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Tyler Tolbert was fresh off completing his 60th successive stolen base when one of his coaches pulled him aside.
“You do know,” the coach said, “that nobody has ever done that before, right?”
There was no big celebration at second base. He didn’t take the base with him. Tolbert, a Hewitt-Trussville High product, who went on to play at UAB, simply found out he was the first player in professional baseball history — minor leagues and major league - to steal 60 bases in a season on 60 attempts, while he was in a dugout conversation.
More than six weeks later, Tolbert, a member of the Kansas City Royals organization, who played this season for the High-A Quad Cities River Bandits, said the magnitude of his 60-for-60 accomplishment is still sinking in.
“It’s been really cool,” Tolbert said. “I just thank the Lord for this opportunity and thank all my coaches. They all helped me get to this point.”
There were plenty of close calls along the way.
“Any time you steal a base, it’s going to be kind of close,” said Tolbert, who was 53-of-55 on steal attempts in 2021. “It’s just part of the game. I have to get my scouting report, I see what the pitcher is giving me, what the catcher is doing, as well. The situation dictates itself, honestly. If I’m leading off, and my 3-hole hitter has a 2-0 or 3-0 count, I’m probably not going to steal. You got to let him hit there. It just depends on the pitcher, the catcher and the situation. If they give us an opportunity, I’ll take it.”
It’s been an interesting journey through minor league baseball already for the 24-year-old Tolbert, who led Hewitt-Trussville to the Class 7A state title in 2016 and was dynamic at UAB. He was drafted by the Royals in the 13th round of the MLB draft and played with the Royals Rookie League teams in Arizona and Idaho Falls.
In 2020, the uncertainty hit. The players reported to spring training and went to work, not knowing what would happen. A few weeks into the spring training, they were told that it might be a two-week delay for the minor league seasons to start. Ultimately, they got word that the minor league seasons were canceled.
The natural question was what comes next?
“It’s in the back of everybody’s head, especially with the uncertainty,” Tolbert said of the unknown job security. “I felt like our draft class, I wouldn’t say we were safe, but we felt a little bit better. We just played half a season. The Royals are a first-class organization. They actually paid us through the whole COVID year. They are amazing people, from the front office staff all the way down to the coaches. They really care about us as human beings.”
A year later, they returned to spring training with a different perspective.
“It taught me that this game and everything can be taken away from you very, very quickly,” Tolbert said. “After going through all that, you have a different perspective on everything, even the long bus rides. It just taught me to be present in the situation I’m in. It taught me to be where my feet are.”
Speaking of bus rides, Tolbert has a doozy of a trip – or maybe it was just a typical minor league day – in 2019. Playing at Idaho Falls, his team was in the playoffs and was slated to travel to Billings, Montana, after a night game at home. The plan was to get on the bus for the six-hour ride, get a few hours of sleep at a Billings hotel and go to the ballpark. The other option was to go home for the night, report back at 6 a.m. and get on the bus.
The players chose the second option.
“It was just a weird day,” Tolbert said. “We didn’t get on the field or nothing. We unloaded, hit in the cage, took a few ground balls and said let’s go play. We played and soon as the last out was made, within like three minutes, it just started pouring down rain. We got on the bus and came home. We won the game, so the trip home wasn’t as bad.”
Tolbert said a lot of things have changed since his first season. The bus rides can still be long, but teams are required to take two buses to make it more comfortable for the players. Housing is now provided for the players instead of turning them loose to find their own accommodations before the season begins. Hotel rooms are nicer and the food is better.
“It’s tough, but it’s gotten a whole lot better, a lot of people are advocating for us to have a better life,” Tolbert said. “From my first half season to my first full season, there have been drastic changes.”
He just finished his second full season and spent the entire season with Quad City. It was his first season that he played one position, spending the entire time at shortstop. In the past, including 2019, he spent time at second base, shortstop and all three outfield positions.
“Being versatile is best for me, not everybody can do it,” Tolbert said. “That’s something that I take pride in, being able to play multiple positions. If you can play multiple positions, you’re probably going to play every day, it gives you more opportunities. When you get up to those higher levels, you got people making a lot of money, they’re going to play one position. You got to be versatile as the new guy coming in. But it was really cool this year just worrying about playing shortstop. I didn’t have to show up at the ballpark, wondering where I was playing. I could do it but it was nice to hone in on one position for a year.”
Tolbert is spending this offseason working on his game while playing in Australia. He signed to play with the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League, with the season beginning in early November.
“This is my first time going out of the country to play baseball,” Tolbert said. “It’s a blessing. I’m going out there with bright eyes and ready to play. We’re going to go down there, play some ball and just enjoy the weather down there. From my understanding it’s minor league guys, Australian natives who also play minor league and Australian natives from big league play there too. It’s going to be good competition. I’m excited to learn about the culture and play in front of their crowds. This is their summer season. This is their professional league.”
Chances are pretty solid he’ll steal a base or two while he’s there.
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