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One-on-One w/ Jim Tocco, Voice of the Montgomery Biscuits

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Jake: First off, How is your summer going? How's the weather in Montgomery?

Jim: Every year I feel more and more fortunate to live and work in Montgomery.  It's a friendly town, big enough to be accessible but small enough to be personal.  And the city's love for the Biscuits is obvious.  You can't go anywhere in this town during the summer and not experience at least a little bit of Biscuits Fever.  This year, the Southern League All-Star Game brought it out even more.  So off the field, the Biscuits are a successful as ever.  
     On the field, it's really been a fun year.  I can't lie; judging by the players that were going to start at Durham and by Visalia's woeful finish in 2005, I thought the Biscuits were destined to be at the bottom looking up in 2006.  But it's been a pleasantly surprising season.  The pitching has been solid, the Biscuits have been exceedingly good in close games, and maybe most importantly for my job, this team is a great bunch of guys who really play well together and want to play and win as a team.  That's really fun to watch and fun to be around.
     As far as the weather goes, I was born and raised a Yankee, but I have to say that I don't miss Northern weather one bit.  It gets hot in the summer, but I'll trade that for the miserable winters and transition months in the North any day.  What I like most is the blue skies.  You just can't stay in a bad mood long when you see the blue skies in Alabama.

JL: For those who aren't familiar with you, can you give fans a quick synopsis on your background? Did you always do play-by-play or did you write for a newspaper?

JT: I was born near Detroit and raised near Cleveland.  I graduated from Bowling Green State University in 1998, where I was involved in radio, TV and the school newspaper.  I was the sports editor for the campus paper, and I majored in Journalism.  Going into college, I knew I wanted to be a part of the media, covering sports.  I was keeping my options open, but if I'd had to lay a bet on it, I would have said that I'd end up as a writer.  Somewhere along the line, writing for a newspaper became slighty unappealing and working as a local sports anchor for a TV station became extremely unappealing.  I found my passion in play-by-play.  It has the depth of print media and the performance aspect of television all in one.  And without all the undesireable annoyances.
     Still, I think writing is fundamental to all areas of the media.  I always suggest to kids getting into the business to major in journalism or English instead of Telecommunications, because all effective forms of mass communication are based on the communicator's ability to write.  Radio broadcasting is nothing more than inventing short scripts in your head and then reading from them.  And if you can't write it, you won't be able to say it.  (Although sometimes while I'm on the air I really wish I had a DELETE key).

JL: Any sports background? Former All-American?

JT: HA!  Nope, I never played any sport competitively past the grade school level.  
     Most broadcasters that you talk to say that they got into broadcasting once they figured out that they weren't going to play professionally.  Not me.  I never fancied myself as the next star shortstop.  But from the time I can remember, I was always "broadcasting" my sports video games or my stickball games in the back yard.  I used to sit down with my Baseball Encyclopedia for hours and just read stats.  I have a love for the game that's based upon a deep knowledge of it, but not from an on-field perspective.  That's what's been the most interesting part of working inside the sport -- getting inside the minds of those whose love for the game is built from the other side.  I've learned a lot about how the game is played from those people and I've been able to put events in context with my perspective from the other side.

JL: Are you good friends with any of the players? Any past Biscuits that you were upset to see leaving?

JT: Good friends?  No.  I'd say I'm on a friendly working level with all of them, but there's a friendship line you don't want to cross.  There are some terrific guys on the team worthy of anyone's friendship.  But I'm in two positions that make being close friends inadvisable.  First, I'm a member of the Biscuits' staff.  Secondly, I've got to maintain a modicum journalistic neutrality on the air.
     With that said, that doesn't mean I don't root for these guys.  My paycheck says "Biscuits" on it, and I'm an employee of the team, not a member of the media.  So I'm not under the impression that any of my listeners want me to be impartial.  Most of them are Biscuits fans and they want to see the game through my eyes.
     I'm always upset when guys leave, but that's part of life in the minor leagues.  Guys come and go.  Some get called up and some are forced to relinquish their dream.  You're always happy when guys go up, even if it's bittersweet, because you know they're living their dream and also yours.  When they're called up, I always tell guys never to come back.
     I could name Wes Bankston, Shawn Riggans, Brian Stokes, Rico Washington, Eric Reese and Joey Gathright as guys that have moved on that I'd always be thrilled to have in any clubhouse.  And there are dozens of others too.

