This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Jan. 6, 2003, issue. Subscribe today!
A prison door opened, and the ballplayer's father rose from his seat in the spare visitors room. He was waiting on his son -- The Natural, the one the scout found in the cane field, the one the writers couldn't believe.
For eight months, Charles "Tuttie" Payton had driven here to Ascension Parish Jail in northwest Louisiana, 11 miles in his red Mustang, jostling atop the broken road, up and across the thin arch of bridge, past the factory smoke. Tonight, finally, he'd come to take him home.
Already waiting behind the inch-thick glass, shadows of a beard playing across his face, sat the son, Greg Nash, 20.
The boy hadn't changed much in those eight months, his hair still braided in thick ropes, his voice low, that dark birthmark mole at the corner of his nose.
He was thicker now, but still the same boy. The boy he'd taught to play baseball. The boy he'd never doubted.
IMAGINE A child with a dollar-store glove on his hand. Three years old, say, giggling. Called Toe, because of his already-big feet. The father brought the glove home, put it over the boy's hand, took a picture. Perfect. A year later, a Wiffle ball bat waggling in his hand, the boy was in the front yard, under the porch light and moon, learning to swing. But he uppercut everything. So the father stuffed an old sock with a rag, like he and his brothers used to do. Threw it straight and taught the boy to hit. Imagine that.
The father never forced his son to play or yelled at him to practice; he only encouraged the swings outside their home in Sorrento. There was Toe, always with a bat, ready to play. Later, a mop handle replaced the Wiffle bat in the boy's hands. The father taught his son how to hit a curve, flicking beer bottle caps off his fingers, partly just to see if Toe could hit them. And he would-the wild swing coming down, eyes on the ball, missing, well, almost never.
Nine, 10, 11 ... soon the boy was too big for his clothes, but no one noticed. His mother had left for good some time ago, and his father wasn't home that much himself. He had a hard enough time, working construction and other odd jobs, just keeping food on the table. Toe kept busy with T-ball, then Little League. Even then he was as tall as his old man, with the same sloped forehead, same slow speech, answering in his dad's accent, "Ah-huh," to almost everything.
Charles watched, alone in the bleachers, whenever he had time to come to games. The boy took the mound, arms already bulging. Out of his hand, the ball flew to the plate, almost invisible, the dust on the mound like smoke under his shoes. He was born to play, Charles thought. Toe struck out almost every batter he faced. Then he'd come to the plate and knock the ball over the fence and into the creek. The other parents watched, speechless.
Then he was 12, playing in the Dixie Youth Tournament in 1994. A part-time baseball scout came to see a friend's brother play, slapping mosquitoes off his shoulder in the heat. But what caught his eye was the biggest kid he'd ever seen. No one got close to the boy's fastball. There were goosebumps on the scout's arms. My God, said Benny Latino, look at him.
The kid handled the bat just as well, with a swing that launched two home runs far beyond the fence. "Did that just happen?" Latino asked his friend.
Walking to the car after the game, Latino couldn't shake the boy from his head. What would he be like when he was older? Where did he get that swing? Latino promised himself he'd let a couple of years pass, let the boy get into high school, then find him. That's what a scout does: sees talent, tucks it away, remembers. In the meantime, he'd check the box scores in the Baton Rouge Advocate, or The Gonzales Weekly, never forgetting the name across the boy's broad back: TOE.
AROUND A dayroom table at Ascension, in maximum-security block A-400, men are playing cards, marking time. Guards look on from deep in the security viewing room. At night, when the game grows louder, Toe sits apart, quiet, viewing baseball highlights on TV: Barry Bonds, swatting another into McCovey Cove, or his favorite player, Andruw Jones, laying out to catch a ball in center. Watching, Toe feels trapped. He should have been with a minor league team, maybe even Double-A, working on his swing, shagging flies, playing. Instead, he's staring out a window at the parking lot, shooting some basketball, trying not to be angry. But he's not sleeping much, mostly just tossing in the narrow bed.
It still seems like ... when? Yesterday? The red and blue lights outside his dad's trailer on that cool January night in 2002. The officers saying he was under arrest, the cuffs icy around his thick wrists. They led him outside, read him his rights, told him why they were taking him in. Rape. Then they told him the local girl's name. She said Greg asked her to have sex, and when she refused and locked herself in the bathroom, he and a friend broke down the door and forced her to the floor. The next day, the story was in ink and on TV. Greg "Toe" Nash, of Sorrento, La., famed prospect for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was arrested last night ...
HE WAS gone. The boy's name wasn't in the box scores, wasn't in the record books, wasn't even on any high school attendance list. Benny Latino, now a full-time scout for the D-Rays, didn't know what had happened. But, keeping his promise to himself, he went back to look.
