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Devil Rays find The Natural in the cane fields

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Benny Latino was scouting a game last summer in Baton Rouge and discovered the man sitting next to him was from Gonzales, down the road towards the swamps. Latino immediately asked if the man knew the whereabouts of a kid named Toe.

Toe Nash.

The man was the brother of the mayor and had some suggestions, and it set Latino off on another search. It had been nearly six years since Latino, then a part-time scout, saw this kid named Toe. "It was a Little League game and this kid was the greatest little leaguer I'd ever seen," says Latino, a Devil Rays area scout out of Hammond, Louisiana. "He was a monster. He hit two home runs. He struck out 17 of the 21 batters he faced. I never forgot him, and with a name like Toe Nash, how do you forget?

I couldn't believe what I saw. He hit one homer from the right side, about 380 feet. He hit one from the left side more than 400 feet. He pitched and was throwing in the 90s and blowing people away. He was The Natural.
Devil Rays scout Benny Latino

"I kept his name in my books and kept waiting for his name to pop up somewhere," says Latino. "I figured he'd be a high school star by the 10th grade. But I never heard of him again."

Latino runs a summer team in Hammond for high school players from all across Louisiana -- Ben Sheets, Kurt Ainsworth and a host of other up-and-coming major leaguers all played for him. He has contacts everywhere from Thibodeaux to Shreveport. The man from Gonzales thought the kid might be playing down in the Sugar Cane League and Latino knew Bill Causley, who runs the league.

So when Latino got home that night he called Causley and asked him about the little leaguer he'd seen five or six years earlier. "I think he might be playing for Hot Rod Williams' team," said Causley. "Track him down."

Latino drove to Gonzales and talked around. "You must mean 'The Hit Man,' " he was told, and that night when the workers were done in the cane fields there was a scheduled game. Gonzales is a city of about 16,000 off the Mississippi River. Folks there work the fields or the plants up along the river. There are a couple of juke joints, where you can envision Sonny Boy Williamson or Skip James.

And there are a lot of sports. Sheets, the Olympic hero and the Brewers' prized rookie pitcher, is a Gonzales boy. Hot Rod lives there and owns cane fields and sponsors the baseball team and, yes, Greg Nash is his nephew. He was always called Toe because he had such big feet, now size 18.

The baseball diamond that game was literally carved out of the cane fields. No fences, just cane out beyond the outfielders. "They barbecue right there during the game," says Latino. "It could be alligator, it could be crawfish, whatever someone brings." The spectators have a few beers and enjoy the night.

There Benny Latino finally found the kid he'd been waiting for all these years. Toe had grown to six-foot-six. He weighed about 215, cut like marble. Latino found out that Toe hadn't been to school since the seventh or eighth grade, that he and his sister were raised by their father, Charles, in a trailer outside Gonzales, out near Sorrento and Galvez, and that the father worked Hot Rod's fields. A couple of nights a week Toe got to do what he loves: play ball with a bunch of 30- and 40-year old guys -- even one fellow who'd played pro ball and been released -- in this field of dreams.

"I couldn't believe what I saw," Latino recalls. "He hit one homer from the right side, about 380 feet. He hit one from the left side more than 400 feet. He pitched and was throwing in the 90s and blowing people away. He was The Natural."

Latino immediately called Tampa Bay scouting director Dan Jennings. The draft had passed and the kid was old enough to sign. Jennings naturally was fascinated.

A few more trips to the cane fields and a couple of weeks later, Hot Rod Williams agreed to travel with his nephew to Princeton, West Virginia, where Jennings and several of the Devil Rays' development people were watching their Appalachian League rookie club. "I didn't know what to expect," says Jennings. "But the kid was a monster."

They took Nash to the outfield. "Raw and untrained, he showed a 65 or 70 (out of 80) arm right off the bat," says Latino. Then they brought him in to hit. After a couple of swings, Jennings made a suggestion. "He had his feet almost together, pidgeon-toed," says Jennings. "I suggested he spread out a little. He hit the next two pitches out of sight."

Toe hit 10 or 11 of the 25 balls he swung at from the right side out of the park, and one of the minor league folks asked Latino what it would take to sign the kid.

"Wait," Latino told him. "He's not done yet."

Toe went around to the other side of the plate. He hit another 10 or 11 balls out. "Some went even further," says Jennings. "I kept saying, 'This can't be real.' "

Jennings asked Latino if the kid was willing to sign.

"Wait," Latino told his boss. "He's not done yet."

