Niagara Gazette — On a cool (he insists) August night in 2012, Justin Toole picked up a glove and trotted out to play right field for the Class A Carolina Mudcats of the Carolina League in Zebulon, N.C.
He would not return to that position. By 9:10 p.m. he had played a defensive inning at all nine positions. Did right well, too. Fielded a ground ball at each of the “throwing” infield positions. As catcher, snagged a third-strike foul tip. Then finished the game with two strikeouts on the mound. Had the Mudcats taken less of a lead into the ninth, he’d have earned a save.
But in “9 in 9,” the book Toole would later write, there is little self-congratulation, however justified. It’s not about the achievement, it’s about the journey, what he learned about the game in each position. It’s about putting yesterday behind you except as a learning tool, and accepting the failures endemic to the game in which missing seven times out of 10 makes you a star.
Nine-in-nine is not easily executed. First requirement, the opposing team’s good will, a recognition that no disrespect is intended. The game should not be impactful to the standings and it must be at home. A road team, behind in the score, will not take the field in the ninth. And a wise manager will prepare, in advance, a defensive lineup for every inning.
Greg Edge of the Bisons did it in 1992 but lasted only one batter as a pitcher, after a high fly fell for a triple, beyond the grasp of the catcher-by-trade stuck in right field. Since Edge retired nobody, the mound stint doesn’t show up on his “Baseball Cube.”
Base Paths seems to recall a Niagara Power player trying it, frustrated when rain cut the game short.
Toole was ideally suited to the task, a fine pitcher in high school and college who then took up the infield as a trade, volunteering for any position to increase his worth. Ironically, former Bison catcher Chris Coste wrote in “The 33-Year-Old Rookie” that the more he worked at becoming a utility player, the more scouts dismissed him as unfocused. It’s always something.
As a writer, Toole poses no threat to George Will or the late Mark Harris. There is something charming in his simplicity, even such Yogi-isms as “you can observe a lot by watching.” The book is purer than Ivory soap, with an odd “disclaimer” cautioning readers not to employ any of its psychological techniques without consulting a professional. Honest.
But its inspirations suit anyone involved in the game and the younger, the better. For the record, Greg Edge retired at 28, right after his own 9-in-9. Toole plays on, a Cleveland farmhand with a few cups of Columbus coffee. Hope he’s here, at least, when Columbus comes to Coca-Cola Field from June 24-27, Base Paths’ birthday, as it happens.
Doug Smith offers his thoughts on baseball with Base Paths, featured every Monday during local baseball season and occasionally in the offseason. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.