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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Interview, Tom Gilles, Final Part, Big Difference

Former major leaguer Tom Gilles with his girlfriend Lori at Avanti's Ristorante in Peoria, Ill., in April 2012. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: Seventh Tryout | Part 2: Real Job | Part 3: Big Difference

Tom Gilles took the mound and threw his warmup pitches.

This was June 7, 1990, at Toronto's SkyDome. It was also Gilles' major league debut and, Gilles recalled, once he took the mound, it felt like he'd been there for 10 years.

"I never felt intimidated," Gilles recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently. "Sure, I had the butterflies, I had the nerves. But I was pitching so well. And I had so much confidence that I wasn't worried about pitching to anybody, because I knew I'd throw strikes."

"But, you know," Gilles added, "it was just sad that it was so short-lived."

Gilles referred to Toronto's win two years later in the World Series. Gilles' major league career didn't last that long. For reasons of numbers, rosters, ages and innumerable others, his major league career didn't last until the weekend.

Gilles' career, it turned out, ended the very next night, Gilles traveling the team on the road to Milwaukee. It ended with the reliever Gilles throwing two pitches and, with the Blue Jays then taking the lead, Gilles picking up the win.

Toronto's SkyDome in 2003. Tom Gilles debuted at SkyDome June 7, 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, including surgeries, releases, and his switch to pitching, and 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 made the Blue Jays that June after making AAA Syracuse for the first time the previous year. Success brought a mention in Sports Illustrated. It also brought a winter ball trip to Venezuela.

Gilles called his trip there a culture shock. Once, he was sick for three days, but the fans were "absolutely crazy."

"Coming out of there, I think it made me a lot more resilient," Gilles recalled. "I pitched in a lot of tough situations."

After starting 1990 back at Syracuse, Gilles got his call to Toronto and the next day he was on that SkyDome mound.

Gilles got into that game in the ninth inning, the game already out of reach for the visiting Twins. The Blue Jays were up 10-2.

Gilles recalled it took him 12 pitches to get through that inning. And he can remember almost every one of them, from the first-pitch sinker to Minnesota's Brian Harper to the final fly ball Gilles induced with Blue Jay center fielder Tony Fernandez hauling it in.

In between, Gilles gave up two hits and one earned run.

Syracuse's Alliance Bank Stadium in 2006. Tom Gilles played for the Syracuse Chiefs in 1989 and 1990 at old MacArthur Stadium. (G21D Photo)
The next night, in Milwaukee, Gilles came into a more important spot. The Brewers had just taken the lead, 5-4, and the Blue Jays needed to get out of the inning.

Facing Glenn Braggs, Gilles recalled throwing consecutive sinkers and Braggs was out. The Blue Jays retook the lead the next half of the inning and never looked back. For those two sinkers, Gilles picked up the win.

"I don't know what else I could have done," Gilles said. "I threw 14 pitches total and I go 1-0. And that's it. It's over."

Gilles stuck around for several more games. He stayed ready, but never got put back in. Blue Jays starters always seemed to go deep into games, limiting the relief opportunities.

Sent back down, Gilles finished the year out at Syracuse, getting into 43 games there total. His ERA was just 2.02. There had been talk of bringing him back for September, Gilles recalled. But, the Blue Jays vying for a playoff spot, Gilles didn't return.

Gilles was grateful he was brought up at all, but, he said, he believed he deserved another shot.

But that shot never came. Gilles played spring 1991 with the team he'd gotten his win against, the Brewers. Arm troubles flared up again and he got his release.

Gilles ended up playing that year in 10 games for independent Reno of the California League. By 1994, he was at independent Duluth of the Northern League. In 1995, it was the Prairie League and Moose Jaw, in far off Saskatchewan. "I drove 26 hours to play there," Gilles recalled of Moose Jaw, "that was crazy."

Lewis and Clark Park in Sioux City, Iowa, in 2009. Tom Gilles played in 1994 for the Northern League's Duluth-Superior Dukes, in the same league as Sioux City. (G21D Photo)
"Just holding on," Gilles said of why he went to Saskatchewan, "you're just holding on to that thread. And, until you can have a defining moment yourself that it's over, you can't let it go."

Gilles' defining moment?

"The true defining moment for me was when I realized that there is more to life than just baseball," Gilles said. "And I had a gift to help kids. Even though I couldn't play the game anymore, I could help boys and girls maybe follow their dream, or at least get them to be the best athlete they could be, through my knowledge and my experience. That's really my defining moment."

Gilles did that. But, his career over, he also went home to Peoria and managed a bar for five years.

After realizing he really didn't want to do that, Gilles recalled getting his own building, setting up some batting cages and started focusing on teaching. Families come to him through word of mouth.

Gilles does that, he also serves as a representative for Xyngular, a health and wellness weight loss company. (Gilles' Xyngular site)

Looking back on his career, though, the injuries, the 47th round selection then release by the Yankees. Through the year away from the professional game, trying to get back. To signing with the Royals, only to be injured again. To finally getting traction with the Twins and, finally the Blue Jays, and then making the majors, Gilles said he uses that in working with the young players he instructs.

"I tell the kids, I don't care if you want to be a fireman, a doctor, a garbage man or a professional athlete, don't let anybody steal your dreams. Don't let anyone take that away from you," Gilles said, "because there are so many negative people out there, because they don't believe in themselves, they drag somebody else down."

"I think these days, people give up too soon on themselves and their dreams and their goals," Gilles finally said later. "My believe is, small dreams have no magic. You have to dream big to get the big dream.

"I don't think I was ever really like a dreamer that was delusional," Gilles said. "I always believed I could actually do it, which makes a big difference."

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

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