JL: Are you a fan of the Rays? Or do you have a particular team that you watch?

JT: I follow the Devil Rays more every year because they're filling up with former Biscuits.  But I have no previous allegiance to the Devil Rays.
     I grew up rooting for the Tigers, then for the Indians.  But I'm more a fan of the game than any one team.  

JL: What are your thoughts on the Biscuits' season thus far?

JT: It's been a fun one.  With a team like this, you can really see how good a manager Charlie Montoyo is.  The Biscuits are 29-13 in games decided by two runs or less.  If the Biscuits were even .500 in those games, they would be a sub-.500 team.  As it is, they're 10 games over .500 and a playoff contender.  And I'm not arbitrarily assigning that credit to Charlie either.  I've been with him four years and I've watched him outmanage most everybody.
     I think the Biscuits are in good position to contend for the postseason.  This would be a fun group to be a part of if they went to the playoffs.  They say that the most successful team in the playoffs is the one having the most fun.  This is a team that has fun and one that truly is cohesive.  I think it'd be interesting to put that to the test in the playoffs.

JL: Any particular prospect for the lower levels that you're hoping to see next year/relatively soon?

JT: I'm excited about seeing Evan Longoria in a Biscuits uniform.  And maybe more than anyone, I can't wait for Josh Hamilton to make it back to this level.

JL: Mitch Talbot and Justin Ruggiano have both found their ways onto the Biscuits, one being from a rival and one jumping from another AA league. What are your takes on them? Did we get the bright sides of their respective trades?

JT: The jury's still out on both of those questions.  Mitch Talbot looked good in the one start I saw, but I haven't seen enough to give a valid impression.  As for Ruggiano, he still hasn't even arrived in Montgomery, but I hope that when he does get here he does some of the same things for us that he did to us as a member of the Suns.
     If any combination of Zobrist, Talbot and Ruggiano end up contributing in the big leagues, we got the better end of the deal.

JL: Andy Sonnanstine has made his case as being one of the most dominant pitchers in the minors? Do we have a "Diamond in the Rough" with him?

JT: In my own mind, absolutely.  He's got the best command of any pitcher I've ever seen at AA.  But after eight years in baseball, I don't think that my assessments of players are better than what professional scouts tell me.  And those scouts are still iffy.
     See, I see him absolutely dominating hitters at this level, and I have a little trouble imagining how he couldn't succeed at higher levels.  Professional scouts have a better idea than I do of what combination of command, "stuff," intelligence and confidence will succeed in the big leagues.
     It seems to me like "stuff" catches eyes a lot more than command because command is a specialized skill.  And it's kind of a double standard in baseball because on one hand baseball people rave about pitchers like Greg Maddux who have command and control, but on the other hand, they give all the chances and opportunities to the guys with "stuff."  It is true, though, that you can learn command and you usually can't learn "stuff."
     Here's what I think about Andy Sonnanstine:  Since his "stuff" isn't what he does best, he will always have naysayers.  I hope they give him one of those chances anyway.  And when they do, I think he'd better have success right away.  He could really be a unique talent in baseball.  But if he doesn't succeed early, the naysayers might win the argument.  I like him as a person and as a pitcher and I hope he succeeds.

JL: Elliot Johnson has made his case in regards to his future within the Devil Rays organization, but will Durham ever call him up? Does he have enough to make Rays fans forget about Jorge Cantu as the "Future 2B of the Rays"?

JT: Same deal with EJ.  He's making a case for himself, and he really need to do that all the time to stay in the sights of the brass.  He was a non-drafted free agent, and the Devil Rays don't have much invested in him, so he has to continually prove himself every season and every game just to avoid falling out of view.  I think he can contribute in the big leagues.  
     Is he enough to make people forget about Jorge Cantu?  Right now, that's saying far too much.  I'm not saying he'll never make it there, but it's going to be a constant effort on his part to seize chances instead of wait for things to be handed to him.

