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Rays’ prospect shows he's eager to catch on

Toby Hall is spending plenty of extra time fine-tuning his skills behind the plate.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Toby Hall had been an infielder all his life. His baseball world revolved around ground balls, long throws across the infield and completing relays to home.

photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Toby Hall was an infielder until the Giants encouraged him to switch positions after they drafted him in the 21st round in 1996.
And he wasn't bad, being named all-state during his senior year at El Dorado High in California.

That was how Hall envisioned himself in the major leagues, playing third base, or possibly first, for whichever team was lucky enough to draft him. Then the Giants called.

They noticed Hall's numbers, recognized the honors he had accumulated and drafted him out of Sacramento City College in the 21st round in 1996. Then they informed him he was going to become a catcher.

Hall, who had never caught a game in his life except for "maybe when I was in tee-ball when they threw the little fat kid out there," decided if he was going to heed the Giants' advice, he'd better practice. He accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and embarked on his career in the crouching position.

"They wanted to see me catch and I didn't want to go straight into pro ball not knowing how to catch, so I spent some time in Vegas catching a little bit there," Hall said. "(The Giants) felt that was the way I was getting to the major leagues. It was a big adjustment learning how to block, all the little things that it takes to catch ... throwing people out."

It was an easy enough adjustment that Hall, who split time between catching and infield for the Runnin' Rebels, was named All-American that season. The Rays took him in the ninth round of the 1997 draft.

He spent his first professional season with Class A Hudson Valley, where he honed his catching skills, but it wasn't until the next year at Charleston that Hall, 25, started feeling like a catcher.

"I always knew I could play infield, but to get where I'm at now I wanted to polish up catching," Hall said. "At first, it was tough. After that, once it started clicking, I was fine."

One of the biggest reasons things started clicking was a dedication to learning the position and all the intricacies that go along with it.

Last year, the 6-3, 205-pound Hall was a preworkout regular in the batting cage with catcher John Flaherty and instructor Orlando Gomez. The trio worked on Hall's footwork and throwing.

"I think he looks head and toes better than he was last year. And I think you have to give Toby some credit," Flaherty said. "Last year, he made it a ritual to join Orlando Gomez and myself in the batting cages in the morning working on footwork, throwing to second base and doing all the little things that you can do to get better behind the plate. He really made a commitment to it last year and the end result is now he doesn't have to work on as many things, it's coming naturally to him a little bit."

Added Hall: "Flaherty and (catcher Mike) DiFelice have been such huge helps with my success and working with Gomez the last couple years ... everybody's got me polished to where I'm able to go out in games and do everything."

That was never more evident than the exhibition against Philadelphia on Monday when he moved to his right to block a pitch in the dirt, possibly saving a run, then caught Doug Glanville trying to steal third for the final out of the inning.

Ironically, it appears Hall's best shot to make the 25-man roster is if Flaherty or DiFelice is traded, clearing a spot as backup catcher. That is something Hall said he doesn't think about very often.

Veteran catcher Pat Borders played with Hall last year at Triple-A Durham and saw the evolution of the former infielder. Borders has no doubts Hall will be a major-league catcher one day and attributes that mostly to his work ethic and willingness to listen.

Hall made a it a habit of talking to Borders in the dugout between innings, asking what he could have done differently or what he should have done in a certain situation.

"He's only been catching a few years, so you can't expect him to be super-refined," Borders said. "He's way ahead of the curve when you talk about learning and developing. He's a great hitter, he's got a good arm and he's willing to learn. He doesn't think he knows it all, which is an asset. He's open for suggestions and wants to learn. When you think you know it all, you're doing a disservice to yourself because you can't learn it all."

Hall gave the Rays a glimpse of what their future may hold when he was called up from Durham on Sept. 11. He appeared in four games, making three starts, and hit his first home run in his fourth at-bat, off Chicago's Frank Castillo. It is events like that that lead the Rays and Hall to believe a regular major-league catching job is right around the corner.

"Definitely," Hall said. "You can word definitely differently if you want, but if you don't feel deep down that you're able to play at this level, then you shouldn't be here."

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