Monday, July 6, 2009

Catching Up With Carlos Tosca, Part I

Carlos Tosca, currently a bench coach with the Florida Marlins, epitomizes the American dream. A native of Cuba, Tosca graduated from Brandon High and played baseball for both Florida College and the University of South Florida. He served as a pitching coach at King High in Tampa before starting a career that would include over 900 wins as a minor league manager and two-plus seasons as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Valrico resident recently sat down to reflect on his career and unlikely rise through the ranks of his profession. The following is the first of a two-part interview with Tosca.

Q. You were born in Cuba in 1953. How did you end up living in rural Hillsborough County?

A. My father was Cuban, and my mother was an American. He was a pediatrician and met my mother at the clinic in Tampa where he was doing his internship. They got married and moved back to Cuba. Shortly after Castro took over, we came to Florida because my mother's uncle was a Methodist priest in Seffner. It was just after New Year's in 1962 when we left.

Q. Who first got you interested in baseball?

A. Probably my grandfather. He got my twin brother, Rick, and I interested at a very early age in Cuba. We'd watch the boxing matches on Friday night once in a while, but we didn't know there were any other sports besides baseball and softball.

Q. Growing up here you had the Reds in the spring and the Tampa Tarpons in the summer. Were you a fan?

A. We were like everybody, we liked the Yankees and the Dodgers. They were always on the "Game of the Week." We had a Little League coach that would take us to some Tampa Tarpon games. When I was in junior college, I would cut class once in a while to catch a Reds game or to go watch them work out, that kind of stuff.

Q. You played first base and did some pitching for Brandon High School. Did you have any scholarship offers to play in college?

A. I had a scholarship my first two years at Florida College in Temple Terrace, but I did not have a scholarship when I transferred to the University of South Florida. I got cut from the team my junior year, then tried out again as a senior when they got a new coach. I made the team that year. The new coach was a gentleman by the name of Jack Butterfield, who eventually got me into professional baseball. He was the best coach that I'd ever been around.

Q. After USF, you got involved in coaching at King High. How did that come about?

A. I had played for their coach, Jim Macaluso, on a few summer league teams. He knew I wanted to go into coaching, and he had just gotten the job at King. So my start was as his pitching coach there for two years.

Q. What was the transition like to go from a player to a coach?

A. I had a chance, basically, to teach the things I had learned at USF from Jack Butterfield. I really learned a lot about fundamentals, like how to run a bunt defense, how to do cutoffs and relays, how to defend a first and third. I was able to bring some of these things to Jim. You learn from teaching, so I was able to get more proficient at that.

Q. Was there any way to anticipate what your career had in store for you?

A. I thought I was going to be coaching in high school. Maybe if I got a break, I could get into the college ranks, but I never envisioned being in professional baseball.

Q. So how did Jack Butterfield get you involved in pro ball?

A. I think two years after I graduated, Jack was hired by the New York Yankees and became their Director of Player Development. He called and said that he might have a job for me over the summer working in the New York-Penn League in Oneonta as an outfield coach. I wasn't totally bilingual -- because I'd forgotten a lot of my Spanish after we moved over here -- but I could still communicate with the Hispanic players. That's how I got my start.

Q. That had to be quite a thrill going straight from King High to the Yankees organization.

A. I was very excited to put on the Yankee pinstripes. The biggest difference at that level was the length of time you spend on the field as opposed to high school practices. Then there's the travel, getting used to bus rides, that type of stuff. But I was young, and very excited to be doing what I was doing. When it was time for me to come back down to teach at McLane Middle School, that was kind of a downer. (laughs)

Q. Over your entire career seeing kids come up through the minors, what player impressed you the most?

A. He definitely didn't have the greatest tools, but he had tremendous determination, and to this day is still probably the best hitter I've ever seen: Don Mattingly. His work ethic was off the chart. I had him my first year in Oneonta and he could really hit the ball for an 18-year-old kid.

Q. You spent 17 seasons as a minor league manager and won 932 games before getting your first shot in the big leagues in 1998. How did you finally get that break?

A. Buck Showalter was still a player in the Yankees system when I first met him. Then shortly after that he retired and became a coach. We had an opportunity then to work together in extended Spring Training. I moved on from the Yankees, and Buck eventually became their major league manager. I'd run into him every once in a while and he'd say, "I'm trying to get you on the staff." I thought, yeah, right. Then, when he got the job in Arizona he called and offered me the position as his bench coach. Buck's got a tremendous ability to recognize talent and put a team together. We lost 97 games in 1998, but we went on to win 100 games the very next season. It was quite a thrill to be able to see that come to fruition.

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