JL: Besides the emergence of Juan Salas, which Biscuit has floored you with their performance thus far in the season?

JT: Well, Salas and Sonnanstine have been the biggest revelations.  Aside from that...
     I love to watch Jeremy Owens play right field.  He's got the most accurate outfield arm I've ever seen in AA.  He takes perfect routes and he brings a lot of energy to the game.
     Tony Peguero has gone from a pretty good AA pitcher to a solid major league prospect.  And I really wasn't prepared for Jean Machi to be as good as he has been.

JL: Brian Henderson is thought to be an enigma for Rays fans who follow the minors, while many think that he's vastly underrated as a reliever...others think he's too old for his league and profiles no better than a "journeyman" pitcher at best...what are your thoughts?

JT: I could see him being a specialist in a bullpen somewhere.  There's a logjam of good pitchers right now and he's not even getting a lot of reps out of our bullpen, so it's going to be hard for him to get his chance at AAA or the bigs.

JL: Any predictions? Are we going to pull the rug from beneath the Jacksonville Suns' feet?

JT: I prefer to wait and see.  I'll just say though that I'll put our starting rotation against any team's in the league.  We also play well in close games.  So we'd be a tough out in the playoffs.

JL: If you had to choose the "MVP" and "Biscuit Most Likely to Be Called-up First", who would you choose?

JT: By "called up," I'm assuming you mean to Tampa Bay.  Given that:
Position Player of the Year: Elliot Johnson
Starting Pitcher of the Year: Andy Sonnanstine
Most Likely to be Called Up First: Juan Salas
Most Likely to be Called Up First That's Still On our Team: Tony Peguero

JL: Besides "Raysbaseball.com", are their any other Rays-related Message Boards/Blogs that you frequent?

JT: Can't say that I do, at least regularly.

JL: Have you had the opportunity to meet Andy Friedman, Stu Sternberg, Gerry Hunsicker, R.J. Harrison or any other of the "higher ups" of the Devil Ray Organization? Any notable "high points" of the conversations with them?

JT: I met Friedman and Sternberg at the Baseball Winter Meetings in December.  I've spoken to Hunsicker several times when he visits Montgomery.  I also met Joe Maddon at the Winter Meetings.  All were good folks, but my conversation with Maddon was the most memorable.  I felt like I'd been his best friend for years.  He told me within minutes of meeting him that I should come to spring training and we could go out drinking.  Terrific guy and tremendously charismatic.  I could see him singlehandedly changing the tone of a whole organization with the strength of his charisma.

JL: What games or plays stick out as the best of the year?

JT: Wes Bankston's mammoth home run on opening day.  Elliot Johnson's game-winning grand slam.  The feeling that any time Andy Sonnanstine pitches he could potentially throw a no-hitter.

JL: What is your favorite baseball memory of all-time?

JT: Driving to Toronto with my dad to take in the 1991 MLB All-Star Game.  An unforgettable experience and one of those few and precious significant experiences that a son gets to have with his father.

JL: Who is your favorite baseball player of all-time? Current Favorite?

JT: I must have had the world's biggest Fred McGriff collection when I was 13.  I don't know why I picked him as my favorite but I was a fanatic.  My current favorites are Ichiro Suzuki and Pedro Martinez.

JL: Favorite Baseball Movie of all-time?

JT: Bull Durham.  No question.

JL: Any questions that you'd like to ask the fans?(Fans will answer your question in the comment section of the post)

JT: Not at the moment, but I'll reserve the right :-)

JL: Any parting comments, notes, quotes or "Words of Wisdom" that you want to pass along to fans?

JT: I just want to pass along thanks for the nice things people have said on the Rays messageboards about me, the broadcasts and the Biscuits.  It's easy for a lot of fans to be extremely negative and caustic and they forget that being a fan means enhancing your enjoyment.  It's not supposed to be an excuse to suffer and to make others suffer.  Most of what I read on these boards is extremely positive stuff from real fans.  There are intelligent comments here, not just cutdowns and smack talking.  So keep it up.