t be mad if I can get another three, four years.”
He won’t be mad if he doesn’t, either.
Baseball, with few exceptions, is a young man’s game. Teams look for young arms. The chance of a 36-year-old pitcher getting a shot with a big league club is slim, but you never know if you don’t try, right?
Tollberg is trying.
The sun sets on the Tampa skyline. Fans cheered a goal in a women’s soccer game played at Pepin Stadium, which is just beyond the right field fence.
Tollberg continued throwing to Caveda. Some major league scouts, he heard, were coming in a few days.
“If someone wants to give me an opportunity because they believe in me, great,” Tollberg said. “If they don’t, they don’t. I won’t hold a grudge.”