Baby Blues BBQ is an unassuming barbecue spot situated on the corner of Lincoln and Sunset in Venice, Calif.
A year after opening a man walks into the joint, sits at the counter and exchanges pleasantries with owner Rick McCarthy. It’s impossible to lock down what the man wore but completely plausible to assume he rocked the biggest smile, because he’s always smiling.
Eventually, the conversation turned to the food and how McCarthy’s new friend wanted to bring famous folk by to help out the restaurant. Some days later, an incredulous McCarthy was met with a phone call. “Are you at the restaurant,” the familiar voice wondered.
“All right don't go anywhere,” McCarthy remembers Tony Todd saying. “So, he comes in with Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr.” Both were with the Reds at the time and both slugged over 35 home runs that year. Junior continues to bring his family to Baby Blues to this day.
But this story isn’t about great food. It’s about a good person. One who was dealt a difficult hand and made the most of it, becoming everyone’s friend. The kind of guy that Bobby Bonilla and Dave Winfield yell at to get his attention, and not the other way around.
This is the story of Tony Todd, the world’s greatest celebrity softball player.
How do you quantify such an absurd title? You throw your hands up and put your trust in people who know about such things.
Ozzie Smith, a 15-time All-Star and Hall of Famer, knows a bit about celebrity games, having played in quite a few.
“I went to a lot of the All-Star games, Tony Todd was one of the invited guests,” Smith said. “And I think there was a stretch where we had four or five All-Star games that I attended. He got to play on the celebrity team. So that's how I got to watch him play. And I tagged him one of the best celebrity softball players in sports.”
“SportsCenter” host Kenny Mayne echoes Smith’s sentiment, “he just stood out. I mean, like I was joking and said to others, he's the greatest celebrity softball player I've ever seen.”
Years after those initial games, Mayne and Todd are still good friends. Most recently the latter jumped on YouTube for a rousing game of Mayne’s Topps 52-Card Baseball Game.
Two-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and current MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds isn’t joking when it comes to Todd’s physical gifts.
“No doubt he’s the best celebrity softball player out there,” Reynolds said. “And I think he probably would have ended up playing in the big leagues or football. He's a tremendous athlete.
"He can run; he can hit; he can pick it. And when he's out there playing in the celebrity softball game, you think he's on the wrong side. You would think he's one of the former major league players.”
According to Mayne, there's a lot that remains a mystery about Todd: “Honestly, I don’t know how old Tony is.”
Tony Todd, wearer of a perpetual smile; celebrity softball paragon; dude who doesn’t age.
The story could probably end there. But it’s not like that with Tony T. Chance encounters turn into lifelong friendships. One meal at a barbecue joint turns into an opportunity to help someone out.
That’s Tony. Always with a smile. The light in the room; the spark on the field.
By now you might recognize him. He has a face that forces people to walk up to him and ask, “Hey, are you Mickey Scales from ‘Little Big League?’” It’s a similar question Michael Jordan would ask him before gifting him a game-used bat. But more on that bat later.
There’s a mystic quality to his presence as if you’d seen him before. And it transcends the fact that he’s been in the movie “Little Big League,” did stunts on the movie “Black Panther,” appeared as Jackie Robinson on an episode of “Cold Case,” or featured in several episodes of “Anger Management” alongside best friend Charlie Sheen.
No, Todd has this thing about him. Five seconds in and you’re put at ease. You wouldn’t guess for a second that four decades prior things went horribly wrong.
There’s a letter. It’s signed by former USC head coach John Robinson. It’s addressed to Todd back in August 1981. It’s an offer to come play both football and baseball on a full scholarship.
That was the dream. It still is the dream, painfully unfulfilled.
“Since I was five, six years old I wanted to be the starting tailback for USC and then play baseball for USC,” Todd tells me.
The letter sits there as a testament of what could have been. A fork in the road you can unfold and place on the table.
Dr. Tebb Kusserow was the head coach at Santa Monica High School from 1972 to 1990 and remembers Todd fondly as a generous player who was a remarkable athlete, starting at tailback his senior year (1981) but also switching to fullback when needed.
“Tony was a tremendous athlete and he very easily, in my experience, may be the best running back at the school up to that time,” Kusserow remembered.
