DIAMOND SPRINGS — Grant Tonelli rolled the dice in his effort to continue his baseball career after graduating as Golden Sierra’s Athlete of the Year in 2004. So much that he gambled on a cross-country move to the East Coast and a walk-on scenario at Dean College in Massachusetts.
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For Tonelli, it wasn’t where or who that mattered in baseball … it was how. How to keep playing, how to get on the field, how to get his name on the lineup card.
“I first heard of them at a Showcase in Arizona my senior year. They didn’t show interest but I thought I could play there and the fact it was a big baseball town and everyone loved baseball there was attractive to me,” Tonelli said. “It came down to wanting to play. It doesn’t matter where you play … it’s that you play.”
At Dean College, Tonelli did play for two years and then another two for Bryant University in Rhode Island. In fact, he still plays for a team in the Men’s Senior Baseball League.
Now a teacher in the Black Oak Unified School District, Tonelli, 27, has returned to his alma mater as a baseball coach — last year as the JV manager and this past spring as an assistant varsity coach with Greg Thompson.
“I think baseball drives what I do,” Tonelli said. I’ve worked so many baseball camps that that’s where I thought about teaching. I love being around the kids. Coaching with Greg (Thompson) is a plus … if I’m following in his shoes I’m doing OK.”
He credits his mom with getting him “hooked’ on baseball, introducing him to the sport at an early age after Tonelli lost his dad in a trucking accident.
Tonelli’s time at Dean College was fruitful. As a sophomore in 2006, he was team captain, team MVP and hit a team-leading .366. But Dean was a junior college and that forced Tonelli in motion once again to find a place to play as a junior and senior.
The stakes were much higher making Bryant’s team as Tonelli was one of 60 players trying to make the squad as walk-ons. Transferring did cross his mind but he stuck with it.
“It was similar to Dean College (being a walk-on). I didn’t want to return home but stay in the area so I went to Bryant where I was fortunate enough to have a good tryout and then a good fall and stick for two years (2007-08). It was a high quality of baseball and I feel I got much better,” Tonelli said.
Unfortunately, Tonelli’s role was reduced to defensive replacement and pinchrunner — he estimates he batted 30 times over two seasons.
“Looking back I might have done something different but it was still a good experience and I made life-long friends. We came close to going to the World Series twice so it was nice to play on a big stage and be a part of that.”
Tonelli obtained his degree in communications but a thin job market made him seek his teacher’s credential. He subbed a year, taught continuation school for another before landing at the American River Charter School in Georgetown. His intention all along was to return to the West Coast.
“I’m happy to be back. My mom is from here and it’s a great, tight-knit community,” said Tonelli who was raised in Greenwood but now lives in Diamond Springs. “Now I teach and stress to the younger guys how important academics is in sports. You don’t travel if you have bad grades … funny how it’s flipped so quickly. Hopefully one day it clicks for them. Greg (Thompson) is a good mentor and one the program’s strengths is how well he connects it to the classroom.”
Tonelli played three varsity years under Mark Hendrix at Golden Sierra and one Senior Legion season under Rusty McDonald. Among his teammates in Garden Valley were Billy Thomas, Paul Oules, Gary Schurtz, Bucky Beam and Tyler Waldron, now in the Pittsburgh Pirates chain.
“Great teammates and two of the best coaches,” Tonelli recalls. “I coached against Rusty this season and that was cool. He does a good job over there.”
With a job and a mortgage to keep him in one spot, Tonelli envisions being back to help the Golden Sierra baseball team next spring.