Sept. 26, 2011
This is the sixth of eight feature stories on the 2011 Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame Class which will be enshrined in a ceremony on Sturday, October 1 at 1 p.m., in the Waggonner Room of Thomas Assembly Center. All are invited.
By Malcolm Butler
T.J. Soto was blessed with God-given talent.
Those talents, combined with a robust work ethic, helped mold him into a Bulldog baseball legend during his playing days at Louisiana Tech.
However, it didn't come easily in the beginning.
Heading into his redshirt freshman season in 1997, the only thing the local product needed was an opportunity to show what he could do on the diamond.
Standing in the way of that chance was a Tech roster full of upperclassmen who had already proven themselves.
"He was a wide-eyed kid; very eager," said former teammate Mitch McIlwain. "He wanted to play. He wanted to help the team any way he could. He would do anything you asked of him. He knew he had things to learn. He was willing to do whatever it took."
As January workouts progressed with all eyes on the season opener in early February, it appeared as though Soto's role was going to be that of a backup outfielder. However, Soto got his break ... thanks to a break.
Just two weeks prior to opening day, McIlwain, who was returning as the Bulldogs starting second baseman, broke a finger and head coach Randy Davis opted to give Soto a chance to play in the infield - where he had made a name for himself during his all-state career at Ruston High School.
"I was basically a backup left fielder (heading into that season)," Soto remembered. "Coach Davis told me early on, `You might have been a shortstop in high school, but you won't play infield in college. We are going to prep you to play outfield.'
"That upset me and made me a little mad. Then Mitch broke his finger. (Coach) Davis told me that I needed to start coming to practice an hour early every day to start prepping to play second base to fill in while Mitch was out. Coach (Brian) Rountree stayed endless hours hitting ground balls to me. It wore me out."
McIlwain, who was coming off the best season of his career, was disappointed with his setback. However, instead of feeling threatened by Soto's opportunity, he told the young rookie a story that even 15 years later ... Soto remembers vividly.
Soto said that after the team broke the huddle and headed to the field, McIlwain pulled him to the side and proceeded to tell him a story about a young girl who was walking along a beach following a hurricane.
"The hurricane washed up thousands and thousands of starfish up on the beach," the story went. "The little girl was walking along throwing the starfish back in the ocean. She came upon an older couple who asked her what she was doing. When the little girl told them she was trying to save the starfish, the old couple laughed and said, `There are thousands upon thousands of these starfish. How are you possibly going to make a difference?'
"The little girl bent over, picked up a starfish and threw it back in the ocean. She then looked at the old couple and said, `I just made a difference to that one.'"
McIlwain's point hit home with Soto. "Mitch was telling me that he didn't care if I was a freshman, that I could make a difference on that team."
"I do remember that," said McIlwain, who has been coaching at Dunham High School in Baton Rouge for the past 12 years. "I remember that story. It's funny that he brings that back up. That's pretty cool that it meant a lot to him. It makes my day for him to remember that moment and to remember me that way. That's quite an honor for me."
However, McIlwain is quick to point out that it wasn't some story that made Soto into the record-setting, All-American that he soon became.
"T.J. he had unbelievable gifts," McIlwain said. "He comes walking in as a local guy - sometimes you get local guys that aren't really ready - but man he came in and started hitting balls over the trees in the outfield and really opened all of our eyes and made us realize this kid can play."
Current Tech pitching coach Brian Rountree, who served as Soto's hitting coach during his career, credits more than just the skill set that Soto brought to the stadium every day.
"His work ethic," Rountree said. "T.J. was blessed with some tools. His freshman year he redshirted, and he really put the work into what he needed to do to be a good hitter. He really worked hard. He spent plenty of hours in the cage and on his own. His work ethic combined with the tools he possessed as far as being a hitter, that's what made him so good."
"Motivation," said Soto, who now lives in Lexington, Ky., with his wife Brittany, his six-year-old daughter Lillian and his three-year-old son Hunter. "My secret was motivation. I wanted to be the best at everything. There was a guy on the team named Chris Loy, who had broken the freshman home run record. Having guys like that in front of me ... juniors and seniors ... I wanted to prove myself to them. I wanted to show them that I belonged out there."
And it didn't take Soto long to show Davis, Rountree, McIlwain and the Bulldog Nation that he belonged and what was in store over the course of the next four years. In his first two games as a collegian - a doubleheader against Arkansas-Monticello - Soto hit three home runs.
Soto ended his freshman campaign batting .325 with 13 home runs and 45 RBI while earning the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year honor and being named third-team freshman All-American. He also set school records for home runs, doubles (19), runs (44) and total bases (124) by a freshman; pretty good numbers for a guy who only months before was being groomed as a backup outfielder.
"A lot of times as a coach, you can see physical tools, but you can't always see what is in a young man's heart and what is on his mind; the determination," Rountree said. "T.J. worked tirelessly. He was really determined not just to be a good hitter, but he wanted to be a good infielder. What he did as a freshman was a testament to how hard he worked and how much it meant to him."
What Soto did as a freshman was just the tip of the aluminum barrel on the bat he used to rewrite the Bulldog record books over the next three years.
Soto hit 19 home runs in each of the next two seasons while earning all-conference honors. In 2000, Soto tied the Tech single-season mark with 21 home runs, two of which will go down in Bulldog baseball lore.
Midway through his senior season, Soto and the Bulldogs took a three-game road trip to Bowling Green, Ky., to face Western Kentucky in a Sun Belt Conference series.
With head coach Jeff Richardson and assistant coach Frank Kellner both away from the team due to family issues, Rountree and volunteer coach Todd Sharp led the Bulldogs. After falling 5-1 in the opening game, Rountree said he remembers boarding the bus heading to the hotel.
"I remember getting on the bus telling the guys that the next day we were going to have to play some small ball to try to generate some offense," Rountree said. "The following day, T.J. - the entire team - just let out an offensive barrage."
Leading 7-0 heading into the top of the sixth inning, the Bulldogs were cruising ... and Soto was on the verge of making history. With the bases loaded and the score now 8-0, Soto stepped to the plate and hit a grand slam deep over the centerfield wall.
The rout was on ... but Soto wasn't close to being done. Later in the same inning with Tech leading 16-0, Soto stepped to the plate, again with the bases full of Bulldogs.
And for the second time in the same inning - and only the sixth time ever in Division I college baseball - Soto belted another grand slam as he finished the day with three hits and a school-record nine RBI in the 21-2 victory.
"That series stands out to me," Soto said. "It was a phenomenal series for me. I remember my dad drove up there to see me play; he didn't miss a game my senior year. That series and my dad being there is something I will never forget."
Peppered throughout the Tech record books is Soto's name, and it will take more than one swing of the bat to remove it as he ended his Bulldog career as the program's all-time leader in home runs (72), RBI (220), hits (269), runs scored (202), doubles (58) and total bases (555).
Not bad for a guy who wasn't highly recruited out of high school.
"I was a knucklehead in high school; I didn't have the grades through my junior year," said Soto, who spent five years with the Houston Astros minor league organization and one with an independent team in Winnipeg.
Although Soto never tasted the postseason at Louisiana Tech - "Coach (Mike) Kane told me when he was recruiting me that I would probably never win a world series or even make an NCAA regional, but that I could be a building block for this program" - he did accomplish what he hoped during his four years in Ruston.
He used his God-given tools and his incredible work ethic to help turn Tech baseball back in the right direction.