Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hearing-impaired Gillies driven by determination

Hearing-impaired Gillies driven by determination

It's not unusual to see Tyson Gillies tossing a football around with one of his Reading Phillies teammates before batting practice.

It's not a training technique for the Reading center fielder, but rather a reminder: Don't let anything stand in the way of your dreams.

Gillies faced adversity growing up with a severe hearing impairment. The other kids teased him so badly about his hearing aids that he grew embarrassed and frustrated and refused to wear them. Even flushed them down the toilet once.

It wasn't until eighth grade that his disability really stung him. He tried out for football at Valley View Secondary School, in Kamloops, British Columbia, and shined at quarterback during offseason workouts.

When it came time to put on the helmet and pads he found he found the headgear interfered with his hearing aids. He couldn't play with them, and he couldn't play quarterback without them.

His life changed that very moment.

"I've felt different all my life (because of my hearing disability)," said the 21-year-old Gillies, "but I've never had somebody take me away from something because of it.

"The toughest thing was someone was taking my hearing disability and telling me, 'You can't do that.' "

The prospect shook him.

"I thought, 'Whoa, maybe this is where it starts,' " Gillies said. " 'What's the next thing they're not going to let me do?' After that, I never let somebody tell me that I couldn't do something."

Gillies ended up being the placekicker on the team.

He eventually was OK with not being able to play quarterback. At 5-4, he knew he wasn't destined to play quarterback in the CFL, much less the NFL.

He was also too small to pursue his greatest love, hockey.

"I didn't see myself, with that body, having a very long career in hockey," he said. "I didn't think I'd be strong enough or big enough."

Gillies turned to baseball. The game quickly grew on him, and he grew into it. But it forced him into another stark realization: His chances to advance in the game were limited growing up in western Canada, where there are no high school baseball programs and the long winters shorten the outdoor season.

Kamloops, a city slightly larger than Reading, had no shortage of ice rinks but zero indoor hitting facilities.

Gillies left home at age 15 and moved 200 miles away to Vancouver in order to play play with the Langley Blaze, one of the premier club teams in Canada. He lived with a host family for two years.

"It definitely takes a sacrifice to come down here," said Blaze coach Doug Mathieson, a scout with the Minnesota Twins and the father of former Reading pitcher Scott Mathieson. "You sacrifice a lot of things that (high school) kids don't normally do (to play for us)."

Gillies' athleticism and desire caught Mathieson's eye at the tryout.

"He was full of enthusiasm, full of energy," Mathieson said. "He was raw as could be, but he had tremendous skills. He really wanted it badly."

After two seasons with the Blaze Gillies signed to play at Iowa Western junior college. The Seattle Mariners saw him there and selected him in the 25th round of the June 2006 amateur draft.

Gillies, who has grown to a strapping 6-2, 195 pounds, distinguished himself quickly in the Mariners organization. After batting .313 with short-season Everett of the Northwest League in 2008 he skipped a level and went right to high Class A High Desert last season.

He led the league with 44 stolen bases and batted .341, third-highest in all the minors. His 104 runs scored and .431 on-base percentage were both among the top five in all the minors.

He was part of the three-player package, along with Reading pitcher Phillippe Aumont and Clearwater pitcher J.C. Ramirez, the Philadelphia Phillies accepted for Cliff Lee in December.

The Phillies fell in love with the energy Gillies displays on a diamond, whether he's roaming center field or flying around the bases.

Charlie Manuel jokingly compared him to Pete Rose when he saw Gillies sprint around the bases after a spring training home run off Toronto's David Purcey.

"Even on a walk, I'll get to first base real quick," Gillies said. "It's just something that comes natural to me. It's routine for me. I don't even notice."

"He knows one speed," said Reading manager Steve Roadcap, "and that's 100 percent all the time."

"People say I'm hyper," Gillies said. "Everything I do, I want to give it 110 percent. That's the way I want everything to be done all the time. It's who I am, it's what I'm used to, and it's what I'm about."

One thing Gillies didn't do was start quickly with his new organization. He was batting just .185 in late April but turned it around with a recent surge that saw him go 20-for-51.

However, his first Double-A season was slowed again last week by a hamstring injury that sent him to the disabled list.

That will set him back only briefly. Then he'll be off and running again, undeterred by anything.

He refuses to let his disability - he was born with a 50 percent hearing loss in one ear, and 30 percent in the other - stand in his way.

Other than not being able to hear the crack of the ball off the bat while he's stationed in the outfield, he says his hearing loss doesn't affect his game. He makes no concessions to it.

"I want people to see how hard I work, to think about that and not about my hearing loss," he said. "There's always talk about a hearing-impaired athlete. I didn't want that. I want (people to say): 'Here's Tyson Gillies, he's working hard, he wants to get somewhere.'"

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