Tollberg's winding road led to week of glory

From Chillicothe Paints to the Padres to Player of the Week

January 28th, 2022

In this ongoing series -- inspired by Stereogum’s “The No. 1s” -- we’ll look back on some of the more interesting, notable, and unexpected players of the week in MLB history, an award that has been given out since 1974. While many players of the week have been written about extensively and are entrenched in baseball lore, that is not always the case.

The Week: June 19-25, 2000

NL: Brian Tollberg, RHP, SD

AL: Tony Clark, 1B, DET

On June 21, 2000, Brian Tollberg awoke to a different life.

He was in his own room at the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix, rather than sharing with a teammate at a budget hotel in Tucson. In the closet were the new suit and dress shoes he’d hurriedly acquired to replace the jeans and polos that rated as inadequate for a big league charter flight. At the front door to his room sat a copy of USA Today, whose sports page featured a box score with evidence of the previous night’s life-altering triumph:

Tollberg (W, 1-0): 7 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 7 K

It all seemed like a dream. That’s true for most new big leaguers, of course, their debuts representing the culmination of years of hard work. But most of those players didn’t travel the scenic route Tollberg took: from undrafted to a fledgling independent team in little Chillicothe, Ohio, to putting on a Padres road jersey with his name on the back and shutting down a D-backs lineup featuring Luis Gonzalez, Matt Williams and Steve Finley.

Five days later, the 27-year-old Tollberg won again at Cincinnati, holding Ken Griffey Jr.’s Reds to two runs over seven innings. The day after that, he was named NL Player of the Week, with Clark (the current executive director of the MLB Players Association) his AL counterpart. A stint that began with the promise of only three outings while veteran righty Woody Williams was rehabbing became 19 starts in a stellar rookie season (3.58 ERA, 119 ERA+) and more than 50 across his 2000-03 tenure with San Diego.

“Even if I would have gotten three starts and that was it, I could have said I’d made it,” Tollberg said in a recent phone interview. “I got a big league baseball card made, I accomplished my goal. So to turn that into parts of four years up there, it was pretty special and it’s opened up a lot of doors for me now. It’s a great game and has done a lot for me in my life and brought me a lot of joy.”

Six years before he woke up at the Ritz, Tollberg was dealing with slightly different accommodations. He was in his first professional season, getting paid $500 a month to pitch for the Chillicothe Paints, an entry in the independent Frontier League, which is now an MLB partner league but back then was playing only its second season. The Paints -- these days they're a collegiate summer league team -- called Chillicothe’s VA Memorial Stadium home and offered players free rooms in an abandoned wing of the adjacent Veterans Administration hospital.

“It was slightly creepy at night when nobody was there,” Tollberg recalled. “A handful of us tried that for a couple of weeks, and I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’”

Tollberg lived the rest of the season with a local family that had a farm. He maintained his focus, even when it felt like there were more people on the field than in the stands during games, and put up stellar numbers.

Tollberg hadn’t been drafted out of Manatee (Fla.) High School or the University of North Florida, but in early 1995, he parlayed that success into a deal with Milwaukee -- “for a plane ticket to Spring Training, basically,” he said. It wasn’t an easy climb from there, either.

Tollberg started out at the Brewers’ Class A Beloit affiliate, the first of four Minor League stops in two organizations over the next five seasons, not counting a winter ball stint in Puerto Rico. He was traded to the Padres in March 1997 and missed most of the ’99 season while rehabbing a partial UCL tear in his right elbow. He continued to advance, but would a big league opportunity ever come? It seemed far from certain.

The call finally arrived on June 18, 2000, which just so happened to be Father’s Day. Tollberg was with Triple-A Las Vegas, on the road in Tucson, when he got the news. He’d already talked to his dad, Gary, that day, but now he needed to call again. After multiple unanswered attempts from a ballpark pay phone and a half hour of running (“to burn off nervous energy”), Tollberg got through. His dad was so happy that he cried.

“I couldn’t have scripted it up any better,” Tollberg said.

From there, it was a surreal sort of whirlwind. Tollberg’s friends and family flew into Phoenix. He checked into the Ritz, bought the much-needed suit, walked into a big league clubhouse, and saw his name on the back of a No. 55 jersey. Everything from the quality of the food to the baseballs themselves made Tollberg pinch himself.

Brian Tollberg won his first two big league starts, both on the road, before his first home start in San Diego.

There was one future Hall of Famer, teammate Trevor Hoffman, razzing him in the weight room. There was another, the D-backs’ Randy Johnson, flinging flames as Tollberg charted pitches that first night. And then it was his turn to take the mound.

“Obviously, scared to death,” Tollberg recalled about his state of mind. “My biggest thing was I didn’t want to embarrass myself.”

Tollberg recently rewatched his debut with his two sons. He vividly remembered making his warmup pitches before the bottom of the first inning and feeling like he was about to throw up on the back of the mound. But then came a first-pitch strike to Tony Womack and an 0-2 groundout to third baseman Phil Nevin, and Tollberg was officially a big leaguer. He was off to the races, allowing only an unearned run on a fifth-inning error, exiting after seven with a 3-1 lead and watching Hoffman nail down a save in the ninth.

“I haven’t seen many better than that,” Hoffman told reporters afterward of Tollberg’s debut, via the North County Times. “He showed a lot of poise out there. He seized the moment. He’s waited a long time for this, and he rose to the occasion.”

Trevor Hoffman saved two of Brian Tollberg's four wins during his rookie season.

Afterward, Tollberg’s head was in the clouds. There was none other than Mr. Padre, Tony Gwynn, complimenting his performance to Tollberg’s dad. In the clubhouse was a whole crowd of reporters at his locker and Ryan Klesko presenting him with a chilled bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne. Later, his highlights played on TV at a restaurant where Tollberg gathered with his supporters.

After that came the second sparkling start in Cincinnati -- just 90 miles but a world away from where Tollberg’s pro baseball journey began in Chillicothe. Next was the Player of the Week Award, which brought Tollberg an engraved watch that he’s never worn but held on to as a keepsake. There’s also his legacy as the first Major Leaguer from the Frontier League, which later inducted him into its Hall of Fame and named its version of the Cy Young Award after him.

Tollberg last pitched in the Majors in 2003, and he is now more than two decades removed from that first glorious week. But his enthusiasm for baseball has not dimmed. He’s taught the game in different capacities, including as a pitching coach at Tampa's Jesuit High School, a powerhouse program. And after 14 years as the owner of an Edible Arrangements franchise, he sold last year and now works with Training Without Borders, a company that provides young ballplayers with individualized instruction, including virtual training.

“It’s really the only thing that I ever loved since I was 5 years old, that I ever wanted to do,” Tollberg said of his relationship to baseball. “To be able to give back and to see kids have the light go on in their head -- it’s very gratifying.”

Around the world

The night before Tollberg’s debut, on June 19, 2000, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers, 116-111, in a decisive Game 6 of the NBA Finals. It was the first of three straight championships for a squad led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

The No. 1 song

This week overlapped the reigns of Aaliyah’s “Try Again” and Enrique Iglesias’ “Be With You” atop the Billboard Hot 100 list. The former was the lead single on the soundtrack of the action film “Romeo Must Die,” in which Aaliyah starred alongside Jet Li. Tragically, a little more than one year later, on Aug. 25, 2001, Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash at just 22 years old.

At the movies

In between high-grossing summer blockbusters “Mission: Impossible 2” in May and “X-Men” in July, it was the Farrelly Brothers comedy “Me, Myself & Irene,” starring Jim Carrey and Renée Zellweger, that topped the box office this week, at a bit over $24 million.