Toe walked out to the bullpen and started throwing. "He looked like a monster Satchel Paige," Jennings recalls. "Big ol' floppy arm delivery, straight over the top. One of our pitching coaches made a suggestion, and by the time he was done he was throwing 95. I'm not lying. Ninety-five. With a curveball that broke straight down into the ground."

Latino talked to uncle Hot Rod, and a couple of weeks later got permission to pay Toe a $30,000 bonus. In September, Toe Nash was on a plane to Tampa to work out with the Devil Rays' Instructional League team.

Only there was a problem with the trip. Toe had to fly from Baton Rouge to Atlanta, then change planes for Tampa. Understand, the trip to West Virginia was Toe's first time out of Louisiana. When he got to the country's busiest airport in Atlanta he panicked. He left some belongings on the commuter plane. Then he thought he had to pick up his bags and transfer them to the flight to Tampa. He paged Latino, in panic.

Toe finally made another flight to Tampa, and Latino had told a pitcher he'd signed out of New Orleans named Scott Vandermeer to take the kid under his wing. "Toe had to learn about everything, starting with how to order Domino's pizza from his hotel room," says Latino.

For three weeks, all Toe Nash did was work out with the Instructional League team, then watch the games. But when he worked out, he opened some eyes. "Who in the world is that?" asked Toronto scouting director Tim Wilken. Yankee folks wondered the same thing. When Latino and all the Tampa Bay scouts came in for organizational meetings two weeks from the end of the program, GM Chuck LaMar and his assistant Bart Braun each told Latino they wanted to see Toe get a chance to play.

So for the last eight or 10 games of the Instructional League season, Toe was in the outfield alongside Josh Hamilton, the top pick in the entire draft in 1999, and Carl Crawford, a fleet former high school All-America football player who is regarded nearly as highly as Hamilton. Toe's first hit was off Pittsburgh's Chris Young, the 6-10 basketball player -- and $1.5 million bonus boy -- from Princeton. "People kept asking where we found this secret," says LaMar. "I kept telling them we found him because of a classic case of great scouting.

"How good will he be? No one knows. But with his power and his arm, he has an unlimited ceiling as a hitter or as a pitcher. I'd watch him playing against and holding his own with college players four or five years his senior in the Instructional League, and think 'This kid hasn't been to school since the seventh grade or played organized ball since Little League ... I must be dreaming.' You couldn't make this up."

Latino and the Devil Rays have tried to help Toe's transition into his professional life. Latino drives once or twice a week over to Sorrento to the trailer where Toe lives. They play some hoops on a dirt court. He got Toe in touch with some of his pro guys, and the first week of February Toe is going to California to Harold Reynolds' hitting school, where he'll work with Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Alvin Davis and a host of present and former major leaguers. In March, he'll report to St. Petersburg for his first spring training and this whole other world away from the juke joints and the trailer.

And Latino will go back to scouting. "There is a lot of talent in Louisiana," he says. "I just love this." The 34-year old Latino was a successful Hammond businessman who happened to be a baseball junkie. He got started as a part-timer, driving scout Bill Schmidt through the back roads and swamps when Schmidt was diagnosed with cancer. Then legendary Texan Doug Gassaway hired Latino as a part-timer when Gassaway went to work for the fledgling Rays. Now Latino is a full-time scout.

In the summers, he sponsors and runs a team for players from all across the state. "Since," he says, "the summer leagues don't play more than a dozen games." Latino has had Sheets, Ainsworth, White Sox pitching prospect Brian West, Red Sox outfielder Antron Seiber and dozens of other minor-league prospects. This June two of his kids could be first round picks; one of them, LSU All-America second baseman Mike Fontenot, is a Chuck Knoblauch clone. They come in to Hammond from Independence, Shreveport and Gonzales, live in houses Latino owns and rents and the teams -- the Bill Hood Chevrolet Broncos, sponsored by the car dealer -- have won four of the last eight National Amateur Baseball Federation championships against teams from all around the world.

"I think Benny Latino knows everyone in the whole state of Louisiana," says LaMar. And because he couldn't forget a little leaguer he'd seen six years earlier and went down to the cane fields to find him, Latino found this kid with the size 18 shoe, Mark McGwire power and Doc Gooden arm living in a trailer, just hangin' out since he left school in the eighth grade, hitting 400-foot home runs into the cane and throwing 90-something.

"Toe Nash," says Jennings, "is Babe Ruth."

The Babe from the land of Sonny Boy Williamson, Polk Salad Annie and some good postgame gator.

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