The Black baseball prospect, the police shooting and the club he never wanted to join
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to overcome the words: I can’t breathe,” Jackson Lee said. “Eric Garner’s mother and Trayvon Martin’s mother. And all the mothers and Robbie Tolan. I can’t breathe.”
Tolan sat in the crowd with his mother, a bullet still lodged in his liver. Floyd’s casket was open.
“It was heavy,” he said. “It was heavy. It was heavy. I saw him, and it hit me hard. This club that we’re in …”
This club. George Floyd died. Breonna Taylor died. Stephon Clark died. Eric Garner died. Oscar Grant died. Adolph Grimes died. Sean Bell died. So many others died. And Robbie Tolan lived.
As the night of Dec. 30, 2008, turned into the morning of New Year’s Eve, Tolan was a ballplayer still pursuing a ballplayer’s dream. He had spent a summer in the Washington Nationals’ system as an outfielder, another in an independent league. The son of former major leaguer Bobby Tolan, he was raised in diapers in big league clubhouses. He grew up in the game. He wanted to follow his father.
“He just had it in him,” said his mother, Marian, and 2009 was going to be another year to stay in it, to keep the dream alive.
But that morning, he and his cousin parked Tolan’s black Nissan Xterra in front of his family’s house. Bellaire, Tex., is a residential town nearly surrounded by the city of Houston. Of its fewer than 19,000 residents today, less than 3 percent are Black. Bobby Tolan moved his family there when Robbie wasn’t yet 10. Robbie can’t count how many times he had pulled up the Xterra in front of the low-slung house he had lived most of his 23 years.
When Tolan swung open the door to the SUV, a set of headlights shone on it. Looking back, he saw the police car that had pulled up behind him.
‘Growing up in the game’
When Bobby Tolan finished his 14-year major league career as an outfielder with five teams, including a World Series championship with the 1967 St. Louis Cardinals, he went into coaching. In 1987, he and Marian had little Robbie, their only child, with them at spring training with the Seattle Mariners. The family stayed in a large hotel room, Robbie not yet 2 in a crib. One night, he was struggling to go to sleep. His parents ignored him, as parents do. So Robbie picked up a stuffed animal from his crib and hurled it across the room. He hit his mother.
“I said, ‘Bobby, he can throw,’ ” Marian recalled. Her big league husband called it an accident.
“Robbie, hit Daddy,” Marian requested. Robbie picked up another toy and — clonk — hit his father with the toss.
Robbie’s days were spent with his dad at the ballpark. His friends were the children of big leaguers — Tony Gwynn’s kids, Garry Templeton’s kids, Ken Griffey Sr.’s kids (including a certain Hall of Fame outfielder). After his dad’s team finished spring workouts, Robbie would run the bases. At home in his room, he would play out imaginary baseball games, serving as batter, pitcher and announcer.
“He loved it,” Marian said. “He loved it, he loved it, he loved it.”
When the family moved to Texas, Tolan focused on baseball at Bellaire High, a powerhouse that has produced a dozen big leaguers, Chuck Knoblauch, José Cruz Jr. and Bubba Crosby among them. He signed to play at Grambling, but the school was going through accreditation issues and his mother wanted academics to come first. So for a year he went to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, then to a junior college. By the time he got to Prairie View A&M, a historically Black college less than an hour from home, he was preparing for the pros. In 2007, he helped the Panthers to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship as a switch-hitting outfielder. He went undrafted, but the Nationals signed him as a free agent.
“I knew the whole process — rookie ball, getting up at 5:30 a.m., everything that went into it,” Tolan said. “By growing up in the game, I was able to adapt and adjust really easily versus maybe the guy that was just drafted out of college or high school and it’s their first time being away. I knew how to navigate those waters.”
That summer, he moved from rookie ball to short-season Class A in Vermont to low-Class A in Hagerstown, Md. At each level, he was part of an outfield rotation.
“He was a nice piece to add to a mix that allowed the organization to kind of see all his skills,” said Darnell Coles, a former major league outfielder who worked as a coach in the Nationals’ minor league system at the time. “He hit up and down the lineup, was a good fastball hitter. I knew his dad, watched his dad, so I knew how he would be: Always ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ He loved the game.”
In his first season of pro ball, Tolan hit .210 with one homer in 81 at-bats. The Nationals brought him to spring training in 2008, but every year, with a new draft class getting set to enter the system, fringe players live day-to-day. One morning on the back fields in Viera, Fla., Coles approached Tolan to deliver unwanted news.
“It’s a numbers game at that point,” Tolan said. “It was like the undertaker was coming.”
