World Series champion Mike Toomey credits parents for foundation of his success
(This is the second of a three-part series on Mike Toomey, a Hyattsville resident who has joined Steve Miller’s baseball coaching staff at DeMatha. Part one highlighted Toomey’s start in professional baseball and his role in helping the Kansas City Royals win the 2015 World Series.)
By CHRIS McMANES — Mike Toomey began to develop a keen eye for athletic talent long before he became a World Series champion.
“People ask me when I started scouting. I tell them, ‘When I was about eight,’” Toomey said. “They look at me and say, ‘What do you mean when you were eight?’”
Toomey got his start as a Hall of Fame scout soon after his parents, Frank and Rita, moved to Hyattsville in 1959. Frank, an assistant football coach under Tom Nugent at Florida State since 1954, followed Nugent to the University of Maryland.
While at FSU, Frank coached running back and Emmy-award winner Burt Reynolds. Lee Corso, a popular football analyst on ESPN’s College GameDay, was a quarterback for the Seminoles. He and Frank served on Nugent’s Terrapin staff until 1965.
The Toomeys settled on Nicholson Street, and Mike attended school at St. Mark on Adelphi Road. Rita lives in the same house, and Mike spends much of his time there, too.
Frank’s position at Maryland gave his son access to highly skilled athletes. After school, Mike would take the short walk from St. Mark’s to the university, where he saw several future pro football, basketball and baseball players. The Terrapins were members of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
“When it was football season,” he said, “I got to see great athletes like Roger Staubach (Navy), Gary Collins (Maryland), Roman Gabriel (N.C. State), Norm Snead (Wake Forest), Brian Piccolo (Wake Forest), and Ernie Davis and Floyd Little (Syracuse).”
Davis became the first African American (1961) to win the Heisman Trophy and was the No. 1 overall selection of the 1962 NFL Draft. Collins was picked fourth and played 10 years for the Cleveland Browns.
In the winter, Mike would “hang out in Cole Field House” watching basketball players like Barry Kramer and Happy Hairston of NYU and Art Heyman of Duke. He also saw North Carolina Coach Dean Smith bring in stars such as Larry Brown and Billy Cunningham.
“I think all those great ACC players who came through in the ’60s really gave me an advantage on evaluating players,” Mike said. “I was in the locker room with the football team when I was 8-years-old, and I got to see players like Tommy Brown, who played football for the [Green Bay] Packers and baseball for the [Washington] Senators.”
Mike said his up-close-and-personal view gave him “a good idea of what made a great athlete.” And despite his youth, he had the presence of mind to look beyond a player’s “obvious physical skills” for thing like “leadership abilities, makeup, body language [and] toughness.”
Those traits are far more difficult to quantify. The scout who can gauge a player’s attitude, work ethic and emotional intelligence is much more valuable. An athlete needs more than physical ability to reach his or her potential.
“I was learning all those things not realizing that that was going to play a big part in my life as I got older,” Mike said.
From Frank, Mike also learned the value of discipline, commitment and sacrifice. Frank served as a captain in the United States Marine Corps during World War II. In February of 1945, he led his unit into a first-wave, frontal assault against the Japanese on the island of Iwo Jima. For his heroism in battle, he received a Purple Heart, Presidential Citation and Navy Commendation.
“He used to get up at like 4:30 every morning so he could beat the traffic and go to the swimming pool and work out,” Mike said. “He set a good example. He was a very disciplined guy.”
Frank played football, baseball and basketball at Canisius High School in Buffalo, N.Y., and at Ithaca (N.Y.) College. He played briefly in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. He also worked as a part-time scout for the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants.
“Baseball was always his favorite sport,” Mike said.
Frank became defensive coordinator at Montgomery College in 1966 and head football coach three years later. From 1967 to 1986, he led the MC golf team to 15 regional championships and two Top 10 national finishes. He was a professor of physical education at the Rockville campus and inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
Among the baseball luminaries attending Frank’s April 2014 funeral at St. Jerome were Royals General Manager Dayton Moore and ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian. Mike concluded his eulogy with the Marine Corps motto Semper Fi, short for Semper Fidelis. (Latin for “always faithful.”)
“I’m blessed to have two parents live into their 90s,” Mike said.
A mother’s love
During the second World War, Mike’s mom, the former Rita Sullivan, served in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps. These ladies filled a critical shortage of nurses at home while many women were overseas in military service or working in the defense industry.
After the war, Rita worked for a College Park physician as a pediatric nurse. She even delivered a neighbor’s son, Alex Terry, at home. Terry graduated from St. Jerome Academy and will be a junior at The Heights this fall. Mike likes to point out that Alex is captain of the varsity baseball team.
Like many coach’s wives, Rita took care of things at home while her husband spent long hours coaching, recruiting and traveling.
“My mom’s been the straw that stirred the drink for both me and my dad,” Mike said. “She’s the unsung hero who’s had to put up with dad being away and me being away, and her keeping the home lights burning and never getting any credit for anything. But she held the family together.”
Rita also did whatever she could to help Mike prosper.
“She’s been a very strong force in my life as far as somebody you could go to when you were down and somebody who would inspire you and help you with your homework, help you when you had a problem,” he said. “She was always there.”
Not an easy road
After graduating from St. Mark in 1965, Mike wanted to attend DeMatha. His father, however, insisted he go to St. John’s in Northwest Washington.
