Tom Bolton is a Nashvillian that lived a life most boys in their childhood could only dream. He was a major league baseball player!
Bolton pitched Nashville's Antioch High School to a Class AAA state baseball championship as a junior in 1979. He was the team's MVP as a senior. Major league scouts took notice as the Boston Red Sox selected Bolton in the 20th round of the 1980 amateur draft.
"I had committed to Cumberland University when it was a junior college," Bolton said recently from his Nashville home. "In my junior year at Antioch, I envisioned myself going to the University of Tennessee to study architecture. Their coach recruited me and came down for a visit. As he was walking out of my parents' house, he stuck his head back in and said, 'by the way I won't let you pitch, you'll play in the outfield for me.' So I shifted gears away from that and committed to Cumberland. As the draft got closer, a Red Sox scout called to ask if they drafted me would I sign."
The left-hander was sent to Elmira where he appeared in 23 games (one start), went 6-2 with a 2.41 ERA and five saves. This was a solid start for an 18-year-old learning how to become a successful professional baseball player.
"I was confident in my baseball ability, but there was so much more involved," said Bolton. "I had turned 18 one month before that and there was a lot going on. The scout told me I did not need a car up there. It was a struggle. I lived about seven miles from the ballpark. I was getting in a cab or riding with the few friends that had cars. Once I got in Elmira we had about 36 players on that team. The Red Sox had drafted about half college and half high school kids. I was completely lost in that situation.
"We had a lot of kids, some who were very high draft picks. Some were very hard throwers. For whatever reason, some were home sick and some could not throw strikes. I turned out to be the closer of that team for most of the season. I threw the ball very well. I had success because I threw strikes. The one start that I had was the last game of the year in which I carried a no-hitter after eight and 2/3 innings. A kid with a cast on his leg broke up the no-hitter. It was such an odd game."
Bolton, 49, would move around in the Red Sox minor league organization for seven years before appearing in a major league game. He played in Winter Haven, New Britain, and Pawtucket. In 1982 Winter Haven, Bolton started 25 of 28 games for a 9-8 record and a 2.99 ERA. He spent the entire 1986 season in Triple-A Pawtucket pitching in 29 games (seven starts), a 3-4 record with a 2.72 ERA.
"A lot of players would give themselves three years," said Bolton. "You can usually tell what is going to happen to you. At the end of the 1983 season, which was actually my fourth season of professional ball, but my third full season, I was promoted to Pawtucket. I wasn't prepared. I had just come off the DL in Double-A and now I'm a 21-year old in Triple-A. That is where I needed to be. I didn't throw the ball well. I was sent back.
"Then I had a combination of real life things that hit me. My father passed away. I had trouble staying healthy a couple of those years. I went to spring training in 1986 with the thoughts this is the last go around. I didn't know if the Red Sox would release me out of spring training, but I knew I was getting towards the end. St. Patrick's Day, 1986, I was throwing batting practice and I got hit in the face with a line drive. It broke my jaw in three places and I was wired together. Spring training was about to break and players were going with their assigned clubs. I was with Pawtucket at the time. When were in Winter Haven, everybody left except for me.
"I stayed back with the Single-A club. The Red Sox gave me time to get healthy again, but during that time I realized what baseball meant to me. I rededicated myself and had a fantastic year in 1986. I did not get called up to the big leagues. The Red Sox were in a pennant race and eventually made it to the World Series. I got invited to big league spring training in 1987. That's where I made a little bit more of a name for myself. I was legitimate. I had the potential to pitch in the big leagues. I felt like I proved that to them."
While working his way through the minor leagues, Bolton was used as a starter, in middle relief and closer.
"I think I was probably a better starter," Bolton said. "At the big league level I had some success. It was really up and down. When I was good, I was a very good starter and then there were times I was not as good. As far as longevity I think the middle relief role, where you are not in the spotlight, is a very good role to extend your years especially as a left-hander. I was comfortable with all roles, but when
"I later signed with Detroit in 1993, Sparky [Anderson] advised me that I was a better starter. But I had a resilient arm where I could pitch out of the bullpen several times a week. I was fortunate that I could do that. Being left-handed kept me around several more years."
