Monday, January 3, 2011

A young man's thoughts turn to baseball . . .

Tyson Gillies of the Reading Phillies rounds
second base and heads for third.
(Photo by Ralph Trout/Reading Phillies)
There is nothing quite like the glint in a young man’s eyes as he contemplates baseball.
After all, baseball, of all the sports, is the one that most attacks the senses.
The start of a new baseball season is signalled by the warmth of a new spring, by the sight of fathers playing catch with their sons, by new grass turning from yellow to green, and by the smell of that first cut.
Not to mention the crack — OK, the ping — of bat on ball, and the smell of oil on leather.
As Jim Bouton wrote to conclude his legendary book Ball Four: “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
No other sport has that kind of hold on a person.
And as I sit across from Tyson Gillies while we enjoy a late lunch at the Frick and Frack Tap House it is evident that baseball has him in its steely grip.
The excitement is palpable, in his eyes and his voice, as he contemplates returning to Florida in mid-January and resuming his pursuit of a job in the outfield of a Major League Baseball team.
Gillies, who turned 22 on Oct. 31, says he has learned that one of the important things for a minor league baseballer is to focus on getting to the major leagues. Period. Don’t get zoned in on one team — even the big league team that holds your rights — because the goal is to get to the major leagues. Period.
A year ago, Gillies was closer than he has ever been to getting there. He had been part of one of the biggest trades in recent MLB history as he and two other prospects were dealt by the Seattle Mariners to the Philadelphia Phillies for left-hander Cliff Lee, a Cy Young winner.
Gillies, who is from Kamloops, was coming off a terrific season with the Mariners’ top Class A team.
(He hasn’t forgotten his Kamloops roots, either. He mentions Ray Chadwick and Sean Wandler and he talks of perhaps one day going into business here. The city, he says, is badly in need of some batting cages. So maybe some day . . .)
The Phillies couldn’t get him into Class AA quickly enough, assigning him to the Reading Phillies, the Eastern League affiliate that is located about 40 minutes from Philly.
But soon after landing in Reading, everything — yes, everything — went south.
A slow starter throughout his career, Gillies was just warming up — he was, as they say, finally seeing the ball and hitting the ball — when he blew a hamstring. An outfielder with blazing speed, it was one of the worst injuries he could have experienced.
To make matters worse, Gillies tried to return to action before he should have, and, of course, he reinjured the hamstring, which only lengthened his stay on the disabled list.
“I was hitting the ball so well when I got hurt, though,” he says, seemingly feeling a need to explain why he rushed back even though something told him he wasn’t yet ready.
He says, however, that he has learned.
Oh, has he!
He talks of having learned the value of patience, something that often is in short supply when one is young and full of pith and vinegar.
Most of all, he says, he has learned not to put himself in situations that might lead from one thing to another, like winding up in the back of a cop car after a night of revelry in Clearwater, Fla., the home of the Phillies’ minor league complex. It was in late August. He hadn’t played in two months and was in Clearwater rehabbing his injury. He had been in a bar and was waving his shirt around outside in the hopes of landing a ride back to his hotel. He got a ride, but it was to the Crowbar Hotel, not La Quinta Inn.
Police later claimed that Gillies was sharing the back of that cruiser with a baggie containing cocaine and charged him with possession. The Florida State attorney’s office in Pinellas County dropped the charge in October.
Kevin Hayslett, Gillies’ lawyer, told The Daily News at the time that “a drug screen that was done within hours of the incident showed that (Gillies) clearly had no drugs at all in his system.
“All the screens and all the evidence they had showed that he did not possess or consume or ingest any narcotics. Upon their investigation, after they had the benefit of the evidence that I was in possession of, they determined to drop all charges and basically vindicate Tyson.”
Still, the damage was done and Gillies knows it. If he has doubts, all he has to do is Google his name.
Gillies, who is legally deaf and wears hearing aids, has done a lot of work with young, hearing-impaired people. He knows the damage he did to his reputation. As he says, “It’s part of me now . . . it always will be.”
But nothing compares to the pain he knows he caused his mother. He heard the anguish in her voice and saw the hurt in her face. He says those memories, as much as anything else, will serve to guide him in the future.
Gillies and other professional and college players who winter in the Vancouver area have been working there while coaching some youngsters. Gillies came home to visit family and was to return to the Lower Mainland late last week. He will spend some more time working out and coaching, and then it will be time to head south.
Gillies is in constant touch with players like Dominic Brown, an outfielder who got a taste with the Phillies last season and now is on their depth chart in right field. Those conversations fuel Gillies’ excitement.
The hamstring, he says, has healed  and he is anxious to get to Florida and get back to work.
As he gets up to leave, he moves with the litheness of an athlete whose muscles are just waiting to propel him forward in a burst of speed. There is nothing herky-jerky about Tyson Gillies. He doesn’t get up and out of the booth. No. He unfolds.
Nor does he climb into his car. Rather, he slides into it, all smoothness and grace. He drives east on Victoria Street but, really, he is headed to Florida. You wonder as he drives away . . . is that John Fogerty?
“Put me in, coach — I’m ready to play today;
“Look at me, I can be centerfield.”
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