Cut by the Nationals, Tolan drove to the Orlando home of Ken Griffey Jr., whose Cincinnati Reds trained in Sarasota. The future Hall of Famer offered Tolan encouragement, and he remained in Florida in hopes of another organization calling him up. When that didn’t happen, Tolan latched on with the Bay Area Toros of something called the Continental Baseball League. The advantage: The club was based in Texas City, just southeast of Houston. The disadvantage?
“The league was terrible,” Tolan said. “It was like the bush league of independent leagues.”
In just 18 game, Tolan hit .188. Still, he went into the winter hoping to keep his career alive. Coaches he knew from the Nationals had called other teams with recommendations. He said he had a few workouts lined up.
“I was hopeful about the upcoming season,” Tolan said. “I felt like something might happen.”
And on the penultimate night of 2008, he pulled his own car in front of his own house. He saw the headlights. And he heard these words: “Get on the ground.”
On the night of Dec. 30, 2008, Tolan thought he was picking up a fill-in shift as a waiter at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, a Texas institution. But when he arrived for work, he found a miscommunication meant he wasn’t needed, so he met his cousin Anthony Cooper — “He’s like a brother, really,” Tolan said — for a night out. They played pool with friends, hung out, picked up some beverages for the next night’s New Year’s Eve celebration and hit Jack in the Box before heading home. When they pulled into Tolan’s neighborhood, it was nearly 2 a.m.
At the time, a Bellaire officer named John Edwards was patrolling, and after witnessing Tolan quickly pull around a corner, he followed the Xterra. He ran the license plate number: 696BGK. The problem: Edwards typed in 695BGK. That number, off by a digit, returned a stolen vehicle of the same make and color, court records show.
Edwards emerged from his patrol car and drew his gun. He accused Tolan and Cooper of stealing the car.
“That’s not true,” Cooper said, according to court records.
“That’s my car,” Tolan said. “This is my house.”
Tolan said he offered to get his ID so he could prove it. The commotion woke Tolan’s parents, who came through the front door in their pajamas. According to court records, Bobby Tolan asked his son and nephew to follow Edwards’s request to get on the ground.
“This is my nephew,” Bobby Tolan said. “This is my son.”
Edwards radioed for assistance, and soon, Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton arrived on the scene. Cotton also drew his pistol, court documents show. Marian Tolan reiterated the family’s pleas: This was their car and their house.
Cotton ordered Marian Tolan against the garage door. “Are you kidding me?” Marian Tolan asked, court records show.
“The scene was in no way under control,” Edwards testified in court.
There remains a dispute about what happened next. Marian Tolan and Cooper testified that Cotton used such force in grabbing Marian that he shoved her to the ground. Robbie Tolan offered the court photos showing bruises on his mother’s arm and back. Cotton testified in his deposition that Marian Tolan had flipped her arm up and told him to get his hands off her; Cotton said he didn’t know whether he used force that could have left bruises, but he believed he hadn’t. There is also disagreement as to whether Robbie Tolan rose to his knees — as he remembers — or to his feet, as Cotton testified.
What’s not in dispute is what Robbie Tolan said next: “Get your [expletive] hands off my mom!”
Cotton turned to Tolan.
“He didn’t say a word,” Tolan says now. “He just drew his gun.”
Edwards testified that Tolan appeared to be “charging or rushing” at Cotton. Cotton’s defense said the officer believed Tolan could have been reaching for a weapon. Cotton fired three shots. One struck Tolan’s chest, broke two ribs and collapsed one of his lungs. He recalls the bullet lifting him to his feet before he fell against the front door and then to the ground.
“Everything was a split-second,” Tolan said. “But it felt like an eternity.”
Marian and Bobby Tolan and Cooper were escorted to separate police cars. Robbie was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he remained for nearly a month.
Tolan spent his time there getting around with the aid of a walker. For much of his recovery, he couldn’t so much as wipe himself. He grew depressed. Doctors told him that the bullet would have to stay lodged in his liver but that the liver would heal around it. He was told he should make a full recovery.
“When I heard that,” he said, “I was thinking about baseball again.”
Baseball as a salve
In the early days of 2010, just more than a year after his shooting, Tolan traveled to New York for an annual dinner to benefit the Baseball Assistance Team, an MLB charity that provides support to members of the baseball family who can’t support themselves. There, he ran into Dmitri Young, the longtime big leaguer he had known through his father since he was a teenager.
By the time of that dinner, Young wasn’t aware of Tolan’s ordeal. That night, talking into the wee hours, he heard it all. He also had an opportunity. After his major league career ended in 2008, Young bought into the Oakland County (Mich.) Cruisers of the independent Frontier League. He was the team’s bench coach. As a two-time all-star and 13-year big leaguer, he held sway.