In 1987, Bolton began the season in Pawtucket. He appeared in five games (four starts), a 2-1 record and a 5.40 ERA. This was the year Bolton would reach "The Show." Bolton was 25 years old.
"The day I went up was on Mother's Day," said Bolton. "We were in Columbus, and I got called up for a entire series with Oakland in Boston. My first day there, I was shagging fly balls in the outfield. Dave Henderson, our centerfielder, introduced me to Reggie Jackson. Here I am working on the outfield grass in Fenway, and the next thing I know I'm being introduced to Reggie Jackson. Later on in that series, Reggie had his last at-bat in Fenway. He was retiring that year. I got to see the ovation the Red Sox fans gave him. I did not get to pitch that day.
"When we later played Minnesota I pitched in my first major league game. The first batter I faced was Greg Gagne who grounded out. In that same inning I had my first strikeout against Kirby Puckett."
That season, Bolton appeared in 29 games all in relief. In 61.2 innings, Bolton was 1-0 with a 4.38 ERA and no saves. He gave up five home runs that year. Bolton said three of those dingers were by Joe Carter, one of the toughest batters he face.
Bolton's best major league season was in 1990. He was 10-5, starting in 16 of 21 games. Bolton's ERA was 3.38 while pitching 119 innings.
"We left spring training while it was a lockout year," Bolton said. "We were having an abbreviated spring training. The way the schedule worked out, they sent me down to Pawtucket to get into shape. They were going with four starters at the big league level and didn't need a fifth.
"On my way down to Pawtucket, my wife went into labor with our first child. I got most of the way to Pawtucket then turned around and drove to Nashville for the birth of our first child, Kevin. I missed several days. When I got back to the team in Pawtucket, I was to pitch in Syracuse. I had not picked up a ball in five days. I pitched well into the seventh inning. After that game, I developed a terrible case of tendonitis. I spent about three weeks on the DL before I could go back up to the big leagues.
"1990 was my most successful year. I guess I was in a zone. It was easy for me. Most of my starts were quality starts. We were in a pennant race. If you are playing baseball in July, August and September in a pennant race it is wonderful. But even more so in Boston, Massachusetts."
Some of Bolton's Red Sox teammates at the time were Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens. Bolton said that teammate Mike Boddicker was as good at teaching him pitching as any coach he knew. Boddicker helped him to refine the art of pitching.
Bolton's pitches were a fastball, curve, slider and change-up.
"I did not throw extremely hard, but I changed speeds and relied on movement." Bolton said. "I had very good control, but there would be times that I would fall behind. I'd rather walk you than give you something good to hit. I would think I could get the next guy to ground out into a double play. I wanted you to hit the ball on the ground. I typically didn't give up a lot of home runs. Particularly at Fenway Park where you didn't want to be a fly ball pitcher."
On July 2, 1992, Bolton was traded by Boston to Cincinnati for Billy Hatcher. He was released by the Reds that Novmeber and picked up by Detroit the next month. In March 1994, he was released by the Tigers and signed by Baltimore that same month. But, 1994 was the year of a player's strike. After pitching for the Orioles, Bolton was granted free agency by Baltimore in October.
"I was not pitching a lot with the Red Sox, and about midway through the season I was pitching with the Reds and I got in 26 innings. Cincinnati should have been a good situation for me. I loved the city of Cincinnati. I have relatives there and it was reasonably close to home in Nashville. I didn't like playing for Marge Schott [Reds team owner]. There were to many things that made it difficult for me to play there. I had enough service time to become a free agent. That's when I signed with Detroit.
"I liked Sparky Anderson [Tigers manager]. Detroit was a blue-collar city. Sparky demanded that it be a blue-collar team. If you were a troublemaker, you didn't last long. I had some starts there and pitched well as a starter, but they did not rely on me as a starter. I went into spring training the next year (1994) and got caught up in a general manager change. They decided to start saving money. They were going to cut salary and I got released in spring training.