It was now six years since he'd seen Toe in that Little League game. The boy would be 18 now, no longer a boy, actually. He should have been tearing up the ball, claiming a spot at the top of the state record books. So why had no one heard of him? Now, in the summer of 2000, the scout would sit in the stands of local high school games, asking parents if they'd ever seen him -- the tall black kid with the socks pulled up to his knees, better in Little League than anyone else. Yeah, some replied. We remember. But no one had a clue about what had become of him. Latino asked coaches, players, kids, anyone wandering around the ballparks. He asked the barber trimming his hair in nearby Hammond. Nothing.
A week passed, maybe two. And then, like a bolt out of the bayou sky, came news about the "Hit Man." Latino knew a man who ran a team in the small Sugar Cane League in southern Louisiana, and the man said, "Yes, there's a guy here, playing for the Williams' All-Stars. They call him the Hit Man, 'cause he's 6'6", good for two jacks a night. He strikes out everyone who steps in against him. He's got a real funny name." Toe. Had to be. Like that, the scout's life would never be the same. Already at the wheel of his black BMW, hands shaking, he picked up the phone to find out about the All-Stars' next game.
It was a day game, in Tangipahoa. The sky was orange, heat like a firecracker, exploding. On the field were men in their 30s and 40s, some ex-minor leaguers and a few kids holding on to the last of their baseball dreams. The scout parked his car, walked to the field, leaned against an oak. "What am I doing?" he asked no one in particular.
Immediately, he felt the Dixie Youth heartbeat all over again. There he was, a young Dave Winfield walking to the plate. He hit two home runs, one from each side, the ball rising high before it went over the fence, climbing, climbing and disappearing. Then, to close the game, he let fly a 93 mph heater. Pinch me, thought the scout.
After the game, Latino introduced himself. He asked Toe if he'd be interested in pro ball. Pro? Toe couldn't even believe the word, had no idea how to respond. The scout gave him a prospect card, told him to fill it out and left his number. You are magical, he told the ballplayer. Oh, and by the way, where have you been?
Toe told him he'd been expelled from school in the eighth grade for fighting. "You never went back?" Latino asked. "Nah," Toe replied. "I jus' didn't ... I guess I jus' didn't feel like it. I didn't like school." A wild wind of thick hair blew out from under the rim of his cap. He was nervous.
Latino couldn't get over how tall Toe was, and he marveled at his Shaqlike size-18 feet. "You have to see this kid," he almost yelled later over his cell phone to Dan Jennings, then the Devil Rays scouting director. "We have to sign him. Now."
Soon, a plane would take Toe to a tryout in Princeton, W. Va. (where balls bounced off the scoreboard, stunning onlookers), and his story would be on the front page of USA Today. But first, Latino began to look after him like an older brother. They talked baseball in the scout's home. Over fast food, they discussed life in Sorrento. They went to the mall, and the scout said, "You will be a major leaguer. And major leaguers need clothes. Pick some out."
Toe was quiet-about the quietest person Latino had ever met. It was hard to get him to say anything except thank you. All the while, the scout reminded himself about his job. He was supposed to find people, sign them, get on with his life. Check on them now and then, in the paper. Maybe call once in awhile. But with Toe, it was personal. Latino felt it was his job to make sure Toe succeeded, make sure he didn't waste the potential. "You're gonna make it," he told Toe as he watched him work out. "You've got all the tools. You've got raw power no one can teach, and if you get hold of it, you'll make millions. You'll be an inspiration. They might make a movie about you."
HE TOLD everyone: "I'm innocent. I didn't rape her." He said it through the glass to his father, to the scout, to anyone who visited. And when he said it, he cried. "I was over at her house and, yeah, I had sex with her. I didn't know how old she was. I swear I thought she was my age. You know I didn't rape her, Dad. You know it."
The father sat back in the metal chair, staring at the son who, because he couldn't make bail, had just turned 20 in jail. It wasn't his first offense. Toe had been charged before -- with domestic violence against his 41-year-old girlfriend, with stealing $200 from a man at a party, with battery (at the same party), with marijuana possession. But he was never convicted, maybe because the crimes weren't as serious as they sounded, and maybe because people in the community recognized that this was a kid who had a chance to get out. Some people, anyway. After the rape arrest, the DA said Toe was "beyond help." His chief deputy called him "criminal, a bad citizen."
But the father knew his son. He didn't believe this boy -- who didn't swear, who looked after his little sister -- could rape anyone. So he cried too, and said, "I believe you, son. I want you to come back home. Your sister and I miss you."
HIS ARMS straightened, his bat rose and a silence fell on Hunnicutt Field. In June 2001, Toe was a 19-year-old outfielder for the Princeton Devil Rays of the Appalachian League. He'd signed a $30,000 contract (with some bargaining help from an uncle, ex-NBAer John "Hot Rod" Williams), and spring training in Florida had helped his swing and his glove. Four years, maybe five, they said, and he'd be trotting out to the warning track in Tropicana. He met Dwight Smith, a roving instructor for the big club. Toe was hypnotized by Smith's World Series ring, from his time with the Braves. Large, shimmering, gypsy red, it lit up his hand. "You're gonna be a star," Smith said.
