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Monday, April 30, 2012

Interview Tom Gilles, Part 1, Seventh Tryout

Tom Gilles at Avanti's Ristorante in Peoria, Ill, in April 2012. (G21D Photo)

Part 1: Seventh Tryout | Part 2: Real Job | Part 3: Big Difference

PEORIA, IL - Tom Gilles had been to tryouts six times and six times the teams had passed

The questions always seemed to come: How old is he? Has he been released? Gilles was 24 years old and he had been released - two seasons after being taken deep in the draft, in the 47th round.

"That was only six out of 26, I've got 20 to go," Gilles told The Greatest 21 Days recently about his thinking as he tried to catch on with a new team, and keep his short career going. "Somebody's going to sign me. That was my thought process. It was nobody's but mine, and probably my father's."

And somebody did. His seventh tryout, with the Royals, turned in to a spring training spot and then into a minor league spot.

Gilles' playing time with the Royals was brief, another injury kept it so. But Gilles kept going. And, just over three years after he went from tryout to tryout finally getting noticed in his seventh, Gilles found himself where he wanted to be - in the major leagues.

It was a short stay in the bigs - all of two appearances. But he got there.

SkyDome in Toronto in 2003. Tom Gilles pitched in the first of his two major league games at SkyDome in 1990. (G21D Photo)
Gilles spoke with The Greatest 21 Days recently in Peoria, Ill, near his hometown of Kickapoo. Over a late lunch at Avanti's Ristorante, Gilles touched on his youth, the son of a man who had a brief minor league career himself.

Gilles also touched on his series of comebacks, why he kept going and his call up to the majors. He also touched on the final end of his career, spent on a playing field in Saskatchewan and his time since, tending bar and then doing what he really enjoys, teaching kids baseball.

Gilles grew up in Kickapoo, eventually attending high school in Peoria. Growing up, Gilles recalled his father constantly working with him on his fundamentals and mechanics. His brother Mark Gilles also benefited, getting his own four-season career in the minors.

Gilles' father, also named Tom Gilles, played in the minors in the 1950s. The younger Gilles recalled it was his father's dream for himself to play professional baseball. And he passed that dream on to his kids, ensuring they had the opportunity to play.

"He always made it available for us, even though we didn't have a lot of money," Gilles said of his father, who passed away in September 2011 at the age of 80. "We always had a glove. We always had a bat. We always had a yard to play in."

Gilles also recalled his father building a mound in the yard. He also helped his game in other ways, Gilles recalled. Even in a 4-for-4 game, or a game where he struck out 12, Gilles recalled his father not wanting him to sit back, but wanting him to improve, finding that bad swing or wild pitch.

It was constructive criticism, Gilles recalled, though not necessarily what he wanted to hear at the time. But Gilles believes it made him tougher and better.

"I think a lot of my ability came from God, and my dad's genes - he had a lot of fast-twitch muscle fiber," Gilles said, "and just the attitude that he had that 'you don't quit until they make you quit.'"

In high school at Peoria Bergan, Gilles played both shortstop and he pitched. At the plate, Gilles hit well, hitting near .400 on the high school diamond. But, if he had a fault, Gilles said he was too coachable. On advice from scouts, Gilles and his coaches tried to make the right-hander into a switch-hitter.

The former Vonachen Stadium in Peoria, Ill., in November 2011. Vonachen Stadium was once home to the Peoria Chiefs. A Peoria-native, Tom Gilles played at Vonachen Stadium in 1988 as a member of the visiting Kenosha Twins. (G21D Photo)
It went well-enough, but it hurt his average. He also wasn't drafted out of high school. He also played basketball in high school, something he enjoyed and did well at.

Going to college at Indiana State, he hoped to play both. A scheduling problem forced him to give up basketball. Having to quit basketball, Gilles said, was something he regretted.

On the diamond, Gilles play both shortstop and third base. He also pitched. Going into 1984, his senior year, Gilles' career to that time got him onto a pre-season All-American list put out by the publication "Collegiate Baseball."

Gilles still has a copy of the article. The article is highlighted by 15 photos of the All-American team. There was Brigham Young's Cory Snyder. There was also Michigan's Barry Larkin. Also on the list was B.J. Surhoff, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Pete Incaviglia - and Tom Gilles.

Gilles made the list as a third baseman. His senior year, though, didn't go as planned. A bone spur limited his throwing and his performance. It limited it so much so that the interest from the pros had all but evaporated.

At the draft, the rounds kept going by and other members of that pre-season All-American list were being drafted. But Gilles wasn't. It took until the 47th round for someone to take him. And that someone was the Yankees.

"I was behind the 8 ball right away," Gilles recalled of his position. "I shouldn't have been, but I was, so I had to make the most of it."

The player who would eventually make the majors as a relief pitcher, started is pro career as a third baseman.

Go to Part 2: Tom Gilles, Real Job

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