By MIKE READLING
© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 13, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- He hasn't set foot on a "real" baseball field yet, hasn't really seen what minor-league baseball is all about. He doesn't even have any professional baseball statistics.
But that hasn't stopped Toe Nash from becoming the most famous Rookie League player in America. A quick search on Ebay.com, the auction site with its finger on the pulse of America's latest intrigue, reveals 127 Toe Nash items up for bid.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound outfielder, whom the Rays signed in September, captured the nation's imagination in January when he made headlines with his story of hitting 400-foot home runs from both sides of the plate and throwing 95-mph fastballs after working in the Louisiana sugarcane fields all day.
Nash, 19, reported to his first spring training in March and has been working out at the Naimoli Complex with the rest of the Rays rookie leaguers. His lone playing experience has been in extended spring training games against 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds in the Blue Jays, Phillies and Yankees organizations.
He reports to Princeton this week and is scheduled to play in his first professional game Tuesday.
"I'm really excited. I can't wait," Nash said. "It's way longer when you're just working down here."
This spring, Nash has spent a lot of time warming up the leftfielder between innings and serving as bat boy. When he has played, he has been impressive. Two weeks ago he hit a left-handed home run, doubled from the right side and added a left-handed double in his third at-bat.
"He's gradually getting better," Rays field coordinator Tom Foley said. "He's been working hard, and he's got a lot of baseball to play. I'm sure he's ready to play in some 'real' games by now. With his bat and what we saw in the workouts, we decided to go down that avenue (of playing outfield rather than pitcher)."
Hitting home runs and doubles are normal for Nash. Everything else he has experienced the past three months has been new.
"I'm just happy to be on the pretty fields out here," Nash said. "I'm making friends with everybody. Some of the Dominican guys have been teaching me a few words of Spanish."
Though many players have complained about the brutal heat and humidity of late morning workouts and early afternoon games, Nash is happy to be experiencing them in leftfield, not while cutting sugarcane.
His main goal is to learn each day and to keep his body in shape for the rest of the season.
"It's going pretty good. I'm catching on every day," Nash said. "I'm hitting the ball pretty good and playing outfield pretty well. I expected it to be hard, and it's hot, but it's not that bad."
He still has pangs of homesickness, and he still longs for twilight games under the gum trees in the bayous. But Nash said it just takes one phone call a week to keep him in line and ready for his next new experience.
"As long as I talk to my sister and my dad at least once a week, I'm okay," he said. "I tell them how my day went, how the game went, find out everything that's happening back home. I find out how my old baseball team is doing."
TAKE THAT: Bakersfield right-hander Alex Santos struck out a career-high 15 Wednesday against Visalia, and the Blaze notched a franchise-high 20 strikeouts. Bakersfield entered Tuesday with a one-game lead in the California League North.
BLAZING STARS: Bakersfield first baseman/outfielder Nathan Kaup and left-hander Hans Smith were named to the All-Star team. Kaup was second in the league through Monday with a .369 average, and Smith led the league and the Rays organization with 16 saves.