As far as Toe had come, it all seemed even further away. He had thought about playing ball all his life: the uniform, the grass, the walk to home plate. But like this? No. Impossible, the way it happened. Latino finding him -- and looking out for him -- was just the beginning. The scout knew an agent, Larry Reynolds, who wanted to represent Toe. The agent's brother was ESPN analyst and former major leaguer Harold Reynolds. After Harold heard the story, he told it to a colleague: "Peter," he said. "You gotta hear this."
When Gammons' column appeared online in January 2001, no one could believe the words. Was the kid from the cane fields real? The story got more than three million hits. Reynolds invited Toe to California that winter to live with him. Harold did no TV in the off-season, so why not help the phenom get ready?
Something like a dream happened that first night in California. Reynolds took Toe to Edison Field in Anaheim, and they walked up to the closed gates. Then Reynolds said, "Let's jump over. Let's go onto the field!" They didn't, but the next day they went to Dodger Stadium and played pepper on the infield.
Toe slept on Reynolds' couch that winter in the LA suburb of Brea. Reynolds took him to hitting camps he runs. They met Tony Gwynn, Shawn Green, Eric Davis. They talked to Ken Griffey Jr. on Reynolds' cell phone. They went to batting cages, played catch. Harold showed him mechanics, taught him how to move his arms. In February, when The Times Picayune in New Orleans chronicled Toe's previous arrests and troubles, Reynolds sat with him and talked about what it means to be a man, and how to act like one and about moving on. And then Toe did move on, to West Virginia. "Remember what I told you," Reynolds said on the phone before Toe's first game.
Toe's batting average didn't crack .250 after the first week of the season, but he made progress, and no one doubted his future. His batting coach, WenDell Bolar, sat next to him in the dugout and said, "Toe, you have the biggest, goofiest feet; they're like boats. But you're one hell of a ballplayer." Bolar stayed late, sunlight dimming, to hit balls to Toe. They chewed sunflower seeds and made fun of each other during the games.
Toe had plenty of "family" looking after him in West Virginia. There was the photographer who took his baseball-card picture, fed him spaghetti at her house and let him nap on the big recliner near the door. There was the twentysomething in sunglasses who drove him around in her Honda Del Sol when he wanted to ride with the music loud, his head towering above the rearview mirror. There was the wife of a man who hosted some of the players, who braided Toe's hair and told him, "Be sure to hit a home run for me tomorrow night," and there was the bus driver who took the players back and forth to the hotel and watched Toe from a spot beneath the bleachers. He told Toe, "Son, you can't flirt with the girls when you're on my bus!" And there was Toe's host family, Roy and Ruby Beasley, who took him to church on Sundays, would drive him to Wal-Mart at 2 a.m. if he asked and brought him biscuits before every road trip.
Once, they took Toe to the largest house in Princeton, a mansion with a sprawling garden, and Roy pointed to it and said, "Look there, son. That could be yours." Still, Toe was homesick for real family. So when the season ended, he flew home.
Five months later, he was behind bars.
HIS HEAD brushed the top of the door frame. His sneakers squeaked on the tile. The ballplayer, carrying a plastic bag of belongings, walked toward his father and said, "I want to go home." They walked out into the heat, beneath the fizzing spotlights, past the watchtower and the drooping barbed wire that hung with a glint in the night.
The rape charges were dropped in September 2002. According to Toe's lawyer, Arthur Lemann IV, there were discrepancies in the girl's story and inconsistencies in the accounts of witnesses present at the girl's house during the incident. Robin O'Bannon, the DA on the case, said the girl had run away from home twice since Toe was in jail, and each time she came home with a familiar story of rape. According to O'Bannon, each allegation was similar to the one she had made against Toe. "We don't know if the allegations are false," the DA said, "but her credibility is extremely questionable." Toe, who will be 21 in February, pleaded guilty to sex with a minor and was released for time served. He was given five years' probation, but the D-Rays cut him when he was released. Now his future is in the hands of the Cincinnati Reds, who signed him to a minor league deal in late December.
HE'S A ballplayer. And one afternoon near the dying end of summer, a few days after his release, he walked to a field in Gonzales, where he once played. It's a worn diamond, the dirt infield torn up and muddy. Toe put his face to the chain fence and pointed to a shed past the outfield wall. "I used to hit them out there," he said.
"I used to hit them out there, and everyone cheered when they bounced into the creek."
Justin Heckert was a former contributor to The Magazine. His work is featured in the new book, "Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists."