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Convention 2010
June 23-26
Marriott City Center,
Salt Lake City

For information:
Garry D. Howard:
E-mail | 414-224-2306

Jack Berninger:
E-mail | 804-741-1565

Workshop materials

Judging 2010
March 6-10
Radisson WorldGate,
Kissimmee, Fla.

For information:
Phil Kaplan:
E-mail | 865-342-6285

Jack Berninger:
E-mail | 804-741-1565

Mandatory dates:
Sunday: April 5
Weekday: Tue., Feb. 24

40,000-100,000 circulation
Feature story
First place
The "legend" of Sorrento's Big Toe
"Toe" Nash takes somewhat bumpy path from U.S. 61 to professional baseball

The Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate

July 1, 2001

Driving south on U.S. 61 past Baton Rouge, one can almost hear the whispers of a Lost Highway.

Before Interstate 10 was completed in 1978, this was a busy stretch of Airline Highway. Lambert's restaurant and gas station in Sorrento was a popular stop between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

There's no gas station anymore. The Lambert's sign remains, but the restaurant has long been empty. At certain times of the day, this town seems empty and seemingly a great place to hide out.

Sorrento is a blue-collar, old sawmill town of 1,300 with many trailers and businesses like Scrappers Den 61, the Sorrento Lumber Company Inc. and a sewerage-treatment facility.

A homemade sign reads, "We Fix Flats for $5." Concrete products and towing services are also advertised. For fun, there's the Cobra Lounge and the simply named Sorrento Lounge.

Civic pride is visible: A sign donated by the Louisiana National Security Bank proclaims "Love Thy Neighborhood – Ascension Parish Litter Watch." The welcome sign on 61 donated by the Bank of Gonzales and several other businesses proudly calls Sorrento the "Boucherie Capital of the World." A boucherie is the butchering of a pig and the feast that follows.

Sorrento may soon have something else to brag about. In fact, it may have to change the welcome sign. Especially if a proposed motion picture is filmed on location, and Highway 61 is revisited.

There will probably be a Nike commercial, too, perhaps with Shaq-size feet stepping on the heads of alligators while trudging through the swamp.

Because in one of those dimly lit trailers near one of those lounges is where the legend of Greg "Toe" Nash and his size 18 feet grew much like Paul Bunyan.

Only this legend is true.

He was nicknamed "Toe" by his Aunt Nora when he was 3 years old because she figured he'd have big feet. She was right. Toe is 19 now, and he's big, period. He stands 6-foot-6, weighs 225 pounds and can palm a basketball with his thumb and middle finger.

Unlike many young black people these days, however, Nash prefers baseball.

"I was never interested in football or basketball," he said. "Just baseball."

Nash is the starting left fielder for the Princeton (W. Va.) Devil Rays – the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' rookie-league affiliate that plays in the Appalachian League.

He played just the 11th professional baseball game of his life Saturday in Princeton. Long before his first game on June 19, however, he was already one of the most famous, or infamous, baseball prospects in history.

Baseball guru Peter Gammons broke the swamp-to-the-stars story of Nash on Jan. 11 on the ESPN Web site, and the legend of the man-child from lumbertown has since whisked across this land via the Internet, newspapers and TV.

Nash swings the wood from both sides of the plate and hurls a right-handed fastball in the 90s.

Through Thursday's games, Nash was batting .242 after nine games with eight hits in 33 at-bats and 15 strikeouts. But that's expected from a budding power hitter. He has also delivered a monster home run from each side of the plate along with five RBIs, five walks and three doubles. He's also thrown out two runners at the plate and committed three errors.

"He's green," said Dan Jennings, Tampa Bay's director of scouting. "I'm not going to sit here and say he's close to being a polished major-league player. I would say it will take at least four years."

This may delay the movie, but getting to the majors takes time.

After an extended spring training in Tampa – from March to early June – Nash reported to Princeton on June 15.

Nash made his debut June 19 before overflow media and a crowd of 2,275 at Princeton's Hunnicutt Field, which has a capacity of 1,950 and averaged 1,150 last year. Nash struck out three times and walked once against the Danville Braves. But the fans still chanted, "Toe ... Toe ... Toe," during each at-bat.