“All my buddies went to DeMatha or Northwestern,” Mike said. “But my dad, being a Marine, liked the idea of a military school. So, when he said, ‘You’re going to St. John’s,’ I said, ‘yes sir.’”
In addition to being a standout baseball player, Mike also played freshman and JV basketball for the Cadets. Getting to St. John’s, then an all-boys school, was no easy feat.
“I hitchhiked to and from school every day,” he said. “I think my dad had that in mind intentionally to kind of toughen me up a little. To be able to fend for myself and do things on my own. Being the military guy that he was, he thought that was an integral part of my overall development as a person.”
After Mike arrived home on schooldays, he had two to three hours of homework. He also had to shine his shoes, polish the brass on his uniform and make sure his pants and shirt were ironed. He thinks hitchhiking in a military uniform helped him get rides.
“How did I do all that?” he wonders.
As a senior, Mike helped the Cadets win what is now known as the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. The team, coached by Branson Ferry, recently had a 50-year reunion and went on the field together.
“You should have seen us out there,” Mike joked recently at the McDonald’s on East-West Highway and Route 1. “I said to myself, ‘Wow, we used to really know how to play this game.’”
In the summertime, Mike played baseball for the American Legion post in Cheverly. The team won three state championships (1967-69) under William “Bumps” Vaughan, who also led Bowie High School to numerous titles.
College playing & coaching career
Following his 1969 graduation from St. John’s, Mike played two years for Ray Fox at Montgomery College in Rockville. He was named All-Region and team MVP as a sophomore. He later joined his dad in the school’s Hall of Fame.
Mike transferred to George Washington in Northwest Washington and played center field under Billy Smith. He was named outstanding senior athlete in 1974. Mike the scout was asked to describe Mike the baseball player:
“I was a good college player; a plus runner with speed, a line-drive, contact hitter; not much power. In the field, I could really go after the ball. My speed was probably my best attribute. I was adept at getting a good jump on the ball and could run balls down. My arm wasn’t particularly strong, but I could get it to the cutoff man.”
At 22, Mike was hired to be GW’s head coach. In addition to leading the program, he was the club’s equipment manager and trainer. He didn’t have an assistant coach until his final season.
The Colonials played their home games on the Ellipse, between the White House and the Washington Monument. The field had heating grates in the outfield and no fence. He used to drive the equipment there in a laundry truck.
Mike recalls the day Japanese tourists walked right through a game. Homeless people would use the grates to stay warm on cold days and had to be asked to leave. Probably the strangest thing happened in the eighth inning of a game against Delaware.
“I was coaching third base when a policeman came up and asked if I was in charge,” he said. “When I told him it was me, he said, ‘One of your foul balls hit a car behind home plate and broke a windshield.’ He told me we were responsible for it and gave me a citation.
“Can you imagine that? Here I am trying to coach a game, and I get a ticket for a broken windshield.”
Mike coached his alma mater for five seasons (1975-80). His 1979 squad finished 35-16 and won the ECAC playoffs in Harrisonburg, Va., to qualify for the NCAA East Regionals at Florida State. Twenty years prior, the Toomeys had left Tallahassee, Fla., and moved to Hyattsville.
The Colonials began the regionals with a 12-11 loss to national runner-up Arkansas. Before being eliminated by Florida, 12-7, they beat Seton Hall, 5-2. The ’79 squad is the only baseball team in school history to win a game in the NCAA Tournament.
“He was a special coach to play for,” said Ross Natoli, who played under Mike from 1976 to 1980. “He was very organized. He simplified things and made it fun for us. We didn’t have the greatest facilities when I first came to GW, but we were able to make the most of it.”
Natoli, who coached New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman at Catholic, was a part-time starting outfielder in 1979.
“Mike was a great teacher of the fundamentals and a great motivator,” he said. “You wanted to play hard for him. You wanted to do your best. I think that’s one of the biggest foundations of his success. Guys played hard for him and had a good time doing it.”
Dick Howser, head coach at Florida State, was actually on the team’s flight to the regional tournament. He was so impressed with Mike and how his team performed that he suggested he give the pros a try. A year later, Mike was coaching the Pittsburgh Pirates’ class A affiliate, the Alexandria (Va.) Dukes.
In 1985, Howser guided the Royals to their first World Series title. Thirty years later, Mike contributed to their second.
John Norris, Mike’s assistant coach in 1979, became Catholic’s head coach the following season. Mike assisted him the next two falls during the minor-league off season. Natoli became the Cardinals’ head man in 1985.
GW enshrined Mike into its Hall of Fame in 1989. St. John’s followed suit in 2012. He is also a member of the Mid-Atlantic Scouts and Professional Baseball Scouts Halls of Fame.
When Mike retired from the Royals in October 2018, Major League Baseball presented him with a gold Lifetime Pass. It allows him and a guest to attend any MLB game — anytime, anywhere.
Mike is grateful for the life he leads and quick to credit the two most important people in his life – his parents.
“I’m very thankful to all my teachers and coaches and players,” he said. “It all goes back to my mother and father. They put me in position to do some good things in my life.”
(Part three of this series will feature Mike Toomey’s work coaching players all over the world.)
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) has coached freshman baseball at DeMatha the past three years and at St. Jerome since 2013. He and Mike Toomey are now coaching together at DeMatha.