PEORIA, Ariz. – Tyson Gillies has come a long way since he was the skinny 6-year-old in Vancouver, B.C., who flushed his hearing aids down the toilet.
Back then, he was humiliated when other children noticed them. Today, he realizes he can’t get by without them – so between every inning, he takes them out, wipes the sweat from his ears and puts them both back in place, one in each ear.
And then he goes to the plate, or back to the outfield.
Today, Gillies, 20, is one of the better prospects in the Seattle Mariners minor league system. The scouting evaluation? Plus-plus speed. Plus-arm. Excellent bat control. Excellent fundamental player.
No one makes much of the fact that Gillies can’t hear without help – least of all, Gillies.
“It’s really not a big deal,” Gillies said. “A lot of people don’t even notice.”
Gillies was born with 30 percent hearing in one ear, 60 percent in the other, although no one knew that until he was 4 years old.
“I got tested at birth and they somehow missed it. I was tested two or three times, and I’d just read lips,” Gillies said. “I didn’t know I was different, but if I couldn’t see someone saying something, I couldn’t hear it. Someone would yell my name to come in, for instance? I couldn’t hear that.
“I had to try harder. It made me stronger. It’s the focus – I have to focus hard on everything I do in life.”
Even with his hearing aids, Gillies relies more on his other senses on and off the field.
“On the field I depend on knowing every situation – cutoff plays, where baserunners are – because I can’t always hear people yelling. I rely on what I see and what I know about the game. I study it,” he said.
And off the playing field?
“I think my vision is probably phenomenal,” Gillies said. “I know I see things other people don’t. I think the lack of one sense forced me to use another more, so I see everything going on around me. I have to.”
The Mariners drafted Gillies in the 25th round in June 2006. Twice since then, he’s been the most valuable player on his team in the Arizona Instructional League.
“He’s coming fast, in part because he has tools and in part because he’s hungry,” Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. “He’s quite a story.”
Everywhere Gillies goes, he goes fast. It’s one of the things people notice – he runs everywhere, top speed.
“What everyone tells me is ‘Slow down.’ They mean on the field, off the field, everywhere,” Gillies said. “Mike Cameron said it to me the other day after a game. I can’t. I know some guys think I look overeager out there, but that’s the way I am – I go all out.
“Would I consider slowing down? No chance. I run everywhere. I don’t stand around. I can’t even sit still and be comfortable at home.”
So how did a Canadian kid with hearing aids wind up in professional baseball?
“I grew up on the ice playing hockey. I didn’t get into baseball until I was 10. Hockey was a contact sport, and I got my hearing aids knocked out, then I couldn’t hear guys coming and I really got hit,” Gillies said. “After that, I started playing more baseball.
“I don’t think I had a dream of playing professional baseball until about three years ago, when I was 17. My family always thought I could do it. My sister Carmen is my biggest fan. She’s three years older than I am, and when we were growing up she was like a mother with me.
“Our parents were busy running their business. When I got frustrated or had to vent, I’d go to Carmen.”
And now? What’s the most difficult adjustment to life in baseball?
“I have to be patient with myself, and that’s difficult for me. I can’t let things get to me. I can’t get frustrated. I don’t look at it like I have a disability. It’s just my life,” he said.
“Someone asked me the other day what I’d do if I couldn’t play baseball, and I said, ‘I’d like to be an inspirational speaker.’ When I was growing up, there was no one I could talk to about my hearing except my sister.”
He remembers adjusting first to wearing the hearing aids, then adjusting again when he went to school and was teased about them. With them, he could hear better but took abuse. Without them, he couldn’t hear at all.
“I was different, and I didn’t want to be,” Gillies said.
Today, that’s not an issue.
“I have to dry my ears between innings because the sweat can knock out my hearing aids,” he said. “Guys notice, and they’re curious, but they usually won’t even ask. If I see them watching, I’ll tell them.
“There are times I have to ask people to repeat things, and that can be embarrassing. When you see a coach or manager talking to a group, I’ll always be the closest to whoever is talking.
“The coaches here know me now, and they’ll make a point of facing my direction, not turning away. They make it easier for me to read their lips. Teammates don’t treat me any different, except they’re good about talking to me and facing me, because they know that makes it easier for me to follow what they’re saying.”
Gillies has been called up from minor league camp to play in a Cactus League game 15 times his spring. In those games, over 28 at-bats, he’s batted .287 with three doubles, a triple and a pair of sacrifice bunts.
“When I got to camp it never occurred to me that I might play in a big league game,” Gillies said. “I love playing in front of crowds. It gives me an extra boost when you realize people are coming to watch you play.