On Monday in Bluefield, W. Va., Nash, batting left-handed, hit his first official home run. It was a mammoth shot to right-center against the Bluefield Orioles. "Then he just flat out toasted a guy at the plate," said Princeton general manager Jim Holland. "He uncorked a rifle. With a guy on second, someone singled and he threw it home on the fly from deep left. The catcher could've sat down and ate a sandwich while he was waiting to tag the guy."

On Tuesday in Johnson City, Tenn., Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel struck Nash out three times and collected 14 strikeouts in six innings. The troubled Ankiel, who in the National League playoffs last year became the first pitcher in 110 years to throw five wild pitches in one inning, is on a rehabilitation/confidence-building assignment with Johnson City.

Nash rarely loses his confidence, said confidant Harold Reynolds, a former Seattle Mariner-turned-ESPN analyst who has taken Nash under his wing.

"Toe is shy and quiet, but what's incredible about him is his confidence," Reynolds said.

On Thursday, Nash came back with a super-sized, two-run home run from the right side over the left-center field fence in Johnson City.

Benny Latino, the Devil Rays' scout out of Hammond who found and signed Nash and will have a prominent role in any movie, says his prize is right on schedule.

"They tell me he's hitting one or two seeds (solid contact) every day and really showing off his arm," he said. "It might be two years."

Nash will need many more hits to catch up with the Internet hits he has taken since Gammons opened the floodgates. Ever since, Nash has been in the Anna Kournikova hit zone.

But Toe's hits are for the words not the pictures.

On Jan. 22, the Lycos 50 Web site that tracks Internet hits listed the 10 most searched-for active pro baseball players of the previous week:

No. 1 Derek Jeter

No. 2 Alex Rodriguez

No. 3 tie between Sammy Sosa and Greg "Toe" Nash.

Nash beat out such names as Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Ken Griffey and Cal Ripken.

"Let's see," Lycos wrote, "nine of the greatest superstars in the game today, and some guy named after part of your foot."

Within two weeks of Gammons' story, Nash's name had been splashed onto virtually every major newspaper in the country.

The exposure came in handy when he was flying from Baton Rouge to Riverside, Calif., in January to meet with his agent.

The Southwest Airlines agent asked for identification. Only Nash had none. He had no driver's license, nothing.

"I'm like, 'Oh my God, what do you mean you don't have a license?'" Latino asked. "Then he pulls out that day's USA Today and says, 'See, look. That's me.' The agent just laughed and let him on."

Nash doesn't have a high school diploma yet either, but he is on a Topps baseball card selling for $9.99 – unsigned. He can show that at airline terminals. He pocketed $10,000 at an autograph signing in Tampa before heading for Princeton.

It's a pulled-up-by-the-bootstraps story. But the kicker of it is how Nash came out of nowhere.

"In the year 2000, to discover a kid like this is amazing," said Reynolds, who tipped Gammons with the story. "He's like the legend of the iceman. Nobody believed it at first. Then he came to life.

"I mean, it's like boom, here he is. It's incredible."

There was a boom, because Nash had seemingly disappeared in Sorrento.

A seventh-grade dropout of St. Amant Middle School at the age of 15 shortly after his mother abandoned the family, Nash never played high school or college baseball. After a memorable Dixie Youth career in Gonzales, he fell off the sports landscape.

But from DeQuincy to Hammond, the few who saw him at 12 wondered every now and then what had happened to the big kid who hit the giant home runs.

"I just got tired of school," Nash said. "I guess I had a lot of things on my mind. I was liking it at first. But after awhile, it got pretty boring. I'd wake up, go outside and there was nobody. No kids my age. Everybody was in school. Then I started sleeping late, getting lazy."

But he wasn't forgotten.

As the years passed and Latino popped into Andy's barber shop in Hammond now and again, someone would ask, "Whatever happened to that big ol' kid?"

Latino, then the coach of the Bill Hood Broncos 16-18 all-star team and part-time scout for the Texas Rangers, first saw Nash in 1994 as a 5-10, 140-pound Dixie Youth player who homered over an oak tree at Alvin Stire Field in Hammond.

Latino's life may forever be intertwined with Nash's because of that Saturday in the park. Especially if Nash makes it all the way to the majors.

"I had nothing to do one Saturday and walked to the park," Latino said. "That homer must've gone 220 feet. I never forgot it."

The memory stuck with him for the next six years. As Nash reached high school age, Latino kept checking for him at St. Amant or East Ascension or Donaldsonville, but he was not to be found.

Another Saturday in a different park and Latino was about to taste the fruit of serendipity. Now a full-time scout for Tampa Bay, Latino went to Alex Box Stadium on June 3, 2000, to watch LSU play UCLA in a super regional. Future first-round draft choices dotted the field, but Latino struck oil in the stands.

He bumped into Gilly Berthelot, a Gonzales Dixie Youth official familiar with Nash.

"Whatever happened to that Toe kid?" Latino asked.

"I heard he moved to Houston," Berthelot said, "but I'll check."

Berthelot spoke to his brother, Gonzales Mayor John Berthelot, who is also close to the Dixie Youth program. Berthelot called Latino to say he heard Nash was still in Sorrento. Nash was working construction for former Tulane basketball star John "Hot Rod" Williams and playing in the Sugar Cane League for Sorrento.

The Sugar Cane League is a semi-pro outfit with players in their 30s and 40s with waist sizes in the upper 30s and 40s in rural places like Lutcher, Tangipahoa and Gramercy, which plays near a sugar cane field.

On a July night, Latino learned Sorrento was to play at Tangipahoa, where there's a field of collard greens just past the outfield – but Shoeless Joe Jackson doesn't live in there.

Latino looked for big Toe, but the jerseys had no numbers. Then he saw the name "Toe" on the back of a beefy T-shirt.

"He was much bigger," Latino recalls. "And he was switch hitting now. He hit two 400-foot home runs in the game, one from each side. I was floored."

Latino had just won the baseball lottery.

"Pinch me," he said.

Latino called the Devil Rays. They flew Toe, Hot Rod and Nash's father Charles Payton to Princeton. They worked Nash out for three weeks in July.

"I just remember a great big rascal," Devil Rays scouting director Jennings said. "The mechanics of his swing were below-average, but the speed and raw power were all above-average. Plus he's a switch-hitter."

Then they let him pitch.

"His bullpen was as impressive as his BP," Jennings said. "He threw in the 90s, yeah. And his ball kept climbing, like the heat."However, don't count on Nash pitching any time soon. "It's an option, but right now we're looking at him as an everyday player." Jennings said.

On Sept. 13, Nash signed for a modest $30,000 bonus distributed in three payments over several months. He bought his 12-year-old sister Joanna some clothes. He paid some doctor bills for his dad, who has diabetes. The Devil Rays and Reynolds have made sure most of the money is in the bank.

Nash spent the next few months in the fall instructional league in Princeton before returning to Sorrento in December.

In January, Nash became a client of sports agent Larry Reynolds, who is Harold's brother. It was a chance meeting on Jan. 5 in Hammond, where scouts and agents regularly flock to watch Latino's all-star team. Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Ben Sheets of St. Amant High and first-round draft choices Kurt Ainsworth and Mike Fontenot of LSU have played for Latino.

As E.D. White High School catcher and LSU signee Jonathan Zeringue walked off the field, Nash arrived for a workout with Latino. Most of the other agents and scouts had left, but Larry Reynolds hung around.

"Who is this guy?" Reynolds asked Latino.

"I told him and the next thing I knew he's on the cellular talking to Harold in California," Latino said.

"The guy's unbelievable," said Larry Reynolds, whose other baseball clients include Carl Everett and Brian Hunter. "Look at the tools. He's everything in the world you would want. For a kid his size, he's very agile and has a lot of natural ability.

"A guy coming out of nowhere like that just doesn't happen anymore. The scouting system is very thorough. It's some unreal circumstances for a player like Toe to slip through the cracks. It's difficult to find someone like him for $30,000, too."

Harold Reynolds flew to New Orleans the next day.

"I initially thought it was the most unbelievable story I'd ever heard," he said. "When I saw him work out, I was impressed with his natural ability, especially since he'd never been coached and had never played ball on a daily basis for so long."

Actually, Nash had been coached, just not in the conventional fashion.

Nash learned how to hit by swinging a broomstick at beer bottle tops pitched by his father, who picked up the strewn caps from the Sorrento Lounge near his trailer on 61.

