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A lot on plate in front of him

Rays have expectations for catcher Toby Hall. He expects to meet them.

MARC TOPKIN
Published March 14, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - They can say what they want this year. Toby Hall knows he's going to catch more than pitches, and that's fine.

Heat-of-the-moment criticism from Lou Piniella over his game-calling? Expectations he should be more productive offensively? Challenges to his hold on the starter's job? Questions about his future with the team?

"I'm not worried about what they think," Hall said. "All I can control is what I'm able to do, and what I do shows them. I know they know what they've got. And it's only going to get better."

That sounds brash when you read it, but Hall doesn't say it that way. The words come out slowly and quietly, almost more defensively if anything. Having gone through a year on the receiving end of more than he expected, he is stronger for it - "100 percent stronger," his wife, Karra, said - and prepared to handle whatever comes next.

At some point this season, a decision has to be made about whether he is going to be part of the Rays' future, a foundation piece similar to Aubrey Huff, Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, or let go because his salary, which could jump from $320,000 to around $2-million next year, will exceed his value.

"This is a big year for Toby Hall and for the Devil Rays," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "We need Toby to step up and not be just a solid performer. He's done that. We want him to take the next step and become a frontline catcher in the major leagues and someone we can count on to catch for us for years to come. He's capable of doing that. He led the AL in throwing out runners last year. Everyone knows he's got the power to hit 15-20 home runs.

"We need him in all phases of the game to take that next step up and go from a major-leaguer to someone that can be a part of the nucleus on a championship club."

Hall, 28, doesn't think he is far away, especially since he is only in his third season as a big-league starter.

He adapted to the way Piniella wanted the game called, improved his skills at blocking pitches, and he led the majors last season by throwing out 41.3 percent of potential base-stealers.

His .253 average, 12 homers and 47 RBIs may not have been overwhelming, especially for a guy who came up through the minors known for his offense. He ranked in the middle of the pack of regular catchers and thinks he deserves more credit than he has been given in the organization.

"It really wasn't that bad," Hall said. "I think it's just the expectations they had as far as offense, of me coming out and hitting 20 or 30 home runs and hitting .300. It's a whole different ballgame when you're hitting in the big leagues and trying to demand of yourself to be the best catcher you can possibly be. ...

"To be able to do both, there's the elite five or six who are always up there - Pudge (Rodriguez), (Jorge) Posada, (Jason) Varitek, (Mike) Piazza, those guys. Do I want to be in that category? Of course. But I think when you look at the back of their baseball cards, the first three or four years were not that good, probably not up to expectations. They grew into being who they are now."

Hall has grown, too, and it hasn't been easy. There were plenty of loud conversations in the dugouts and long nights in the clubhouse last season as he learned just what it is to be a catcher for Piniella. In other words, to accept that he was responsible for everything bad that happened.

If he called a bad pitch, he understood there would be consequences. But when Hall made the right call and the pitcher threw it to the wrong spot, it didn't seem right that he was being yelled at. He'd go back and forth with Piniella and the coaches, looking at replays and trading explanations. When the coaches briefly took over pitch-calling responsibilities, Hall was glad - so they could see things from his perspective. He was increasingly frustrated, often going home, or calling from the road, and spending hours talking to Karra about it.

Finally, he had enough.

"I'm not a very animated person," Hall said. "I don't like yelling back, especially at more authoritative people. There were a couple times I had to. I had to snap. Finally, I said, "This isn't PlayStation. I don't have a remote control back there to make it move, to make it go this way.' Then I think they started realizing it wasn't pitch selection, it was location."

Hall had a realization, too, that he was letting the constant battle affect his usually steady offense. "A lot of times I'd go up to home plate, and if the pitcher threw the rosin bag I'd swing at it," he said. "I wanted to hit it 900 feet, and that's not me."

Eventually, Hall learned what Piniella and the coaches wanted him to do, learned how to separate what happened when he was behind the plate from when he was at the plate, learned that he had to make defense his priority. The coaches learned about him, too, and both sides say the communication is better.

Bullpen/catching coach Matt Sinatro said he has been impressed with Hall's attitude and his effort throughout spring training.

"Toby's shown improvement; he really has," Piniella said. "He's working extremely hard in camp, he's more experienced and he has a better idea of what we expect and what we want."

"I'm only 28 years old, and I feel like I've learned so much and feel confident in everything I do now," Hall said. "I used to be real hesitant as far as confidence about playing in the big leagues."

Hall wants this to work out. He, Karra and their infant son, T.J., make their home in Tampa year-round, and he wants to stay in the community and be part of what the Rays are building.

He knows there could be millions of dollars at stake, and he knows the Rays brought in a top-notch veteran backup in Brook Fordyce, and promised Robert Fick some time behind the plate. But insists he won't put any extra pressure on himself or try to do more than he can.

"This is where I want to be," Hall said. "I think they know what they have. If they don't realize what they have, someone else will."

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