As the baseball disappeared from sight and her little brother rounded the bases, Morgan Toles felt her phone flood with text messages.
Andrew Toles’ grand slam at Coors Field on Wednesday cemented his place in the strange saga of the Dodgers’ 2016 season. It also ignited a flurry of communication among his family members, continuing a summerlong ritual.
The group message started out with Morgan, her younger sister and their parents when the Dodgers first brought Andrew to the big leagues in June. As the season went on and his role expanded, so did the chain. Now it includes aunts, uncles, cousins, all reveling in Toles’ emergence from the long shadow cast by his family’s athletic prowess.
The group treats each milestone in Toles’ career with glee. Those on the East Coast are willing to stay up. Morgan joked about pounding 5-Hour Energy drinks at her desk in the women’s basketball office at Kent State. At this point, the family’s only issue with Toles involves one of the reasons for his appeal among Dodgers fans: his thick, jaw-consuming beard.
“He looks like a black hipster, hippie dude,” Morgan Toles said. “Or like a logger. Like Paul Bunyan, a lumberjack. My mom hates it. I’m actually glad that he shaved it down. Because he had been growing that thing for a minute. We’re like, ‘You’ve got to figure it out. You look homeless.’”
Toles, 24, offers value beyond the comedic potential of his facial hair. The grand slam pushed his batting average to .397. He can play all three outfield positions. He offers speed for a team that ranks 27th in the majors in stolen bases.
In a limited sample size, he has impressed his superiors with his composure as a pinch-hitter. Manager Dave Roberts suggested Wednesday that even his veteran hitters could learn from Toles’ approach.
“He’s just so calm and cool,” Roberts said. “It’s just like a young player going out there and playing baseball in his backyard.”
It was in his own backyard in the suburbs of Atlanta that Toles first learned how to overcome failure. Morgan is a year older than Andrew. When she practiced basketball in the court behind the house, her brother often came outside and issued challenges. Mercy did not suit her.
“I’m not going to let my little brother beat me one-on-one,” Morgan Toles said. “So I would just destroy him. But as he got older, he got bigger and stronger, and he would try to body me up. He was just so bad, skill-wise. He would try to run me over, and it got to the point where my parents had to break us up.”
Basketball was never an option for Andrew. The Dodgers list him at 5 feet 10, which feels generous. And his stature hurt his chances on the gridiron. Surgery for a hernia ended his football career during his junior year at Sandy Creek High in Tyrone, Ga. Alvin explained the reality to his son.
“He was like, ‘If you get hurt this much playing in high school, you aren’t going to make it in the pros or college,’” Toles said.
Toles flourished on the diamond but experienced a rocky transition after high school. He has dealt with anxiety, and he left Tennessee after one season to enroll at Chipola College. The Tampa Bay Rays drafted him in 2012 and named him their minor league player of the year the next season.
But Toles sat out games in 2014 because of personal reasons and negotiated his release the following spring. Back home in Georgia, Toles pondered his next move.
“The biggest thing was just him being happy,” Morgan Toles said. “It wasn’t about baseball. If baseball wasn’t an option, we were fine with that. We just wanted to make sure he was good as a person.”
When the Dodgers signed Toles to a minor league deal last October, his family figured he would need a few years of seasoning before he reached the majors. Toles required less than three months.
Morgan will get a chance to see her brother and his beard in person this month. The head coach at Kent State organized a retreat for his staff in New York, an event that just happens to coincide with the Dodgers’ Sept. 12-14 series at Yankee Stadium. When Andrew makes a move, she expects her phone to buzz.
“It’s really cool,” she said, “to see the whole family come together and celebrate him.”