Tough and strong are often thought of as synonyms, but I don't believe that they are. If I ever refer to someone as strong, it means they spend a lot of time in the weight room or do a lot of pushups in their spare time. Strength measures the size of your muscles and that's about it. Toughness is a word that encapsulates strength, determination and resolve. One of the best compliments I could ever give a person—especially one of my players—is to say they are tough. Toughness comes from the soul and the spirit, not in your muscles or workout regimen.
Tough is also synonymous with difficult, such as, "He is tough to deal with." But I only like to use tough as a positive in my vocabulary. When I refer to players as tough it means they are gritty; they are dirt dogs; they put their bodies and all of themselves on the line for their teammates and the betterment of the program. I don't have an entire roster full of tough, gritty players. I could absolutely use a whole lot more, and eventually the more we bring into our family the more we will win. Flash and flare don't win baseball games. It's the ability to get the job done by any means necessary … it's the ability to finish the job. The programs with more of those blue collar "tough" players are the programs that compete every day and always take it a bit further than the teams that don't have those guys.
Our team was dealt a big blow during a recent game. Kevin Toro, a redshirt junior, was going back on a ball in the left field gap and suffered an injury similar to the one that caused him to miss his entire junior season and has been nagging him ever since. This injury likely will keep him from competing for the rest of the 2014 season, and after a year of rehab it was a crushing blow to one of the most competitive and decent kids I have ever had the opportunity to be around.
Kevin stands at only 5-foot-6, and although he is very strong for his size, he is anything but intimidating by stature. Kevin, a big Red Sox fan (although he is from New Jersey … who knew?) has been sporting a beard in honor of the "Sawx" championship run last season. His beard kills me for two reasons; one, it is unkempt and rarely cleaned up, and two, I (being a big Yankee fan) am often reminded of the Red Sox championship every time I look at him. I see Johnny Gomes and/or Mike Napoli every time I look at him. Still, I let him wear it with pride. Kevin's time here has been marred with injuries, and a lesser man would have hung up his cleats a long time ago, but Kevin doesn't know the meaning of the word quit. Kevin doesn't understand what it means not to give 100%. He wants to help the team win by whatever means necessary. He, without a doubt in my mind, is the toughest kid I have ever coached.
One of Kevin's strengths is he is not afraid to get hit by the baseball. Kevin came to Mitchell from Raritan Valley where he had two successful seasons. He got an incredible recommendation from his coach, and the one statistic that really intrigued me was not his batting average, stolen bases or slugging percentage, but his ability to get hit by the baseball. Kevin was second in the country in hit by pitches at Raritan Valley, and in nine games played for us in 2013 he was hit five times. Most people when a ball is coming at them flinch, or get out of the way. They are afraid to get hit, afraid to take the pain, afraid that they will get hurt. Kevin stays right in the box, and if a ball is thrown at his general direction he will not move a muscle and will wear it. In fact I have seen it on more than a few occasions in which Toro will lean into the pitch so that he can get on first base. He, without a doubt in my mind, is the toughest kid I have ever coached.
Kevin's original injury occurred over a year ago in our first game back from our Florida trip. It was a cold day and we were playing on turf up in Boston, and he just pivoted the wrong direction and went down. We held him out for a week or two while rehabbing the injury before our trainers finally cleared him to play. So we lightly allowed him to swing and jog, but Kevin has a tough time dialing back. In an intrasquad game he landed awkwardly and was done for the rest of the season.
The injury kept him on the sidelines for a whole year, and finally in February of this year he was cleared 100%. Seeing him up in the gym working as hard as ever was really exciting. Not only to see a guy who cares about playing baseball and cares about winning as much as he does, but really exciting because he spent an entire year of rehabilitation. Fought through pain and days where he couldn't walk. He fought through monotonous hours of rehab and walking on a treadmill. He fought through all of that and came out on the other side. He was in our starting lineup for our first game as we headed down to Florida and I couldn't have been more proud of him. He, without a doubt in my mind, is the toughest kid I have ever coached.
Mid-way through our trip, the same injury flared up and forced him to miss a few games. We thought the injury was going to be more serious and time consuming than it actually was; he missed a few weeks but was able to get back into the lineup, and in only his third game back against conference foe Becker, he went 4-for-5 with two doubles to lead our 16-hit attack and help us win the series. Walking out to right field it was no secret who was going to be receiving the game ball, and when I held it up to announce who would receive it the team cheered ferociously. He, without a doubt in my mind, is the toughest kid I have ever coached.
Unfortunately, a few weeks later the injury reoccurred and in a big way. It will almost certainly cost him the rest of this season. It was difficult for me to even look at him sitting in the back of the athletic training cart during the rest of the game because there is no greater competitor and no greater kid. I was afraid if I looked him in the eyes I would get emotional. The only thing I could do was whisper to him that "he will be back." He entered my office two days later on crutches, and we soon received the news that it would more than likely end his season and be another long road to recovery. He, without a doubt in my mind, is the toughest kid I have ever coached.
I sat him down in my office and told him how proud of him I was. Told him he would accompany the team on every trip because he was the most "team" guy we had. Then I had a big question to ask him. "Kev," I said, "is this something you want to do again? Do you want to rehab for a whole year in hopes of returning at full strength? It's going to be an uphill battle, and just like the previous year it could be marred with setbacks, and next year the same thing could occur. Is this really what you want to do?"
Without missing a beat he looked me dead in the eyes and said with absolute certainty, "Yes." I pushed back and said, "Are you sure?" As convinced as I ever have been about anything in my life, he once again stared directly at me and declared, "Without a doubt." The only response I could muster up (because I was holding back tears) was, "Good." He, without a doubt in my mind, is the toughest kid I have ever coached.
Our season has been up and down. We have had some great wins, we have had some deplorable losses, and everything in between. We have not played very consistently and for me that has been difficult to deal with. However, knowing that Kevin Toro will be returning for his senior year, and we have the tough, gritty, dirt dog for one more season, puts me at ease for the future of the program. My challenge to the current and future players in this program is to take a good long look at Kevin Toro. Look at how he handles himself on and off the field, watch how he gives everything he has for his teammates, and try to embody that mentality.
Kevin is not our most talented player, but as I stated previously the most talented team doesn't always win championships. The team that pushes, grinds, fights, attacks, never says quit, and never feels content is the team that will win. I need to find more guys like Kevin Toro, because he, without a doubt in my mind, is the toughest kid I have ever coached.
Until next time,
Keep the correct perspective!
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