“I’m doing pretty well, but I’m never satisfied. I want more. I expect more.”
The Mariners couldn’t be happier with what they’ve seen. In two minor league seasons, he’s never played above Class A. Last year in Everett, Gillies blossomed: a .313 average over 61 games, with 22 stolen bases and a .439 on-base percentage.
“He’ll start this season at a higher level,” minor league director Pedro Grifol said.
So, no problems. No real issues. Nothing but smooth sailing?
“There are lots of small things people don’t think about. I have trouble sleeping sometimes, for instance, because I worry I’ll oversleep. I can’t hear an alarm go off because I sleep without my hearing aids,” he said. “So I have an alarm that shakes the bed – and it scares me every morning.
“I have a telephone with a little extra boost to it. I’m good on the telephone.”
And at most everything else.
MARINERS SPRING UPDATE
The Mariners got marvelous pitching from Erik Bedard, Shawn Kelley and Mark Lowe and home runs from Mike Wilson and Chris Woodward and still came up short in Seattle’s 5-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
Seattle plays San Francisco in Scottsdale, Ariz., in a 1:05 p.m. game that will be broadcast on 710-AM and 97.3-FM. Probable starting pitchers: Seattle’s Chris Jakabauskas vs. Randy Johnson.
When Venezuela lost its World Baseball Classic game with South Korea over the weekend, the Seattle Mariners insist they weren’t pleased – but they’ll certainly be happy today when Felix Hernandez, Carlos Silva, Jose Lopez and Endy Chavez return to camp.
That leaves only two missing-in-WBC-action players: Ichiro Suzuki and Kenji Johjima of Japan. How will the return of the Venezuelans change things? Lopez and Chavez might start today’s game, and if so it will be the first time all spring the infield the Mariners expect to start the season with plays together. Hernandez and Silva will each be penciled into the rotation. …
Bedard made his fourth start of the spring and threw 47 pitches in 22/3 innings without giving up a run, a solid effort after missing playing time with a strained muscle. The defense behind him prevented a pair of Cubs rallies, and Bedard acknowledged that. “It felt like I had nothing. It might have looked good, but it didn’t feel good,” Bedard said. “I threw some good breaking balls, but it was all about the defense today. I need more innings, need to build my arm back up. I’ll be fine.” …
David Aardsma wants to close games this spring and knows he’s among the candidates for that job. It can sometimes get in the way of his pitching.
“When you’re on the mound, you have a choice to make at times – am I working on a pitch out here or am I trying to win a job by getting outs?” Aardsma said. “None of us relievers throws in the bullpen between games, we only throw in the bullpen before going into a game. If you’re trying to work on a pitch, like my split-finger, do I do it in the game? The other day, I took that pitch for granted, didn’t focus on it enough and hung it. It got drilled and I wound up having a bad outing. I learned from it, yes, but the issue hasn’t changed. I’m still trying to win that job.” …
Another closer candidate, Lowe, pitched a spring-high 2 innings as the team stretched him a bit, and allowed a run on two hits. Kelley, meanwhile, worked a scoreless inning. … Rookie reliever Josh Fields is working in minor league camp, but he’s not forgotten. The Mariners still figure to bring him up to pitch in a Cactus League game before camp breaks. …
Seattle’s offense was a two-man show. Of the Mariners’ seven hits, three – including a double and home run – belonged to Woodward, the utility infielder. Wilson hit his team-leading fifth home run, and all have been hit in the past week. ...
Ken Griffey Jr. walked into a discussion former roommate and now coach Roger Hansen was having with two of his catchers. They were talking about a drill for blocking the ball in the dirt, and Junior weighed in. “You got to protect yourself back there,” he told them. “If that ball gets by because you’re protecting yourself, and the pitcher complains, just tell him ‘Hey, it’s not my earned run.’ ” Rob Johnson and Jamie Burke broke up. ...
Add catchers: Jeff Clement, who caught back-to-back games, was feeling it a bit on Sunday. “I’m a little sore, but it feels like last year,” Clement said. And his surgically repaired left knee? “It’s fine. Just normal soreness,” he said.
Tyler Johnson, who was signed as a potential lefty-on-lefty specialist, is coming off shoulder surgery. So the Mariners have brought him along slowly this spring. After throwing a simulated game Saturday, what’s next? Apparently, not a Cactus League game. “It still seems pretty post-op for me,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “My biggest concern is that he rushes it and we don’t have him for the long term. I know what a competitor he is. He might tell us that he feels better than he really is, that after one 30-pitch outing he’s ready to go. He’s a big fit for us, and we’re not going to rush him.”
Larry LaRue, The News Tribune