TORONTO -- Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole spent many hours during his formative baseball years in "The Barn" with his dad Mike. But they weren't slinging hay, or milking cows, or doing any sort of farm work, really. Instead, hour after hour, day after day, they were running batting practice in a hayloft-turned-batting cage a few miles from their house in rural southeast Illinois.
The makeshift facility, above a livestock pen on an actual farm, was the work of Jason Rakers, a former San Diego Padres Draft pick from 1997, and of one Josh's old youth baseball coaches.
The loft featured an L-screen and some artificial turf, and it served as a workable place for kids from the community to take hitting lessons from Rakers.
It ran all year round, and because of Josh's obvious passion for the game, the Tholes were given access whenever they wanted. While the snow fell through the cracks in the roof, and while the cows sat beneath them, Mike would pitch and Josh would hit -- over and over and over again.
"It didn't matter to Josh that it was Easter, and we had 50 people coming over the house," recalled Mike. "We had to go to 'The Barn.' He'd ask, and we'd go."
Even when things weren't going well, "The Barn" always seemed to call out to the pair, urging them back.
Once, when Josh was in sixth grade, the two hopped in the truck and headed home after an unusually short and unproductive session.
Josh was having a bad day -- he couldn't seem to pull it together. After 30 minutes of fighting with his swing, he was clearly frustrated, and so was Mike.
"I just said to him, 'Josh, if you don't want to be here, let's go,'" said Mike. "He took a few more swings and still didn't get it, so I said, 'All right, let's get in the truck, we're leaving.'"
They both have near exact memories of the day. As they made their way a mile down the road, exchanging ideas about what had gone wrong that particular practice, they stopped and looked at each other. The implication was clear: they were heading back to "The Barn."
"It was tough. One of those days, 'What's going on?'" said Josh. "We said, 'Let's just go back and try this again -- let's hit some more.' But if I hadn't had that kind of …"
Josh trailed off. He said his dad was tough on him at times, but it made him realize the level of commitment it would take to make it to the big leagues. He took the constructive criticism and used it.
"When you're really young, you don't know what it's going to take," said Josh. "I thought you just go get drafted, get developed, head to camp and you're in the big leagues."
But as Josh matured, he began to see it would take a lot more. And as long as he wanted to keep pushing it, Mike was there to help him.
For his part, Mike said Josh's work ethic and passion for baseball was apparent to everyone who watched his son at an early age. He had skill, too, and that mixture is what led to him drawing in college and pro scouts. Mike was simply doing his duty as a dad, giving his son the opportunity to succeed. It was up to Josh to seize it.
"I saw something in him. He had a passion," said Mike. "His work ethic was through the roof. Above and beyond for his age. Was he the best? Maybe not, but he just kept working at it."
Recently retired after working several decades in the prisons system -- as a guard and later in identifications -- Mike now has more free time to travel to Toronto to watch Josh play, and to visit his grandkids. The two maintain a close relationship, but they don't talk about baseball the same way they used to. Playing in the Major Leagues, Thole gets all the feedback he needs. He credits his dad with showing him how to take that feedback, even when critical, and turn it into something productive. But Mike is still the same old sounding board he's always been, giving Josh an outlet when things aren't going great.
"We don't talk about the game as much, he kind of leaves it alone," said Josh. "But when I talk to my dad, I need to be on a road trip so I can block out at least an hour. He's that sounding board when things aren't going great, which is nice."
Jamie Ross is an associate reporter for MLB.com.