Back To Camp

In a way, Matt Tolbert feels like he's starting all over. In a way, he is.

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Tolbert, the Ole Miss shortstop from Coach Mike Bianco's first team in 2001 through the 2004 season when the Rebels hosted their first NCAA Regional, reports to training camp Thursday. He's done that many times before. But this year, it's different.

Tolbert, who also played some second base at Ole Miss and since, has had what anyone would call a nice career in professional baseball. Maybe not stellar but a career that's basically had him with the franchise that drafted him for a long time and also some time with the major league club.

Tolbert was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 16th Round (481st overall) of the 2004 Major League Baseball Draft. He's played nearly 900 games of pro baseball, and 247 of those were actually in Major League Baseball, all with the Twins.

He last played in the majors with the Twins in 2011 when he played in 87 games. That's when he became a free agent and caught on with the Cubs last season, playing 113 games with AAA Iowa.

Tolbert was in Oxford this winter getting ready to give it another try. He'll turn 31 in May, but he feels he still has some baseball left in him. In fact, he knows he does.

"I signed with the Phillies, a minor league contract. I report to Clearwater, Fla. Just trying to make a team, trying to break with a club," he said in Oxford as he worked out at the Ole Miss baseball facilities. "This year's not big-league camp like the last five years or so. It's going to be different. I'm almost back at the starting block, it feels like."

But not quite. Still athletic and fit and driven to play the game he loves, Tolbert said the plan is to make it again.

"I've just been working hard here and trying to put it together, trying to be consistent with my at-bats and perform," he said. "It's all about performing."

Tolbert knows that. You don't spend this much time in pro baseball without intimate knowledge of what it takes to succeed at the highest level of sports.

"I plan on going out there and playing as long as they'll let me, until somebody tells me I need to start looking for another job," he said. "As long as teams still want you, I think you should still go out there, if you want to."

And Tolbert still wants to. There's no doubt about that. But, again, it comes back to performing.

Matt Tolbert
USA TODAY images

"Last year I didn't have a good year. So there is a pecking order (for teams) and how good you do and what they need," he said. "They fill their spots with what they need. There's always injuries. They need reinforcements. I'm just fortunate to have a place to play, and hopefully I go down there and make the club."

Tolbert said he's enjoyed his time preparing at Ole Miss, a place where he's comfortable and an environment he loves. He's worked out here before, and this winter has been productive. His sister and her husband live in Oxford. His parents still live in southwest Mississippi.

"I just come out here and try to stay out of the way," he said. "I like it here, and as long as I'm playing ball, it's a good situation. As long as I can keep a jersey on, I'll do this."

Tolbert draws on what he learned as a kid, up through his playing days at Ole Miss, and on into the pro ranks. He's absorbed it all and works to continue to improve.

"I've had some great hitting instructors. Hall of Famers like Paul Molitor and Rod Carew," he said. "When you step in the box, it's up to you to get the job done. Mechanics-wise at this point, while you still have to work on things, you know what you need to do. It's just a matter of doing it."

His major league batting average is .288. But his last season with the Twins, he hit .198. And that's as much the reason he's where he is now as anything.

Tolbert has had some injury situations and some other challenges that go with the daily grind of baseball to overcome. But through it all and now, he's had the attitude that it's all worth it.

"I've had plenty of chances," he said. "A lot of players didn't get chances that had good numbers in the minors. I've had plenty of chances in the big leagues. In my utility role, I have to hit decent and play different positions well. I've struggled some with the hitting. You have to play good defense and you have to hit. Everything's got to click together."

Once again, starting tomorrow, Tolbert hopes that's what happens for him.

"I'm not done yet," he said. "I'm still swinging. If you're doing good at the right time, you never know."

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