Heading into his senior season, Todd was on track to not only garner yards but the attention of prestigious programs. He had already been scouted by the usual heavy hitters: USC, UCLA, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Oklahoma.
The second game of his senior season was the Rotary Bowl, a cross-town rivalry game with Palisades. The game started auspiciously enough for Todd.
Three carries in and Santa Monica and their star running back were cruising. “On the fourth carry, I break my ankle in two places,” Todd said.
Richard Garcia has been friends with Todd since the two were five years old. He was a lineman on the team and remembers that day well.
“Tony's running the ball and all of a sudden he fumbles, and he never did that,” Garcia said. “So, I'm running onto the field, I'm gonna give him shit about it. I looked down and his ankle's turned the wrong way, it's facing backward. And he's just flopping around. He's in pain.”
Garcia remembers vividly the anger he felt at the moment. His friend, the guy that would later introduce Garcia to his wife, was writhing in pain, a promising collegiate career destroyed in an instant.
This is long before the internet, YouTube and other instant outlets used to show off grandiose physical feats and deft athletic acumen. All that these colleges knew was that Tony was injured and there wasn’t nearly enough time for him to rehabilitate and assure them of his talents.
That USC dream that was within his fingertips would slip past, dissolve into a far different reality.
The future included playing baseball and football at West Los Angeles College and then earning a scholarship to the University of New Mexico for both sports; only he would again suffer an injury.
But before that played out, there was the culmination of what would be a C.I.F. championship season at Santa Monica High, one wherein Todd would see his good friend and backup tailback, Dylan Stewart, dominate the rest of the season in Todd’s stead.
A lesser man would step away from the game while healing, mired in pain and wallowing in self-pity.
“Every day that we went to practice after Tony came out of the hospital, he (Tony) was there,” Kusserow said. “And he went to every game. And if you looked at the photographs of the game that was played in Anaheim Stadium (C.I.F. championship) in the post-game celebration, after the presentations were made, Tony is right there. And he was always with us. He supported Dylan every day that we practiced, every game. That's who he is.”
There’s a moment in the movie “Major League” (1989) when the character Willie Mays Hayes, played by Wesley Snipes, is dragged out of camp when it’s discovered he wasn’t invited.
He wakes up only to mutter, “I’ve been cut already.” He then runs onto the field and smokes a couple of dad-bod Cleveland Indians in a sprint, winning a roster spot.
I say this because Todd pulled a Willie Mays Hayes and crashed the audition of “Little Big League.”
Now out of college, Todd is working for the City of Santa Monica, for the parks and recreation department. One day he drives past Marine Park in the city, a massive swath of land with two adjoining baseball fields.
On this particular day the field is festooned with baseball players, producers and, well, a hubbub. It’s the kind of frenetic action that makes you do a double take as you drive by.
“I get off the car, I walk over, and I see the producer, the director,” Todd recalled. “I believe Billy Crystal was out there. So, I asked them what was going on, they said they were casting a baseball movie called ‘Little Big League.’”
Todd booked it back home to get his baseball uniform and then came back to the field, meeting resistance from filmmakers who demanded he have an agent to audition.
Some smooth and presumably unrelenting convincing later and the producers ask if he can actually play to which Todd replies after taking a look around, “by the looks of things I’m probably better than everyone you got out there.”
Think back on all the moments you were given in life. Opportunities when you were given one shot. Todd was given five balls to hit and was then told to run to first. Everyone else received ten pitches.
From his recollection, he hit three over the fence and one to the wall. On the fifth and final hit he ignored the instructions and rounded first and took a quick sprint around the bases.
Todd remembers what happened next, “And they say, come here. Can you come to Castle Rock tomorrow?”
Several auditions later and Todd had his bags packed, waiting on his first-ever limousine ride. The next stop was Minnesota and the iconic Metrodome, where the movie was filmed.
“You've seen it on television, you know, with Kirby Puckett and winning the World Series,” Todd said. “But to be there and just imagine all the different players who actually played on this field. It was just so amazing.”
He remembers that producers did a great job of incorporating guys who had actually played some ball, such as Kevin Elster and Troy Startoni. Even the actors who didn’t have experience faked it well.
