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Lesson learned

Following older brother Todd's advice in the minors paid off for determined and talented Rays catcher Toby Hall.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Drafted, signed, yanked around and released by the White Sox after 2 1/2 seasons at the bottom of the minor leagues, Todd Hall knew what it was like.

So when younger brother Toby was drafted by the Rays in June 1997, Todd told him everything. Told him how it worked. Told him what worked. Told him to keep working, and working hard. Told him to treat every mundane drill, every at-bat, every day like it was his last.

The family had a party at its Northern California home to celebrate Toby's milestone. Sharon Hall hung the CONGRATULATIONS banner she'd made for her son. Everyone there scribbled some words of encouragement.

Todd took the pen, wanting to make sure he did everything he could to spare Toby the frustration and bitterness still chapping him a couple years after his dream came to an abrupt end.

Call, he wrote, if you ever need help or need to talk.

And don't ever stop until you get to the show.

photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Toby Hall always stayed focused on his goal -- make it to the show.
Toby tore off that piece of the banner, took it with him to rookie ball in upstate New York and has carried it with him since. The paper is worn and folded, having been moved from city to city and locker to locker for nearly five years, but the message is as fresh, and as valid, as ever. "It's kind of an inspirational thing," Toby Hall said.

Hall made it to the majors in September 2000. He made enough of an impression last year to show he is ready to be the starting catcher. Hall is set to embark on the first full season of what many expect to be an All-Star career.

He has made it to the show.

"I don't think there was any doubt in my mind," Todd Hall said. "Not at all. And that's not just because he's my brother. But knowing him, growing up with him, talking with him, that was our goal. One of us was going to make it.

"And he did it."

They grew up in Placerville, Calif., a middle-class-at-best community in the foothills between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. The boys were four years apart, but baseball blurred the difference. They built a batting cage in the garage out of fishing net, and another in the yard. Larry Hall, who worked at the local supermarket, coached his older son's teams. Sharon, an executive at a nearby bank, took Toby's teams.

"Our life was baseball," Sharon Hall said.

As the boys got older, it became obvious they were good. Todd, a decent-hitting shortstop, was drafted by the Expos out of high school, the Angels out of junior college and the White Sox in the 44th round out of Sacramento State.

Toby, meanwhile, was a husky first and third baseman for El Dorado High, earning all-state honors with a potent bat. He redshirted for a year at Sacramento City Community College, then transferred to American River Community College, but the most significant move came a year later.

Giants scout Doug McMillan, whose son played with Hall years earlier, had some interest and suggested to the American River coach that with a big body and big-time arm Hall might be suited to catching.

"At first I thought they were crazy," Hall said.

He tried it and eventually liked it. The Giants had drafted Hall in the 21st round in 1995, but made only a token effort to sign him. Hall instead went off to Nevada-Las Vegas, starting the season as a good hitter and crude catcher, finishing as an All-American.

"It was like two different people," said Tim Corcoran, then the Rays area scout. "He really put forth the effort to make himself the player he is today."

Hard work -- everyone involved says -- is a huge reason for Hall's progress. So too was what he perceived as a lack of respect.

Going into the 1997 draft, the scouts had been pumping him up, telling him he might go early in the second round. But what was supposed to be a draft-day morning of celebration became a long afternoon when Hall lasted until the end of the ninth round, the 294th player taken. The family party was delayed a few days.

"It was just sort of like a slap in the face," Hall said. "I was like, 'Wow, everyone's telling me I'm supposed to be a top-rounder and I go in the ninth round.' So that's where it all started. That's what sparked me right there. I was just going to be determined to do it."

Realizing he wouldn't get much more by dragging out negotiations, Hall signed a few days later for around $40,000. He told Corcoran he planned to be the first position player drafted by the Rays to get to the majors. (Not counting contractually obligated promotions, he was the second.) And then he got to work.

"Once he started to play he was a 100 percent workaholic," Corcoran said. "I guess what he wanted to do was prove to me I took him in the wrong spot. And he had a great attitude about it."

Hall moved through the Rays system a step at a time, learning the intricacies of catching a game and improving steadily along the way, due in part to the work he did with coaches Bill Evers and Orlando Gomez and veteran John Flaherty in major-league spring training.

"He understood what it took to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues and he decided to do whatever it was going to take," Evers said.

During spring training 1998, Hall was taking some family friends to see Tropicana Field. As they went in the rotunda, scouting director Dan Jennings was coming out. "I said, 'Toby, it won't be long before you don't have to come in that door. You'll be using the players' entrance," Jennings said. "And he just said, 'I hope so, DJ. I hope so.' " Hall first got to the majors in September 2000, called up when the team was, of all places, in Oakland, so Todd and the family could see him.

Getting back was harder. Because the Rays had John Flaherty and Mike DiFelice last season, they didn't have room for Hall. He instead spent several long months at Triple A, forced to listen to hundreds of questions and rumors and theories as he waited for the Rays to open a roster spot.

He wasn't happy about it, but he wasn't upset either. And he took it out on the rest of the International League, hitting .335 with 19 homers and 72 RBIs in 94 games for Durham, earning trips to the Triple-A All-Star Game and the Futures Game. Todd helped him through it, and so did Karra, whom he married on Valentine's Day 1998.

"It's so easy to get sidetracked," Hall said. "You hear so much stuff throughout the game, "They're (messing with) me on this and (messing with) me on that. I didn't want to fall into that category.

"I just sat down and took the view that everything happens for a reason. And I've got a lot of good listeners in my family."

It took the Rays until late July to ditch DiFelice and make room for Hall. They were excited by what they saw.

Hall always swung the bat well but now offers an intriguing offensive combination: the power to hit some home runs, the knack for driving in runs and the discipline to be an excellent two-strike hitter. Manager Hal McRae talks of planting him in the No. 5 spot in the order and leaving him there for years.

More impressive was his improvement behind the plate. "He caught better than we thought he was going to catch and he threw better than the we thought he would throw," McRae said. Plus, he learned how to take charge of a pitching staff and how to run a game.

"He no longer should be thought of as just an offensive guy," Evers said.

Hall, at 26 the oldest of the Rays' young turks, has a bright future. To some, he has more promise than any of the others.

"I think he could be an All-Star," Jennings said. "I really do. He's a hard worker, he has a chance to be a productive hitter and the pitchers love throwing to him. He has a chance to be an All-Star."

That would fit right in with what Hall's thinking.

"My goal through the minor leagues was to be good enough to make an all-star team on each level," he said. "I've got one left. I don't know how long it will take, but that's one goal I have left."

And when he does make it, you can bet Todd, a juvenile-probation officer in the Sacramento area, will be there with him.

"I learned a lot from him," Toby Hall said. "He kind of told me how it all was, the bus rides and the politics and stuff. When he got released, that was tough. For someone to say, 'Hey, baseball's done.' You're 25 or whatever and you've been playing all your life and then someone says, 'No more.' I'm just glad to keep it going in our family."

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