Obituary: Tim Tolman (1956-2021)

RIP to Tim Tolman, an outfielder and first baseman who spent parts of 7 seasons in the majors. He died on June 3 in Tucson, Ariz., after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 12 years ago. He was 65 years old. Tolman played for the Houston Astros (1981-85) and Detroit Tigers (1986-87) and held many minor-and major-league coaching and scouting roles until 2020.

Timothy Lee Tolman was born in Santa Monica, Calif., on April 20, 1956. He played baseball from the time he was nine years old, going from Little League to Babe Ruth ball to Connie Mack ball to American Legion to Loyola High School. He batted .471 as Loyola’s first baseman in his senior year of 1974, and the team went 22-3. Tolman made the first team All-CIF 4-A baseball team that year. He wasn’t the only future major-leaguer on the team, as Lonnie Smith of Centennial High School was one of the outfielders. Tolman was also part of the Westchester American Legion team that reached the finals of the state championship.

Tolman went to the University of Southern California, where he honed his game under legendary coach Rod Dedeaux. He also focused exclusively on baseball. While at Loyola, he had also been a running back on the football team. “I’m too small to pursue the sport at ‘SC,” cracked Tolman, who was 5’11” and 186 pounds in 1976.

Source: Arizona Daily Star, June 29, 1985.

In 1977, Tolman was one of six USC players named to the United States team for the annual Japan-USA College Baseball Championship Series — along with fellow Trojans Dave Hostetler, Dave Van Gorder and Rod Boxberger — Brad’s father. Tolman, who had moved to the outfield for his sophomore season of 1977, batted .293 for USC during the season. He hit a go-ahead 2-run double in the top of the 14th inning in a game on July 3 to give Team USA a 5-3 win over Japan.

Tolman not only represented Team USA again in 1978, but he was also the co-captain of the USC team that won the College World Series, defeating Arizona State. He hit .404 during USC’s regular season and was named the left fielder on the all-tournament team. Tolman had 3 hits and an RBI in the championship game.

While Tolman was at USC, he had a 26-game hitting streak, which was a school record for 17 years until Jacque Jones broke it in 1995. Thanks to Tom Tolman for telling me this and some other interesting facts about his big brother’s life.

The Houston Astros drafted Tolman in the 12th Round of the 1979 June Amateur Draft. He batted .344 in limited action in the low minors in 1978 and hit .289 for Class-A Daytona Beach in 1979. As he moved up the minor leagues, Tolman began to add some power to his offense. He hit 7 homers for AA Columbus in 1980 and then homered 14 times for AAA Tucson in 1981. He also batted.322 and drove in 99 runs that season, with most of the offense coming from when he was moved from the bottom of the lineup to the 4th spot. He was an unconventional but successful cleanup hitter, batting .450 over the last month of the season. His success earned him a late-season call to the majors.

“I really didn’t expect it,” Tolman said. “Three weeks ago, I didn’t think I had a shot.”

Houston was leading the NL West in the second half of the strike-shortened 1981 season, so rookies like Tolman didn’t get much of a chance to contribute. His first appearance was as a pinch-hitter in a 9-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves. He grounded into a force play against Phil Niekro to end the game. Tolman had just 8 at-bats in 4 games, and he didn’t get his first major-league hit until October 3 in Los Angeles. He went 1-for-2 with a single off Dodgers closer Steve Howe after entering the game as a pinch-hitter. He ended his season with 1 hit in the 8 at-bats, and Houston’s season ended in the NL Division Series against the Dodgers.

Tolman never had a full season in the majors. What usually happened is that he would start the season with Houston as a pinch-hitter and backup first baseman and corner outfielder. He was never given an opportunity to play regularly in the majors, and that lack of regular playing time inevitably hurt his performance and necessitated a trip to the minors, where he’d hit around .300. In 1982, he hit .302 with 15 homers in the minors and was promoted to the big leagues at the end of August. He primarily pinch-hit, but he started a game against Cincinnati and had 2 doubles and an RBI in a 2-1 win. His first major-league home run came in Houston against the Reds on October 1, off Bob Shirley. It was his first hit in front of the home audience, as all of his prior hits had come on the road. He ended the season with a .192 average in 15 games.

Tolman answers questions as new manager of the Jackson Generals. Source: Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.), February 15, 1995.

Tolman spent almost the entire 1983 season as an Astro, with a brief stint in Tucson in late June that lasted all of 7 games. At the big-league level, he got into 43 games, which was the most action he ever saw in one season. Tolman hit 2 home runs, and both of them were pinch-hit homers; The one hit on May 31 off the Cubs’ Craig Lefferts tied the game at 9, and Houston went on to win 12-10. Tolman finished the year with a .196 average and 10 RBIs, along with a lot of frustration.

“Bob Lillis [manager] and Denis Menke [hitting coach] went out of their way to see that I had extra at-bats in practice and simulated games. But I’m not sure anybody would have had more success than I did with so few at-bats,” Tolman said, adding that by the time he got into a game, it was usually against the other team’s best left-handed reliever.