"Sometimes I'd curve 'em," said Payton, a construction worker. "Other times, I'd throw 'em straight at him. He got good." Latino is convinced the bottle top toss did the trick.

"He has fantastic bat speed," Latino said. "I've started throwing some tops at my best players, and they can't even come close. It's pretty hard."

But not for Nash.

"Dad would always try to fake me out, but I'd just move the stick real fast," Nash said.

When there were no tops, Nash would find other scrap material.

"I played ball just about every day with any kind of ball," he said. "We'd use socks or rocks."

No, this is not an idyllic baseball story of a farm boy playing catch with his father in a golden wheat field in the pastoral Midwest as his mother looks on lovingly, which is how "The Natural" ends.

No, Nash learned how to swing outside a juke joint.

And Nash's dance almost ended before it began. Nash has a few hits in police blotters around Ascension Parish.

From April 2000 through February 2001, he was arrested several times on charges such as robbery, marijuana possession, driving without a license, and, most recently, simple battery and domestic violence.

That last arrest was on Jan. 30 – after the fall instructional league in Princeton and before his first spring training in Tampa. Police found Nash fighting with his 41-year-old girlfriend, whose four kids he used to baby-sit. The twice-divorced woman was also charged with simple battery and aggravated battery.

"It's amazing Toe wasn't in a lot more trouble than he was since he was just hanging out in the streets for so long," said Harold Reynolds, whom Nash moved in with in Anaheim, Calif., in February before spring training with his father's blessing.

"Any kid that's out on the streets, the opportunity for mischief is a lot higher," said Reynolds, who has helped underprivileged youths throughout his life. "I did some things I'm not proud of. But I also thought Toe's stuff was all blown out of proportion."

After much deliberation, Nash's rap sheet was frozen by Ascension Parish District Attorney Anthony Falterman in favor of a pretrial intervention program. It freed Nash to leave Sorrento in his rearview mirror and head to Tampa.

Nash did not, however, get a free pass out of town. Conditions of his stringent, two-year probation are the following, according to Falterman's office:

paying a Narcotics Diversion Program fine and a monthly probation supervision fee.

submitting to random urine screens and hair analysis for any controlled dangerous substance.

notifying his probation officer of any address change or new employment.

maintaining employment or enrolling in school full time for the purpose of completing a GED (general educational development) program.

avoiding more criminal conduct and refraining from frequenting disreputable places or consorting with disreputable persons.

cannot own or possess firearms or other dangerous weapons for any purpose, including hunting or other recreational activities, and cannot reside where such is present.

abiding by a midnight curfew unless employment is involved.

cannot consume prescription narcotics without the express written consent of a licensed practitioner and notification of probation officer.

If Nash completes the probation without incident, his record will be wiped clean, Falterman said.

"They'd rather he feed them one day than them feed him in prison," said Latino's father, Benny Latino Sr.

"He's not a bad kid," the younger Latino said. "He just hung out with bad people."

Brenda Holmes, the assistant principal at St. Amant Middle School, remembers Toe. His foot was in her office several times.

"Toe was always lackadaisical about what I think are the important things in life," she said. "He wasn't motivated, and he fell so far behind. He was so much bigger than everyone, but Toe was gentle. He was not boisterous. Sometimes someone would get under his skin.

"He definitely did not start things, but he didn't run from a fight. He wasn't a bad type kid. He was always nice and polite."

That's how Dustin Weaver remembers Nash, too. Weaver, a freshman catcher for Southeastern Louisiana last season, was on that Dixie Youth team with Nash that beat Hammond. He watched that home run go over the tree.

He was also on a 9-year-old team with Nash and watched him hit a tremendous grand slam in DeQuincy over a 185-foot fence and halfway up a light pole.

"People went crazy," Weaver said. "When you see a 9-year-old do that, it's exciting. Of course, he looked like he was 12."

Weaver's parents often had Nash over to their house. The boys would play baseball in the backyard. Nash would sleep over, sometimes for two or three nights at a time. They never were sure when his parents were going to come by and pick him up, but they didn't mind.

"My parents were friends with both of his parents. He was always a nice kid," Weaver said. "We were good friends for about three years. After he was about 13, he didn't play ball anymore and after that we didn't keep in touch. About that time, he dropped out of school. Next time I saw him he was 16 and playing in Sorrento. He was so much bigger."