“Timothy Busfield. He was really good. I didn’t think he was going to be that good. I mean, he's the only one that didn’t have college experience, I think. But he was a really good player,” Todd recalled.
Todd was now an actor, landing roles in projects such as “The Scout” and “Higher Learning.”
The man just likes to work and is eager to say yes, which helped when he was approached by an old friend in recent years who called him up out of the blue.
Lisa Satriano is a first assistant director who has worked on such films as “Spider-Man” and “The Rundown.” She phoned Todd one day and had a simple question.
“I just want to know if you want to work on my movie, Marvel's ‘Black Panther,’” Todd said. Six hours later he was on a first-class flight to Atlanta.
It was an experience he loved but reminded him of one of his tenets. “Relationships are so imperative because you meet people along the way, and I tell kids now, just stay friends with the people that you grew up with that you know very well,” he said. “Because in life you're gonna meet a lot of haters and fake people but the people that you grew up with, they know everything about you.”
Richard Garcia was that stout lineman who ran onto the field when Todd suffered his ankle injury. But a decade before he was a little boy who barely spoke English. The grandson of a Cuban immigrant, the Spanish he did speak didn’t exactly jibe with the Mexican vernacular that was being tossed around the Santa Monica area in the late 60s and early 70s.
Essentially, he was bullied.
“I used to get picked on a lot, and I didn’t have any brothers or anything like that,” Garcia said. “And the thing was, Tony he never picked on me. He saw me. I lived across the street. He says, ‘Come on, let's walk to school.’ Which was great for me because then, you know, I had a friend.”
Fernando Cornejo has known Tony for 40 years, longevity in kinship not unusual to Todd and his social circle.
“Some of the folks that have him in their lives are really blessed to have a person of Tony's character and integrity,” Cornejo said. "He's an amazing person, well-rounded, values his friendships. He goes above and beyond the norm to maintain friendships and is really unselfish with his friends, as well as strangers; he’ll just do some random acts of kindness.”
One of those random acts involved Todd seeing a report late one night about a woman in Lancaster selling fruit who was robbed of $700 during an altercation with African-American females. He was so taken with the story that he followed up with the news outlet and later the Sheriff’s station to track down the family.
He then drove out to Lancaster and delivered $700 to these strangers.
“And if you just see the joy in her face, man, it's just stuff like that, man,” Todd said. “Because we didn't have much growing up and we had way more than what they possibly had. And I just didn't want that to be the last thing that they would think about African-Americans.”
It’s the kind of empathy from a man who was raised by a strong woman who had three kids to feed. Beverly Todd is a saint to all of her son’s friends, and always quick to welcome them in for a heaping helping of what I am told is the best food on this earth.
But her kindness was equally served alongside a stern expectation that her children would follow the rules. And they looked to her example: “We didn't have much,” Todd recalled. “But she's always shared with everyone.”
Garcia remembered Todd donating his money to the family and explained that it was all because his lifelong friend remembered the kind of generosity his mother would offer despite tough times.
“Raising those three kids,” Garcia said. “And I saw it. I remember being a kid go in his house for a birthday party and they'd have a birthday cake there and the cake would have all three kids’ names on it. I would say, ‘I thought it was your party.’”
Tony would explain that no, every year they would switch and celebrate all the birthdays on one day.
Out of that house came an undeniable love and a passion to help others.
If you happen to catch Harold Reynolds on “MLB Tonight” refer to his super scout, that’s Tony T. I’d like to say he loves to whisper about the latest, greatest Southern Californian baseball player on the rise, but Todd isn’t prone to whispers.
When he sees talent, he gets your attention.
“He knows every kid that comes out of California,” Reynolds said. “Let’s take Pete Crow-Armstrong, for example, the No. 1 pick for the Mets this year. His mother played the mom in ‘Little Big League.’ So Tony's been telling me, ‘Her son can ball, man. I've seen him play.’”
That’s classic Tony Todd, a champion for the next generation, a megaphone for someone else, helping them realize their dreams.
“So he's telling me this five years ago,” Reynolds continued. “And so this year he becomes the No. 1 pick or Lucas Giolito or whoever it might be. He knows every kid out of that Southern California, and I don’t mean he just knows who they are. He's met them; watched them play; gives me a scouting report.”
