It's Finally Decision Time for Tim Tolman : His Big League Dream Has Come True--and Burst--Seven Times

Times Staff Writer

Five weeks ago, Tim Tolman's dream came true--for the seventh time. After tearing up the triple-A international league, Tolman of Santa Monica and a member of the 1978 USC national championship baseball team, was called up to the major leagues by the Detroit Tigers to fill a utility role.

Nine days ago, Tolman woke up. He was sent down to triple-A Toledo. Pinch-hitting was never Tolman's goal. Playing everyday in the major leagues is what he wants to do--or wanted to do until now.

But seven times in the last nine years Tolman has seen major league action, and each time he has failed to earn a full-time job.

He has come to realize that starting for a major league team may not be his destiny. "After watching major leaguers and playing for a couple years, you realize you may not be a superstar," he said. "Everyone would like to start, but there comes a point when you have to realize you're a role player."

But Tolman, who hit .325 with 14 home runs and 59 RBIs in 96 games at Toledo this year before seeing Tiger Stadium, has never really filled his role.

"He had a difficult time adjusting from an everyday player to what we needed at the time, a role player," said Dan O'Brien Jr., scouting director for the Houston Astros.

The Astros selected Tolman in the 12th round of the 1978 draft, used him in 107 games from 1981-1985 and released him after the 1985 season. O'Brien said he questions whether Tolman, 31, ever received enough of a chance to become a successful utility player . Tolman has similar questions. But he is not bitter, just realistic.

"I fit all the qualifications for the role of a pinch hitter," he said last month. "I really feel I'm ready if they need me."

An injury to Detroit's veteran utility player John Grubb created a vacancy for Tolman. Grubb returned last week, making Tolman expendable. However, Detroit is neck-deep with New York and Toronto in the American League East Division, so the Tigers may need Tolman's services for the stretch run.

Whether or not he returns to Detroit, Tolman is no stranger to uncertainty.

In 1981, after hitting .322 in 137 games at triple-A Tuscon, he went one-for-eight in four games with the Astros. The next year, he again started with Tuscon, hit .302 in 125 games and was called up for some coffee near the end of the season. In 1983, he made the major league club, but hit only .196 in 43 games and was sent to Tuscon where he batted .375 in seven games.

"I didn't believe I had made the club," Tolman remembered, "until I heard them play the national anthem."

Late in 1984, he heard the Astrodome organ again when Houston promoted him, and despite Tolman's .176 mark in 14 games, the Astros gave him a job in 1985. Tolman, though, managed only six hits in 43 at-bats and was sent to Tuscon, only to be called up once more before being released in November, 1985.

Tolman remembers some agonizing days in Houston. "If the game was on the line, it was my job to come in and make something happen," he said. "It was a real frustrating experience."

His frustration carried into 1985, when he struck out in his first game and didn't see the plate again for 3 1/2 weeks.

Tolman and wife Kristy had rented a house in Houston that year, hoping to move in permanently. But when the Astros sent Tolman to Tuscon and he hit only .250 in his first 100 at-bats, he told Kristy to fly to Houston and close out their lease because he figured he'd never see Houston again. "That was a crazy year," Kristy Tolman recalled.

The craziness continued. At one point an unknown utility infielder hopped on the team bus, and Tolman thought, "I must be going down." He was right, but friend Joe Niekro was pitching the second game of a double-header that night, and Niekro told Tolman to stay around so the two could have dinner. As game time approached Astros president and general manager Al Rosen told Tolman to get dressed because, according to Tolman, Rosen said Houston had forgotten to put Tolman on waivers and was unable to send him down.

"So I was back out there," Tolman said, "starting the second game of a double-header after being sent down before the the first game."

Rosen, currently San Francisco Giants president and general manager, could not recall Tolman's waiver problems. He, like O'Brien, did say Tolman may never realize his potential because of his inability to find an everyday job.

"I think he's got a future as a coach or a manager," said Rosen.

Back in the minors with an organization whose big-league club is challenging for a pennant, Tolman has to wonder if he fits the Tigers' plans. When he signed a free-agent contract with Detroit in 1986, he believed the Tigers would find a place for him. Late last year, Detroit called him up, but he hit just .176 in 16 games and started this season at Toledo.

Included in his dreams are real financial concerns. Nine more days in the big leagues will give him three years of major league service, making him eligible for increased pension benefits and opening his option to reject demotions in favor of free agency. If the Tigers had waited to send him down, Tolman would have been able to peddle his services to other major league clubs immediately. Instead, he toils in Toledo.

But Tolman wants people to realize he understands the business of baseball, and knows what he has to do to succeed. "I have to try to make myself more marketable," he said. "I have to try to hit for more power and not lose my average."

Versatility is also one of Tolman's goals, and at Toledo he hit more than .300 while playing at second base, at third base and in the outfield.

Joe McDonald, Tigers vice president of player development, finds Tolman's versatility an asset. "The more positions you can play, the better off your chances are for returning to the majors," he said.

"I'm through predicting when players will get to the majors because I've been wrong so many times. But Tim is an exceptional person and an exceptional minor league player. I still maintain that the cream comes to the top, and if Tim takes great care of himself and doesn't dog it, he may be able to play in the majors."

If he can't, Tolman is considering playing in Japan, where six-figure salaries are not uncommon. He's mentioned the Japan option to McDonald, who has written to Japanese teams on behalf of Tolman. McDonald said he only recommends a player if he thinks the player will represent the country well and perform well.

When Tolman starting hitting at Toledo, "I was flipping for joy," said McDonald, who knew then his recommendation would not fall on deaf ears.

Before that recommendation takes hold, Tolman may be back in Detroit as the Tigers drive for a pennant. He will not be eligible for the playoffs or World Series if he is called back up after Sept. 1. But a bright future in Japanese baseball may make his uncertain major league future easier to swallow.

Moving to Japan may be the most difficult. But, "right now I'd be willing to make the sacrifice," Tolman said, "because we've moved enough as it is."

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