March 26, 2014
"Coach Heller came to me and said, `We have to get you stronger, we have to get you to drive the ball into the gaps,'" said Toole. "Our strength coach Dan Hammes did an excellent job with us in the fall. Everyone put on weight and we've met our goals and got stronger in the upper body."
When Heller arrived at Iowa and analyzed Toole's game, he saw an athlete with speed, good outfield instincts, and the ability to hit and steal bases. Heller projected Toole as a player with professional ability, but he needed to add power to get the most out of his game.
"For him to have a chance to keep moving up once he gets into pro ball, we felt he needed to get stronger, put weight on in the weight room, and his gap-to-gap power needed to improve -- not home run power, but doubles-type power," said Heller.
"I think you'll see Eric drive balls to both gaps more consistently, which makes him a threat. He'll be the guy that can beat you with the bunt or drive it off the wall in either gap. It takes his game to a different level."
The son of a high school baseball coach, Toole tagged along to his older brother's games, picking up a baseball and glove as a 5-year-old in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
"I have pictures of me on the field after games, picking up balls from the dirt, grass, and running around the bases," said Toole, whose father, Lee, is president of the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association. "I started when I was young, still in diapers. Every day, I was throwing or playing catch with my dad or brother.
"Baseball is something you have to pass down from father to son. I feel like I picked it up well and have loved it ever since."
Toole was a four-sport athlete at Lewis Central High School, earning all-conference honors in basketball and all-state honors in football and track. It was baseball where he made the biggest name for himself.
Toole was a four-time all-state, all-city, all-conference and all-district outfielder, hitting over .480 and stealing at least 25 bases during each year of his prep career. He was team MVP three times, a High School Baseball All-American by Collegiate Baseball and Louisville Slugger as a junior and senior, and a Wendy's High School Heisman finalist.
During his sophomore season, former UI assistant coach Ryan Brownlee attended one of Toole's high school games and offered a scholarship. It was an offer he couldn't turn down.
"(Coach Brownlee) told me I could play collegiate-level baseball," said Toole. "A month later I called and told them I was ready to come to Iowa. I wanted to play baseball in college, following my brother's path, but I wanted to see what I could make for myself."
There was no hesitancy for Toole to follow in Justin Toole's footsteps. Justin was a three-time All-Big Ten selection for the Hawkeyes from 2006-09 before being drafted in the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft by the Cleveland Indians.
"He set the way for me," said Toole. "He was told he wasn't going to do much, and he'd have to work for everything, and he earned it. It helped out tremendously for me because it showed me I could prove that I could do it too.
"I take it as a challenge (to follow him at Iowa). We go back and forth in everything we do -- video games, races, or silly things like that. We always have competitions with each other, so it's fun."
After hitting .283 (36-of-127) as a freshman, Toole broke out as a sophomore, leading the Hawkeyes in batting average (.337), runs (32), hits (59), total bases (67) and steals (22) en route to second-team All-Big Ten honors. Toole hit .412 in Big Ten play, ranking second in the league, while leading the conference in on-base percentage (.486), fourth in hits (40) and sixth in runs (21).
Toole tied an Iowa record -- held by brother, Justin -- in his second-to-last game of the regular season when he went 5-for-5 -- all singles -- in a 9-5 Iowa win at Purdue. Toole had a chance to surpass Justin's record, but was hit by a pitch in his final at-bat.
"Justin texted me after the game telling me he was sorry I couldn't get that sixth hit," said Toole. "But he also said I wouldn't have gotten it anyway. I was bickering back and forth with him."
Even with the competiveness between the siblings, Toole knows he has someone to turn to in good times or bad.
"It's a good relationship I have with my brother, and I know I can always go to him when I am struggling, and he will talk to me when he's struggling," he said. "That helps out."
Toole's offseason work has contributed to a strong start to 2014, as he is hitting .306 with 26 hits, 19 runs and 11 RBIs. Six of his 26 hits have gone for extra bases after tallying a total of seven extra-base hits in his first two seasons. Toole is also stealing bases, converting six steals in nine attempts, giving him 35 career steals.
"(Hitting for power) is a big part of my game now because I don't have to sit back and wait on a pitch where I can hit it through the six or four hole," said Toole. "I can take a pitch and drive it to the gap to score a couple of runs or get a hustle double.
"My speed is still there. Luckily I have the ability to be fast because that's who I am. I am the guy that steals bases, gets on for other people to hit me in, or bunt people around. Speed plays a big factor in that."
Toole is a complete player, one that will be hard for Heller to replace.
"Trying to find a guy that can do the things Eric does is not easy when you're out recruiting," said Heller. "With him being a junior, we're trying to find that guy now, and we're finding out it's not that easy to find guys like Eric anywhere in the country.
"(I am grateful) to have him in my first year, not just as a player, but as a leader. He was voted one of our captains, is a great teammate, good person, and works hard on and off the field. He's a quality person."
The Hawkeyes host Bradley today at 3 p.m. (CT) at Duane Banks Field before heading to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a three-game Big Ten series at Michigan.