Joe Henderson Columns
Alonso grad Toledo hopes to cap Florida career with crown
TAMPA - It is possible to process many thoughts in the time it takes a fly ball to leave the bat and settle into an outfielder's glove. Pitcher Tommy Toledo of the University of Florida can tell you all about that. The situation was the NCAA Super Regional final Sunday against Mississippi State. He had just thrown the pitch that would lead to the final out in the win to put the Gators back in the College World Series. In those seconds before victory was secured, Toledo experienced emotions of elation, reflection, perhaps even a little satisfaction. Then he had to duck.His teammates came stampeding toward him as he stood on the mound at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville. Moments later, he was buried under joyous teammates. Even that celebration triggered yet another thought. "Unbelievable," he said. Athletes tend to use that word a lot, but in this case it might really apply. It's not a stretch to say it was unbelievable for the former Alonso High pitcher and Saladino Award winner to be in that position at all. He lost the 2009 season at UF after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right arm. After he returned from a lengthy rehab, calamity struck again — although actually it was a line drive that struck him in the face while he pitched against Charleston Southern. The labrum operation was a church picnic compared to this. He needed 11 hours of reconstructive surgery on his face. Doctors used eight metal plates and 36 screws during the operation. "It was bad," said Pete Toledo, Tommy's father. "His mother couldn't stop crying, but I never doubted he'd be back, never. You know the first thing he said to me after he came out of surgery? He goes, 'Dad, I never should have hung the curveball.' " Compared to the 12 months he needed to come back after labrum surgery, his recovery from the facial operation was lightning fast. He was back on the mound after eight weeks. Pete still gets a lump in his throat telling the story how everyone stood and cheered when Tommy came in against Florida Atlantic in Gainesville. The box score says he threw one scoreless inning that night. The reality is, he accomplished much more than that. "You could tell the fire was still there," Pete said. "He was banging his hand against his glove as he got ready to pitch, which is what he does when he's really competing. "But what he did still amazes me, and I'm his dad. I'm not easily amazed." Neither is Tommy, apparently. He shrugged off the line drive as "bad luck" and the torn labrum as a "shoulder thing." No big deal. "I just tried to get back out there after that and get after it," he said. "I never doubted I'd be back, not at all." Tommy Toledo, you may have guessed by now, lives a life without regrets. He never second-guessed his decision to sign with Florida coming out of Alonso, even after the San Diego Padres took him in the third round of the 2007 amateur draft. "It was a tough four years but my teammates and coaches have been so supportive," said Toledo, who posted a 6-3 record in 27 appearances this season. Now he is just one class short of earning his degree at Florida, and he is in Omaha, Neb., for the second time in as many years. The Gators open play at 7 tonight against Texas. These almost certainly will be Tommy's final days in a Gators uniform. He has a redshirt season available if he wants it, but the Milwaukee Brewers took him in the 11th round of the draft last week and it's time to go. That thought hit him right around the same time his onrushing teammates did after the final out to secure the trip to Omaha. "I had never been at the bottom of a dog pile before," he said. "I was thinking, 'You know, this is a pretty good way to end my last game at McKethan.' " Oh, there was one more thing. "I'm not going to lie to you, I was very nervous watching that," Pete said. "He got cleated on his foot in that pile-up. He's got a slice on his right foot from his toe to the tongue of his shoe. You know what he tells me? 'Dad, I'm gonna keep that shoe forever.' " It's just one more souvenir in a journey filled with memories.