He was the complete package. Six-foot-six, 215 pounds, with Ruthian power from the left side, Aaronesque pop from the right, a rocket of a fastball, size 18 feet and a mythic-sounding name. He was 18 when he was discovered playing in a weekly beer league for men who toiled in the fields, where he’d gone to work when he was 16, three years after he quit school.
A big league team worked him out. To get to the workout he flew on a plane and left his home state for the first time in his life. He hit 10 of 25 pitches for home runs right-handed, then turned around and did the exact same thing lefty. Then he went down to the bullpen and, with a windup that looked like Satchel Paige’s, fired strikes at 95 mph. He was signed on the spot. He got an agent. He was so green one of his new teammates had to teach him how to order pizza on the phone. Pretty soon his story was being told coast to coast. The offers poured in. They wanted to turn his life into movies, books, and television.
Sound familiar? Sound a little like the story of Roy Hobbes or Sidd Finch or Nuke LaLoosh?
But it’s all real. This mythical creature, this biopic waiting to happen, is named Toe Nash. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays signed him out of the southern Louisiana sugar cane fields. A scout named Benny Latino had spotted Nash playing Little League ball and made a mental note to check back on him in a few years, when he was in high school. But there was never any sign of Greg Nash, known as “Toe” since he was 3 because of his huge feet. Latino searched the box scores to no avail. Only later would Latino learn that Nash had been expelled from the eighth grade and had never gone back to school.
Latino was finally tipped off to check out the kid tearing up the sugar cane league. He found the boy, now a giant of a young man, and could scarcely believe what he saw. In this age of scouting combines and talent databases, undiscovered gems were supposed to be an extinct species.
Following that now-legendary workout Nash signed with the Devil Rays for a $30,000 signing bonus, and the starmaker machinery wheezed into gear. Peter Gammons wrote about him for ESPN.com (“Devil Rays find The Natural in the cane fields”). USA Today put him on its cover (“Youth a real-life version of ‘The Natural’”). Other papers picked up the story. (Montreal Gazette: “The Natural from the cane fields.” Detroit Free Press: “Sometimes, all a kid needs is to be found.” Ottawa Sun: “Toe Nash could be next Natural.” Chicago Sun-Times: “A Natural fact.” Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise: “The Nashural.” And so on, naturally.) Hollywood called.
Now, before anybody approves the final draft of that shooting script, here’s how many games Toe Nash has played in organized baseball, from high school on up: 10. The Devil Rays brought him to a winter instructional league in Florida, where he got into those few games, though the coaches preferred to work with him one-on-one because he’s so raw.
Toe Nash’s story comes straight out of the American mythos. It’s in our bones to respond to its rags to riches, farm to city, pure talent wins out rhythm. But let’s hold on here. This movie hasn’t even reached the second reel. That 30 Gs is certainly more money than Toe Nash has ever seen before, but he’s nowhere near being a success story. The rookie league where the Devil Rays expect he’ll play this year is five promotions away from the majors, each step on the ladder unimaginably hard to make. For every star like Mark McGwire or Pedro Martinez — and every journeyman like Kurt Abbott or Terry Mulholland — there are hundreds of astonishing power hitters and unhittable fireballers who never make it to the bigs. Toe Nash is only a little closer to the majors than you are. And I’ve seen you go to your right on a grounder.
We’re in bad need of heroes. We live in an era when Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is made to seem like Mother Teresa because he signed for “only” $18.9 million a year, $6.3 million less than the Rangers will pay Alex Rodriguez. What a selfless act! He could have demanded so much more, but with all the money he let the Yanks save, they can pay … a utility infielder to back him up. Jeter’s a wonderful player and for all I know a peach of a guy, but it’s a desperate stretch, after only five years, to compare him to Joe DiMaggio, as has become fashionable of late. Especially now that we’ve learned that even Joe DiMaggio wasn’t Joe Dimaggio.
Meanwhile, not that this is a bad thing for the movie, it was revealed that Nash had been arrested five times in the 10 months since his 18th birthday, including once on a felony robbery charge stemming from a fight at a house party and once on mutual domestic violence charges after a fight with his 41-year-old girlfriend. There’s also a marijuana possession charge.
On Friday, the assistant district attorney in Ascension Parish said he’s going to let Nash enter a pretrial intervention program. He’ll have to submit to random drug tests for at least six months and stay out of trouble. If he succeeds, the charges will be dropped. In the meantime, he can go to spring training and play ball.
The law’s giving Toe Nash a chance. Before we green-light his life story, we should too.