Weaver and his parents knew Nash was headed out of town.

"He talked to my parents, and we said, 'Remember us when you make it big!' I knew somebody would eventually pick him up."

Weaver also knew of Nash's run-ins with the law.

"We all knew about it," he said. "I just think he got involved with the wrong crowd and was influenced in a bad way. When he was younger, he was one of the nicest persons you could meet.

"He was never stupid. I hope the best for him."

Before Nash left Sorrento, his father delivered one final pitch at his son right down 61.

"I told him I want you out of here," Payton said. "I said don't come back for two years. I don't want him falling in with a bad crowd. He can come visit, but I don't want him staying here a lot."

Nash has basically been rubbing pine tar with greatness ever since saying sayonara to Sorrento.

Reynolds immediately put Nash in his camp for local high school and college players in Anaheim that features instruction from a dozen big-leaguers.

Nash met Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds, Eric Davis and others and once spoke to Ken Griffey on Reynolds' Mercedes car phone.

"I was star struck," Nash said. "But Ken Griffey said to keep my head on straight and if I always work hard at whatever I do, things will work out."

Yes, Toe was a long way from the Sugar Cane League.

He loved Los Angeles.

Reynolds took him to dinner one night to a real nice place.

"Man, the women are so beautiful here," Nash said.

"I'll be whatever he wants," Reynolds said. "A father figure, a big brother, a friend, a place to live, whatever. I'm single. What the hell?

"What is really important here is baseball needs young black kids like Toe who are great athletes. We can't have them always going to football or basketball."

After the summer, Reynolds plans to help Nash get his G.E.D. Apparently, all of Reynolds' roles are working.

"He doesn't have time to get in any trouble now," Reynolds said. "He's a whole different kid. At spring training, he was up at 6 a.m. and played ball all day. And he loved it. I call him every other day."

Tampa Bay has never had much success on the field, but they have to feel good about the Toe project. The front office was skeptical when it learned of Nash's trouble with the law, and Latino even feared Nash might be released.

But the Devil Rays stuck with Nash, unlike the Pittsburgh Pirates, who worked out Nash a month before Latino located him. They were impressed but held off after learning of his record.

Nash hasn't added to his record since busting town. He's only enhanced his legend.

"In terms of him as a person and the way he's handled himself, he has been a model citizen," Jennings said. "He's done nothing but work and keep his mouth shut. He shows up on time every day and works late. This kid is making the most of his opportunity."

"Our staff loves working with him. He's hungry. He's been absolutely tremendous. He knows it's a chance and he's not fumbling the ball."

Maybe in the end, this story will be better than the movies "The Natural" and "Field of Dreams." Because it's true.

Gammons plans to write the book on Nash. Kevin Costner is interested in producing or acting in the movie, according to Latino. Paramount, New Line Cinema and Disney are considering doing the movie. Matt Damon is being considered for the part of Latino. Rob Brown, who played the precocious young writer in "Finding Forrester," is a possibility to play Nash.

But shouldn't he make it to the Big Show before the Big Picture? Ex-LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman says the odds are Nash won't reach the majors.

"It will be very difficult because he's missed so much organized baseball, and it's hard to just jump in there and play on the professional level."

"He's got a lot of catching up to do as far as level of competition and speed of the game," Jennings said. "I don't know much about that Sugar Cane League down there, but it can't be that great.

"He gets himself out too much for one thing, swinging at bad pitches. But he's made excellent strides in a short time in getting where he is."

He's exited the Lost Highway.

Baseball's Paul Bunyan really exists, but some wonder if Toe is just another Forrest Gump.

"It amazing," Holland, the Princeton general manager, said. "I get six to 10 e-mails a day asking if this guy is for real? I think some people think it's a fantasy.

"One or two have asked 'is he there and is he for real?' I just keep saying yes. It's calmed down since he first got here, but I think there's fixing to be a second wave. He's really something."

Now, when Toe wakes up in the morning and walks out of his hotel room at home or away, there's people to see and plenty to do.

"I'm liking it a lot," he said. "I'm getting the hang of everything. I'm hitting pretty good. I really appreciate Harold. I'm going to live with him in the winter time. I'm not homesick as long as I get to talk to my dad and my sister. They call three times a week. I don't miss Sorrento."

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News