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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Interview, Tom Gilles, Part 2, Real Job

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

Playing with AAA Syracuse, Tom Gilles was eating lunch with teammates when a phone call got through.

On the other end was Syracuse manager Bob Bailor and he was looking for Gilles.

"I grabbed the phone and he goes, 'get your bags packed, you're leaving in like an hour, you're going to the big leagues,'" Gilles recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days. "I tried to take another bite and I just couldn't."

He immediately called his parents in his hometown of Kickapoo, Ill., outside Peoria. His mother Norma picked up the phone. The son relayed the news. The mother started crying.

Gilles' path to that moment was a long one, one with starts and stops and injuries and disappointments. But he got there, getting into all of two games for the 1990 Toronto Blue Jays, both appearances in relief.

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 got to the majors as a reliever, having started his career in the field, as a third baseman. After injuries at Indiana State, he was drafted by the Yankees deep in the 47th round of the draft.

But, with his late-round draft status, Gilles could never gain traction with the Yankees. Sent to short-season Oneonta, Gilles played only sporadically. The higher draft picks got the playing time.

Damaschke Field, in Oneonta, NY, in August 2009. Tom Gilles played at Damashke in 1984 and 1985 as a third baseman for the Oneonta Yankees. (G21D Photo)
Gilles got into 42 games for Oneonta, hitting .241. He returned to Oneonta for 1985 for another 40 games. He also got two games with single-A Fort Lauderdale. Between them, he hit .220. 

By 1986, Gilles was 22 years old. And he'd been released.

Gilles returned home to Kickapoo, playing semi-pro ball in the local Kickapoo Valley League and the Sunday Morning League. The 47th round draft pick took MVP in both leagues.

Gilles, though, wanted back into the pros. He also knew, if it was going to happen, it would be as a pitcher, not as a third baseman.

In college and in high school, Gilles had done both. For his comeback, he decided the best way would be as a pitcher.

Gilles endured seven tryout camps. He went with this brother Mark Gilles. He seemed to get interest in each. Gilles was throwing 87-88 mph, he recalled. But his age, and his prior release by the Yankees seemed to get in the way.

Finally, the Royals brought him in and he was assigned to single-A Appleton. But a bone spur, a problem he'd had before, flared up again. His 1987 season consisted of one game, three innings. He'd pitched well that one game. The next day, he couldn't lift his arm.

"Everybody at that point," Gilles said of his lost 1987 season, "was telling me 'you're crazy, man, you're 25, you ought to work, get a real job,' all this stuff. And I was like 'I'm gonna play in the big leagues.'"

The Royals paid for his surgery to fix the bone spur. The next spring, Gilles thought he pitched well enough to make a team. But he was soon unceremoniously released. Breaking the news, Gilles recalled, was Royals director of player development John Boles.

A photo of the old Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, hanging in the gift shop of the new Veterans Memorial Stadium in April 2012. Tom Gilles threw a two-hit shutout on 80 pitches at the old park in 1988 as a member of the visiting Kenosha Twins.
Gilles recalled being hardly able to contain his emotions. Though angry, he kept himself together enough to ask Boles for a phone call to a man he knew in the Twins organization, Jim Rantz.

Gilles, who had played ball with Rantz' son, convinced the Twins official to give him a chance, at least to let the Twins coaches take a look and soon Gilles was on his way to extended spring training.

"And that's how it started," Gilles recalled, "If I'd have never made that phone call, I never would have made it."

Assigned to single-A Kenosha, Gilles went 6-3 in 11 starts and 10 relief appearances. He also posted a 3.31 ERA. One start was a gem, Gilles recalled. At Cedar Rapids, Gilles recalled taking a perfect game into the seventh inning, ending with a two-hit shutout on 80 pitches.

Gilles also saw time that year at AA Orlando, three starts, seven total outings.

"I never had a doubt after my first year with the Twins that I was going to make it," Gilles said, "because my arm felt good."

He also found out he had a major league sinker, thanks to a crooked middle finger on his throwing hand.

Gilles moved to the Blue Jays system for 1989, taken in the minor league draft. He played at AA Knoxville and got his first look at AAA, at Syracuse. Between them, Gilles went 9-5 with a 3.32 ERA.

In August, Gilles even got a mention in Sports Illustrated, SI writing he was pitching well enough for a likely call up that September.

That call, though, didn't come then. That would have to wait until the next June.

Go to Part 3, Tom Gilles, Big Difference

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