"In the spring I signed with Baltimore and eventually made it to the big leagues. But 1994 was the year we went on strike on August 15. That was my last stint in the big leagues. The game changed after that. Five to eight teams were going to compete for a championship and everyone else was thrown in together. Nobody needed a veteran left-hander. I tried to make good decisions and sign with teams that needed pitching."
In his brief stay in Baltimore and last for a major league team, Bolton was 1-2 in 22 games all from the bullpen. Bolton pitched in just 23 innings with a 5.40 ERA.
Though Bolton knew his baseball career was near the end, he was pleased to have the opportunity to come home in Nashville. He pitched the entire 1995 season for the Sounds Triple-A club of the White Sox.
"When the Orioles released me after that strike season, I was going to sign with another club, but at the very last minute it didn't take place," Bolton said. "The teams had rosters of replacement players that were leftover. So for returning players, it was chaos the first several weeks of the season. The Nashville Sounds did not have a very good pitching staff to start the season. I called my friend Larry Schmittou [Sounds owner].
"Larry worked it out where I could throw for the Chicago White Sox, which were the Sounds parent club. On the Sounds pitching staff in 1995 there were five left-handed pitchers over 35 years old with major league experience. Dave Righetti and Atlee Hammaker led that group. It was an interesting time and wonderful to play in your hometown. At that point my kids were five, three and one.
Pitching in Nashville that season, the 33-year-old appeared in 19 games (17 starts), with a 4.43 ERA. Bolton's record was 5-7 in 101.2 innings pitched with no saves.
"In 1996, I signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and went to Triple-A in Calgary, Alberta. I pitched very well. In one stretch I won 10 straight starts, but the big league team was miserable and they were calling up kids from Double-A.
"I had a great opportunity in Milwaukee in 1997, but at that point I either lost interest or physically started losing the combination. I couldn't put together two consecutive games for their Triple-A team.
"Pittsburgh, in 1998, wanted me. At this point I'm 18 years into my career and understand pitching. In Pittsburgh, they knew that and wanted me to remain in their organization. That was the year that the Pittsburgh and the Nashville Sounds became affiliated and I became a player/coach for the Sounds that year though I pitched a little at the end."
Bolton was called away from his coaching duties in Nashville to appear in just three games. He started one game and pitched 4.1 innings. In his final professional season, Bolton went 1-1 with 10.38 ERA.
As a major leaguer in eight seasons, Bolton would record a 31-34 mark in 209 games. He started 56 games (three complete) with 336 strikeouts and a 4.56 ERA in 540.1 innings.
In his minor league career, Bolton's stats include an 81-71 record in 1,273 innings with a 3.80 ERA. He pitched in 350 games making 170 starts with 14 saves. He struck out 840 batters.
One dimension of pitching baseball is the "necessity" to throw at a batter. Bolton was asked he ever intentionally threw at a batter.
"I did, yes," Bolton said. "Most all of the time, it is in response to something the other team has done. As a pitcher it is protecting your teammates. If the other team's pitcher had hit your guy and you know it was on purpose, you need to retaliate. If the opposing team had a player who had slid in a base more aggressively than needed like trying to take out your shortstop or second baseman, you need to protect your guys and send a message.
"The message is we are not going to tolerate that kind of play. It can happen until a manager tells you to hit a batter. It is a rule that you are not to do anything until he tells you. Because he wants to pick the player that is to get hit, and the situation."
Bolton lives in the Nashville area with his family and is in the real estate development business. He was asked to look back on his career and talk about the pride and accomplishment in his professional baseball career.
"Overall, in the big picture, I struggled for seven years in the minor leagues," Bolton said. "But I persevered and followed through and made it. That is what I am most proud. If I were doing a job interview with a company, I would want them to know that about me. That I did not give up. I was asked one time while I was in Boston, why did you keep going? And I would use one of my mother's sayings, 'I was too lazy to work and to scared to steal.'"
Traughber's Tidbit: According to the Nashville Sounds, an average of 9 to 9.5 dozen baseballs are used in the course of a game. Most balls end up in the hands of fans by way of foul balls and some are saved for batting practice.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.