Houston signed Enos Cabell to be their primary right-handed pinch-hitter for the 1984 season, which had been Tolman’s role. “[Tolman]’s a good hitter, a real good hitter, but clearly we’ve got a roster problem,” said general manager Al Rosen in spring training, indicating Tolman was the odd man out of the Astros’ plans. He appeared in just 14 games for Houston at the start and end of the season, with 3 hits in 17 at-bats. The following season, 1985, Tolman bounced back and forth between Houston and Tucson. He was hitless in his first 20 big-league plate appearances, stretching from April 11 until a pinch-hit double on August 5. Tolman hit two 3-run homers in September, one of which was another pinch-hit appearance. The other came off Cincinnati ace reliever John Franco. Tolman had a .140 batting average in 31 games in Houston and a .302 average in 40 games in Tucson.

“It felt good to be contributing. That erased some of the frustration,” Tolman later said of his late-season homers. “But it’s tough to prove something when you only get 43 at-bats.”

Let go as a free agent, Tolman signed with the Detroit Tigers for the 1986 season. He spent most of the season with the AAA Nashville Sounds, where he batted .298. Detroit brought him up to the majors in September, but unlike past years, Tolman actually had steady playing time over the final month of the season. He served as a designated hitter and also played some right field when Kirk Gibson missed a few games with a dog bite on his hand. Tolman started off cold but had a few hits in the final games to raise his batting average to .176 by the end of the season. Tolman started 1987 back in the minors but got into 9 games with Detroit in July and August when Johnny Grubb went on the disabled list. He had 1 hit in 12 at-bats for an .083 batting average, but he also had 7 walks to give him a .429 on-base percentage. Those were his last games in the majors.

“After watching major leaguers and playing for a couple years, you realize that you may not be a superstar,” he said as he was sent back to AAA Toledo. “Everyone would like to start, but there comes a point when you have to realize you’re a role player.”

In 7 seasons in the majors, Tolman appeared in 132 games and had 228 plate appearances. He had a slash line of .168/.262/.296, with 33 hits that included 10 doubles and 5 home runs. He drove in 24 runs, scored 21 times and had 24 bases on balls. He played fewer than 300 innings in the field between first base, left field and right field, but Tolman never committed a single error at any position.

Tolman played in the minors through 1989, retiring as a player at the age of 33. He had a career .296 batting average in 12 minor-league seasons. Even before he had retired, former Astros GM Rosen said of Tolman, “I think he’s got a future as a coach or a manager.”

Tolman immediately got into the coaching side of baseball by joining the Tucson Toros staff in 1990. After a year, he was named manager of the Burlington Astros of the Midwest League for 1991. Tolman stayed in the Houston organization as a minor-league manager through the 1996 season, eventually working his way up to manager of his old AAA team, the Tucson Toros. He managed outfielder Bobby Abreu at several levels along the way, and one of the pitchers in his starting rotation for the 1995 Jackson Generals and ’96 Toros was lefty Billy Wagner.

Source: Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Tolman, perhaps because he never got a fair chance in the majors, became a player’s manager in the best way. Manny Acta, his player-coach for the 1992 Asheville Tourists, said, “He loves the game and he loves to help. If a kid fails, he knows he’ll get another chance. He proves to you that you’re important and that you belong on the team. He’s likable just because of that.”

Tolman said that he picked up much of his managerial habits from Dedeaux at USC. Dedeaux stressed two components: confrontation and communication. If you can handle those two things, you can be successful as a manager, Tolman said. “His philosophy was to play hard but have fun. I try to carry that with me. It’s not brain surgery out there. Play hard during the game, but when it’s over, the kids should relax.”

In addition to his minor-league managerial jobs, Tolman also managed in Winter League teams in Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

Starting in 1997, Tolman acted as a scout and minor-league camp administrator for the Astros, becoming the west regional supervisor in November, 2000. He moved to the Cleveland Indians organization in 2002 as field coordinator. In 2007, Tolman moved back to an on-field role, as Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta named his former minor-league manager as his third base coach. He was let go after two seasons and joined the Seattle Mariners for a year as a coordinator of minor-league instruction. Acta took a new job in 2010 as Cleveland manager, and he hired Tolman again, this time as bench coach.

Tolman was part of one of baseball’s more memorable moments in 2010. On June 2, umpire Jim Joyce infamously blew a call at first base, ending Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga’s bid for a perfect game. The following day, Galarraga brought out the lineup card for Detroit and talked with a tearful Joyce about it. Tolman was there as well, as he brought out the lineup card for Cleveland that day and is a part of many of the photos featuring the meeting between the pitcher and umpire.

Tolman was a part of the pre-game meeting between umpire Jim Joyce and Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga, a day after Joyce’s blown call cost Galarraga a perfect game.

Toward the end of the 2011 season, Tolman announced he was resigning his position. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two years prior, and he said that it was starting to affect the physical parts of his job. “It’s time for me to step away and get a handle on this and make sure I continue to get the right treatment,” he explained. In his last day as an on-field coach, he inadvertently ended up as the Cleveland manager. Acta was ejected in the first inning after arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire. It was a rare ejection for Acta, who strenuously denied that the ejection was done for any other reason than poor umpiring.

“Tim has been with me since I was in the minor leagues; he’s been my mentor since then,” Acta told reporters. “When I thought about being a manager, I always envisioned him being with me until the end of my career. So this is not going to be easy. He was a lot of help to me.”

Tolman remained with the Indians organization through 2020, serving in a scouting and talent and evaluation role. He is survived by his wife, Christy, and two sons, Andrew and Casey.

For more information: USC Trojans

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