Todd has spent plenty of time coaching kids throughout Santa Monica. And, as I have been told, he doesn’t accept a dime.
His reward is the joy in another person’s face. He’s known as the ambassador by those at Baby Blues and the connector by others. His hobby is connecting two like-minded people, dropping the mic and watching the synergy take place.
It’s no wonder that people gravitate to him, such as former “Tonight Show” producer Ross Mark.
The two were at Reds training camp a couple of years ago when Mark got a taste of just how popular his friend is in baseball circles.
“We get out,” Mark recalled. “I hear, ‘Tony, Tony, Tony.’ I turn around and it's Dave Winfield and Bobby Bonilla and they're both like calling for Tony instead of like Tony calling for them.”
Any age, any ethnicity or culture, Todd can hang. Harold Reynolds has been impressed by how universal Todd’s friendships are.
“He knows everybody and he's their best friend,” Reynolds said. “And that's the coolest thing about Tony Todd. He fits in everywhere. He’s the kaleidoscope, I call him.”
Todd’s life has led him to this point, a life that would make anyone smile. He’s a host for Topps Trading Cards, interviewing the best and brightest in baseball.
He’s an actor, enjoying the freedom to jump into any project that might come his way. But he is also a friend to pretty much anyone he meets.
His experience also led him to a special piece of baseball memorabilia, one that he’ll soon part with for what should be a handsome sum.
Back in 1994, Todd met with Michael Jordan after a Scottsdale Scorpions game, one in which Jordan collected two hits.
It was one of the rare occasions when Jordan was struck by someone else. A fan of the movie, “Little Big League,” the NBA icon signed his game-used bat and handed it over to the man who played Mickey Scales.
Some 26 years later and Todd has decided to part ways with it in an August auction.
“But the best part about separating this bat as such an iconic piece of memorabilia is that it went from Michael Jordan to Tony; Michael Jordan being a fan of Tony's from the movie that he did and having that connection,” explained Memory Lane Incorporated’s Dan Wulkan.
The bat is just one more trophy from a remarkable life. But it’s dispensable to a man who puts more value in his friendships.
He still lives in the same Santa Monica spot he has for years, still saves cautiously. He’s dynamic but never bombastic, engaging but never imposing.
Like I’m told time and again by the people that know him. He lights up the room. “One thing that's been a hallmark and the trademark of Tony's is his perpetual smile,” said Cornejo.
But that doesn’t mean the light doesn’t deal with past shadows; the smile hides a bit of discomfort.
Todd and I have been chatting about his life for a while now, an undoubtedly uncomfortable position for a man who rarely talks about himself.
“But it's it is what it is, man,” Todd said. “I'm just glad to be blessed and have unbelievable friends in my life. I'm telling you, I have some unbelievable friends, man. And I enjoy their company every day.”
He takes a moment to reflect and continues, “But if I can have it done all over again, I would love just to have my senior year back. You know, all the things I've been through, all the things that I've accomplished so far. I would give it all up to have my senior year back. It sounds crazy, but I would say being in ‘Black Panther,’ being in the movie ‘Little Big League’ and, you know, whatever. I would give it all up to have my senior year back in high school.”
Tony wanting to go back sounds a bit dark for a dude who is perpetually smiling. But it’s not. It’s just the authentic reality of the man who is quick with a shoulder, a hand, whatever you need.
But it doesn’t mean he doesn’t walk around with a nagging thought, an itch he can never quite scratch.
Regret doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can fuel you to positive momentum, teaching, coaching and bringing up kids who yearn to learn baseball.
It can be a catalyst for lifelong friendships, a tangible tether to those days when the future was replete with possibilities.
It’s a rare moment of doubt that things could have been different. This is a guy who puts a positive spin on anything, no matter how dire things might look.
And it’s not that he isn’t happy with his life. I think he just loves playing ball that much.
But his dive into regret is momentary. Todd is quick to remember that the only way to move in life is forward.
“My one thing is it’s greater later,” Todd tells me. “That's what I say all the time, even when I was coaching the kids, is greater is later because, you know, I believe you’re put on this earth for a certain reason, to do certain things. And God has a plan for you. And you know, it's good. It's good.”