ALLEN, Texas -- Rangers pitcher Shawn Tolleson has been on relief missions before, through his school and church, but none were like his nine-day visit to the southern African country of Zambia in November 2012.
"If anybody goes over there, they never leave there feeling the same again," Tolleson said. "I would definitely say it was a life-changing experience."
Tolleson and his wife, Lynley, were in Zambia with Clayton and Ellen Kershaw. Tolleson, acquired from the Dodgers this winter, played on the same youth baseball teams with Kershaw while growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The two were close friends long before they were teammates on the Dodgers, even though Kershaw is from Highland Park, inside central Dallas, and Tolleson has always lived in the far north suburb of Allen. So when the Kershaws were looking for people to help build an orphanage in the capital city, Lusaka, the Tollesons were eager to volunteer.
Somebody had to help mix the concrete, and with all the work that needs to be done, nobody bothers to distinguish between a Cy Young Award winner and a reliever recently picked up on waivers. Everybody is needed.
"Lusaka is the capital, and everybody pretty much lives in compounds or neighborhoods," Tolleson said. "We visited four or five different compounds. Each one is unique in the way people live. In some compounds, people live in tents made out of plastic tarps and trash bags. Another compound may have houses that have actual cinder blocks. But it's still not good."
It's not the appalling housing conditions but rather the children that Tolleson remembers the most from ground zero of the worldwide AIDS epidemic.
"There are no generations," he said. "There are no parents. All the parents passed away because of AIDS. All you have are the children. You have children raising children."
The Kershaws started the orphanage more than two years ago after Ellen had taken a missionary trip to Zambia with a group called Arise Africa. She was captivated by a 10-year-old girl named Hope who was homeless, an orphan and stricken with AIDS. Ellen befriended Hope, and that's when the Kershaws decided to make a difference in the lives of Hope and other children in Zambia.
Now 10 children, including Hope, are living in The Arise Home in Lusaka, receiving food, medicine, clothing and schooling with a real hope of escaping their desperate plight.
"It was pretty bad," Tolleson said. "Four of the kids were living on the street, some were not getting the proper nutrition; a couple were HIV-positive. They could go into a clinic and get free medicine, but the way the medicine works, if you're not getting proper nutrition, it doesn't do you any good. The medicine kind of eats away inside of you."
Tolleson was in Zambia for nine days helping at The Arise Home, and he would like to go back someday and see how the children are progressing.
"It was extremely impoverished, a real eye-opener," he said. "It makes you not take for granted what you have. Those people are extremely, extremely happy with having nothing. You give them a soccer ball, and they are the happiest kids around, because they are used to playing with a rolled-up ball of trash.
"Any time you see a different way of life like that, you see how God has blessed you. What God told me on that trip is that with all the blessings comes a lot of responsibility. God calls us to love everybody -- the poor, the lost, the sick. It changed my perspective of what I have."
Maybe that's why Tolleson isn't too distraught over his own situation and is instead excited about the possibility of pitching for his hometown Major League team. All he has to do is complete a full recovery from back surgery and win a job in the Rangers' crowded bullpen. After being unceremoniously claimed off waivers from the Dodgers, Tolleson will be viewed as a long shot to do that in Spring Training.
But this is guy who was a 30th-round pick out of Baylor University in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft who shot through the Dodgers' farm system and made his Major League debut less than two years after signing his first professional contract. Tolleson and Kershaw pitched together on the Dallas Tigers and D-Bats growing up. But whereas Kershaw was drafted in the first round out of high school, Tolleson blew out his elbow as a senior and ended up having Tommy John surgery.
Tolleson went from a preseason All-American at Allen High to damaged goods as a redshirt freshman at Baylor. It took three years on the Brazos River to rebuild himself into at least a marginal Draft prospect before finding himself again in the Dodgers system. Tolleson's future looked great until the back problems.
"It's been great. ... I can't complain," he said. "I'm still strong, I'm still here, I'm still breathing, I'm still playing a game that I love. You can't beat that. An opportunity is an opportunity. I'm going to take it, and I'm going to work hard to earn a spot. There's nothing else I can do but go out and compete and pitch as well as I can."
Tolleson, who combines a 92-95-mph fastball with a deceptive slider, followed a terrific 2011 season in the Minors -- 1.17 ERA, 1.014 WHIP and 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings -- by reaching the Majors on June 7, 2012. He pitched in 40 games for the Dodgers the rest of the season, going 3-1 with a 4.32 ERA, a 1.327 WHIP and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
Tolleson was the typical young reliever with options left, moving back and forth from Triple-A to the Majors depending on the Dodgers' roster needs. He was still in that role last season when two years of back discomfort finally caught up him on April 12. The Dodgers were playing the D-backs in Phoenix, but the issue really started the day before, while Tolleson was still with Triple-A Albuquerque.
"We were in Albuquerque, and we flew after the game that day to Omaha and then took a team bus to Des Moines," he said. "When we got there, they told me I was being called up to the Major Leagues. We got into Des Moines at 4 a.m., I went to the hotel and got a couple hours of sleep, got up at 6 a.m., flew to Dallas and then to Phoenix. We had a day game, and I was the first guy out of the bullpen. My back was bothering me the whole day, but you don't want to say something before you even go into a game."
Bad move. Tolleson faced two batters and walked them both.
"I got into the game, and it made it worse," he said. "After the game, I couldn't lie down or sit down."
Tolleson resisted going on the disabled list and instead took a couple of anti-inflammatory injections, hoping to calm the situation. Back in Texas, future Rangers teammate Matt Harrison had the same problem and was trying the same remedy. Neither had any luck, and both underwent surgery last April to repair a herniated disk in their lower back.
Both are expected to be ready for Spring Training. Tolleson started throwing at the beginning of December and is expected to go off a mound in the next 10 to 14 days. His back feels good. Tolleson is usually up at 6:30 every morning, and he works out for about three hours.
Harrison has been throwing in North Carolina and is also feeling good. But whereas Harrison has a spot waiting for him in the rotation, there are no such guarantees for Tolleson, who will have to work for everything he gets this season.
Tollesoncan handle it. He has been witness to people in worse circumstances, and he has not forgotten.
"Yeah, it definitely changed me," Tolleson said. "I know God has a plan for my life, and baseball is the kind of the game where things happen. God sends me where I need to be, and right now I need to be with the Rangers."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.