San Diego

From Bagging Groceries to Hitting Grand Slams, Dodgers' Andrew Toles Proves Hard Work Pays Off

A year ago, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andrew Toles was bagging groceries in Georgia, now, he's hitting home runs in the big leagues. Read his story of redemption.

It's three hours before game time, but Andrew Toles is nowhere near the clubhouse. His teammates are relaxing, playing Candy Crush on their phones, looking at film or listening to music.

Instead, I find Toles in the cage. Taking swing after swing, focused as a fly on a flower stem.

He speaks softly, but carefully. He looks like a cross between a hipster and James Harden, but behind his eyes is a troubled past with a hopeful future. 

To learn about the man behind the eyes, you must first hear his story. It's a tale drawn from despair, fraught with struggle, and sprinkled with a pinch of patience.

Toles grew up in Decatur, Georgia where he challenged his sisters at sports every chance he could. His older sister, Morgan, would beat him at basketball in their frequent games of one-on-one in the backyard. 

"I'm not going to let my little brother beat me one-on-one," Morgan told Andy McCullough of the LA Times earlier this month. "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 would try to run me over and it got to the point where my parents had to break us up."

The son of a collegiate basketball player, Vicky Toles, and of a professional football player in his father, Alvin, the young Andrew grew up wanting to play in the NFL, a dream that was dashed because of an injury in high school.

So Toles pivoted to baseball where he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Miami Marlins. He turned them down, and instead chose college over a paycheck. He enrolled at the University of Tennessee to play baseball for the Vols.

Unfortunately for Toles, his time at Rocky Top was rifled with off the field issues and he was dismissed from the team in 2011 for not upholding a "certain standard of accountability."

Toles transferred to Chipola Junior College where he toiled with anxiety disorder for years. He again entered the MLB Draft and was taken in the third round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012.

His struggles followed him to Tampa where after he was named the Rays' Minor League Player of the Year in 2013, he was released by the team for "personal reasons," before the 2015 season.

So Toles went home to Georgia where he waited for the phone to ring, hoping another MLB team would give him a second chance. The phone never rang, and slowly, he came to grips with the realization that his baseball career could be over.

"I worked at a grocery store," Toles told NBC LA. "I was just sitting at home waiting for phone calls."

It was while working in the local Kroger grocery store in Georgia bagging items for customers that Toles tugged at the idea of returning to the sport he loved. He began working out again, lifting weights and running, while his father put him through drills. He watched videos of his swing and worked on his approach at the plate, before long, he finally got the call he was waiting for.

On the phone was Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers President of Baseball Operations, and the man who drafted Toles when he was General Manager of the Rays.

Friedman knew the talent Toles possessed and offered him a second chance with the Los Angeles Dodgers before the 2016 season. He told the young prospect that he would have to earn his way back to baseball and start at the bottom rung of the ladder.

Toles took the opportunity and ran with it. Literally. After starting the season at Single-A Rancho Cucamonga, he skyrocketed up the ranks with stops at every minor league level. He hit .330 with 99 hits, 23 doubles, five triples, six home runs, 37 RBI and 52 runs scored in 73 games between Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A.

On July 8, he was called up to the big leagues and he immediately caught the attention of Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. 

"I don't know the whole story, but I know that [Friedman] is fond of him as a person, as a player," Roberts said of Toles. "With what he went through in the past, it's a great story to see him here in the big leagues. I know that we're excited to have him. He's dynamic. He can run, he can defend, he can hit, so it will be fun to throw him out there and see what he can do." 

Dodger fans saw what he could do on a cold day at the end of August as they finished up the second game of a doubleheader at Colorado's Coors Field.

After losing the first game 7-0, the Dodgers trailed 8-2 heading into the eighth inning of the finale. LA scored three runs that inning, and got within two runs with two outs in the ninth. That's when Toles stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. 

A multitude of things were running through his head: It's freezing cold outside, it's a travel day tomorrow, the Dodgers are trying to stave off the Giants in the division, he needs to earn more playing time, he needs to prove he should make the playoff roster, and most importantly, what pitches does Adam Ottavino throw.

Toles tossed all these elements aside and focused only on what was in front of him, processing all the information he had and remembering just one thing: sit on the fastball. 

His gaze was trained on the 6-foot-5-inch flamethrower in front of him. He immediately recognized the spin of the ball as it released his hand, picking up the speed and in a nanosecond, his brain sent the message to his body to turn the hips, squash the bug, and swing.

Suddenly, he was just a Georgia boy running around the bases. As he rounded third, and consciousness came back to him, he was surrounded by his teammates at home plate.

He had just hit the biggest home run of his life, a go-ahead, game winning, grand slam that propelled the Dodgers over the Rockies in what should have been a sweep by Colorado. 

"I was just trying to stay focused," he said of the biggest home run of his young career. "Don't look back. Always look forward. Tell myself, 'don't try to do too much."

Since he was called up, Toles is batting .323 with three homers, nine doubles, 15 RBI and 17 runs scored in the majors. The moments have only gotten bigger as the lights got brighter, but through it all, Toles has stayed even-keeled. 

That was at least until last Sunday when the champagne cascaded down his face like a golden waterfall of bubbly bliss. A year's worth of drudgery, determination, and discipline culminated in a celebration of excellence. 

So nobody stole a second glance when he stopped to savor the moment, smell the roses, and let off some steam.

"It feels pretty good," he said of clinching the NL West. "I was excited for our team. It was nice to relieve some pressure. We all worked hard to get here." 

It's hard not to feel doom-struck when life throws you a curveball and it feels as if you've reached rock bottom, but at just 24-years-old, Toles is still a kid, one who's part of something bigger than himself now. He's now a part of a team that cares about him and loves him. Not just any team, but the four-time National League West Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

"I'm not sure if I'm going to be on the playoff roster," Toles said. "But if I am, it just goes to show that hard work pays off." 

Toles definitely should be on the Dodgers 25-man postseason roster and when he is, it indeed will prove that hard work and a hopeful heart can turn anyone's life around.

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