“My first line of business was to get Robbie Tolan on that team — not only to make the team but to be there the entire year,” Young said. “I could tell he needed it.”
But before he could report to the Cruisers, Tolan elected to remain in Texas for the criminal trial of Cotton, who was charged with aggravated assault by a public servant. Cotton had been on paid leave since the shooting. Prosecutors argued the officers on the scene panicked. Cotton’s lawyers brought an expert witness who testified that the officer had correctly followed his training. In May, a jury of two Black women, seven White women and three White men deliberated for 4½ hours. They came back with a verdict: not guilty.
Tolan was devastated. He also had to try to move on. He had a commitment to Young, to the Cruisers — to himself. The next day, he boarded a flight to Detroit “and tried to pick up whatever pieces of my life were left over,” he said. That had to involve the one thread that had always been with him: baseball.
Young picked him up at the airport.
“When he came to Michigan, I had an angry Robbie Tolan on my hands — and rightfully so,” Young said. “So I listened. I couldn’t empathize, but I could sympathize.”
The emotions of Tolan’s experience — the shooting, the recovery, the trial — were still raw. Baseball soothed.
“Had I not had baseball, I don’t know what would have happened,” Tolan said. “I was depressed. I contemplated suicide. I essentially lost my career. Meanwhile, the guy that shot me gets a year and a half paid vacation — and his job back? But that season saved my life, just knowing I made a full recovery.”
Cotton, who is still on the Bellaire force and is now a lieutenant, did not respond to requests to comment for this story. Bellaire Police Chief Byron Holloway said in an email that while department officials wouldn’t discuss specifics, he is working on a “discussion paper” about the case that he hoped to post to the department’s website by next summer.
“This is not intended to be a debate, but to provide additional information for people to consider,” Holloway wrote to The Washington Post. “I wish Robbie and the Tolan family peace. I know the incident impacted many people’s lives.”
‘All these cases matter’
At the end of 2020 — at the end of every year — Robbie Tolan approaches the anniversary of his shooting with … what, exactly?
“I just get a feeling; I don’t know the word for it,” Tolan said. “I just get kind of somber.”
A couple of years ago, in the days leading up to Dec. 31, he was on the golf course, and he broke down, weeping. This week each year, he typically tries to spend time with family members who might help take his mind someplace other than that night, other than the bullet in his liver.
“It’s like a cloud that tends to pass over in the days before or on that day,” Tolan said, and that’s easy to understand. The civil suit the Tolans filed against Cotton and the city of Bellaire — alleging Cotton had used excessive force — ended up at the Supreme Court, which vacated lower courts’ decisions and asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to review its previous decision.
“But I could see which way it was going to go,” Tolan said. The case had taken up most of his 20s. His parents had sold their house to finance pushing forward. In September 2015 — nearly seven years after the shooting — Tolan settled with Bellaire for $110,000.
Now he is 35. He’s a youth baseball coach. He’s a DJ. And he’s an activist. Before Floyd died, before Taylor died, before the cases that roiled the country, Robbie Tolan was speaking out about racial profiling, about societal bias that can lead to incidents such as his — and worse. Marian Tolan has attended other trials, other funerals, of Black people who had been shot by police. A dozen years after her son was shot, she remains frustrated with the relationship between law enforcement and the Black community.
“The first thing they do when they shoot an unarmed Black man is they run a background check on them,” Marian Tolan said. “And any little inkling of anything, they blow it up. Even if you have a criminal background, your life still matters. Who gives you the right to be the judge and the jury on the streets? You’re here to serve and protect.
“There’s no way that I can go on like it doesn’t matter. All these cases matter to us. We watch. We pray. We hope. It affects us.”
That was true before the events of the past year. In 2018, Tolan published a memoir, “No Justice.” Last year, he went back to Prairie View to complete his degree in criminal justice. He has designs on coaching at higher levels — maybe in college, maybe even at his alma mater.
In June, in the days after Floyd’s death, Ruth J. Simmons, the president of Prairie View, issued a sweeping statement on how the school would recognize and teach the history of race and class in America — and the injustice that had developed because of it. Included in the action: the establishment of a Sandra Bland/Robbie Tolan Award, to be given “annually to such activists and that acknowledges the important work to increase understanding in the area of criminal justice reform.”
Bland was a Prairie View graduate who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and jailed. She later died in her cell; the death was ruled a suicide.
Robbie Tolan lived. The bullet is in his liver. The 12th anniversary is here. His case is on his mind.
“Do I think by 2021 the world’s going to be amazing? No,” Tolan said. “But I think we have a really great opportunity in front of us. Now, are we going to take it?”