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Tolbert happy to please fans

Matt Tolbert sat at a small table armed with an arsenal ofSharpie pens in a rainbow of colors. The Minnesota Twins utilityplayer signed autographs on baseballs, action pictures, shirts andcards. A switch hitter, he probably could have signed with eitherhand if he got tired.

Tolbert, 28, present for Wednesday’s grand opening of the KDMCFitness Center, served as a special guest and sports personalityfor the festive occasion. Three elderly ladies approached him withsmiling, grandmotherly faces. They had several packs ofplastic-enclosed baseballs ready to be autographed for children andgrandchildren. Tolbert borrowed a key to pierce and cut open theplastic containers.

“I’m from Biloxi,” smiled a gray-headed matron. “Could you signa picture for me. Oh my, I have three grandchildren. Do you havetwo more pictures I could have?”

Tolbert smiled patiently, signed the additional photos andthanked the ladies for coming by to visit. Children of all shapesand sizes stood in line for the opportunity to get a Major LeagueBaseball player’s autograph. Their parents asked Tolbert to posefor pictures and he gladly obliged.

Most of them said, “Thank you.”

After all, this is the Deep South where courtesy and kindnessstill exist in most places. Mississippi might be the poorest stateeconomically but the residents are recognized as No. 1 when itcomes to giving, be it churches or charitable organizations.

A native of McComb, Tolbert grew up in Woodville and attendedCentreville Academy. He was a 2,000-yard rusher on the gridiron anda superstar on the baseball field.

A 2000 CA graduate, Tolbert played football for the legendaryBill Hurst at Centreville.

“One of the greatest experiences in my life was winning twostate (football) championships and playing for Coach Hurst,” saidTolbert. His collegiate future steered him to baseball and fouryears of playing for the Ole Miss Rebels.

Tolbert is a .246 career hitter with the Twins. He has two homeruns and 43 RBIs in 160 games. He played in 48 games with the Twinslast season before being sent to Triple-A Rochester, N.Y. He wasrecalled in time for Minnesota’s playoff action.

His immediate goal is to make the Twins’ 25-man active rosterthis spring. Tolbert reports for spring training Feb. 22 at Ft.Myers, Fla. “I may go in a week earlier.”

The Boston Red Sox also are based in Ft. Myers during springpractice and baseball fans abound. Many of them have fled thefrozen tundra in pursuit of baseball and warmer temperatures.

Some scribes refer to spring training as a relaxed atmosphere.Fans can rub elbows with their favorite MLB stars.

Tolbert disagrees. “There’s a lot of pressure in springtraining. You are wondering if you’re going to make the roster.Then you wonder, ‘Where are they gonna send me?'”

His versatility is a big plus. He can play third base,shortstop, second base, first base and right field.

“Basically, I’m the 25th guy,” said Tolbert. “I’m not the mosttalented but I work hard. I don’t hit home runs but I can hit toall fields.”

A 6-foot, 185-pounder who celebrates his 29th birthday May 4,Tolbert already has some fond MLB memories. “My first hit in thebig leagues was special. It was off (pitcher) Joe Saunders when hewas pitching for the Angels. It felt great standing on that firstbase bag and looking around the field.”

He has thrown out Yankees superstar Derek Jeter at home plateand enjoyed all the perks of playing in the Majors. His best buddywith the Twins is Danny Valencia, a third baseman from Miami whomade his Major League debut last June.

“We used to walk from the stadium to the hotel in springtraining,” said Tolbert. “(Training) is a lot of fun but you haveto produce every time you play. You don’t get a lot of turns atbat.”

Asked about the toughest stadiums to play in, Tolbert said, “ThePhiladelphia fans are really tough. Yankee Stadium is so big.”

He said Minnesota’s berth in the playoffs last season was amemorable experience.

His favorite playing location is Minnesota’s new Target Field.It outshines the old Metrodome and its plastic roof panels.

“You can walk 360 (degrees) around (Target),” said Tolbert.”It’s beautiful. They had talked about putting a movable roof on itbut the cold isn’t that bad during baseball season.”

Asked about the Minnesota fans, Tolbert said they’re devoted tothe Twins. “They are great fans and they’ve got your back. They’renot the bandwagon type of fans. They support you, win or lose.”

Baseball is an ideal profession for men who like to deer hunt.Tolbert said, “The season is just getting over with when deerseason starts in Mississippi.”

His parents, Moose and Patti Tolbert, live in Woodville, deep inthe heart of deer territory in southwest Mississippi. He alsospends time in Oxford when he isn’t hunting or working on hisbaseball career.

Presently, Tolbert is enjoying the best of both worlds.

Write to sports editor Tom Goetz, c/o The DAILY LEADER, P.O.BOX 551, Brookhaven, MS 39602 or e-mailsports@dailyleader.com