By: Alexis Brudnicki
TORONTO, Ont. – Tyson Gillies know what it’s like to be subject to a double standard.
For nine minor league seasons, when the 26-year-old outfielder has made outstanding catches, has squared up a ball to put his team ahead, or even when he is just making routine plays – all things he did to help Team Canada to its second consecutive Pan Am Games gold medal earlier this week – Gillies is just doing his job.
But when he doesn’t get the job done, if the native of Vancouver, BC can’t get to a ball fast enough even with his blazing speed, if he isn’t hitting, if he is caught stealing on perhaps what might have even been a poorly executed hit-and-run, or when any number of things have gone wrong in his career, they’re not just bad plays made by Gillies.
All of a sudden, his becomes a job poorly done by a deaf player.
Throughout his entire life, Gillies has had to work harder than everyone around him just to disprove the notion that he is incapable. It wasn’t until he was four-and-a-half years old that his parents even discovered that he was hearing impaired, because he had learned to read lips and communicate without knowing that what he was doing was different from anyone else.
And that’s important to him. Gillies doesn’t want to be different. There are a lot of times he wonders why this was his fate, but many more of those thoughts came earlier in his life when he struggled to come to terms with his disability. Why was he born with close to just 30 per cent hearing in one ear, and just a little more than that in the other? Why couldn’t he be just like everyone else?
“A lot of people [focus] on the disability,” Gillies said. “Especially for me, when I appear as, I would say as close to a normal person, and a lot of people don’t understand still. It’s one of those disabilities where people still don’t get it.
“As popular as this health condition is, it’s very rare to the human eye and the ear [to see someone at my level with my disability]. Everybody knows I struggle with it.”
Reunited with his band of Canadian brothers and suiting up for the Senior National Team in Ajax, Ont., for the Games, Gillies joined a group that has never judged him and never looked at him for anything other than what he offers to the squad both on the field and off. Of course, there are the occasional lighthearted laughs about his deafness, but all jokes aside, Team Canada makes him feel right at home.
“Being together with this team, they don’t look at me any differently,” Gillies said. “I’m just one of the other guys…It’s special. I don’t think you see it with any other country, the way Canada comes together and the way that we hang out with each other and converse with each other. Everybody’s just family as soon as you step on the field.”
As much as Gillies doesn’t want to separate himself from the crowd because of his hearing impairment, the former 25th-round pick of the Seattle Mariners knows he is an inspiration to many young athletes, so he tries to embrace his role as a motivator.
Before being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 2009, Gillies spoke to fresh-faced Mariners draft selections about his upbringing and his struggles, and just last year he raised thousands of dollars for the American Hearing Association because a young fan had asked him to complete a walk for charity with him.
It’s not something he feels the need to bring up, but it isn’t something he shies away from either.
“I always try and do things to keep that in the background somewhere,” Gillies said. “Obviously at times, you’ll be able to know that I didn’t hear you. But it’s tough sometimes, when people think that I’m either ignoring them or being rude or disrespectful, and that makes it really hard for me.”
With room still for improvement, things have gotten better for Gillies throughout his time in baseball, going from a time when it was hard for anyone to see beyond his disability, to now being able to let his abilities speak for themselves more often than not.
“You put the speed and power together, and there’s a guy who can play,” one National League scout said. “There are questions whether he can consistently play in the big leagues because of his instinctiveness out there, but the raw ability says he should be able to do it.
“And talking to him, you really didn’t get the sense that there was an impairment there. I got the sense that it was more an issue in the past, of him not understanding his handicap in the field and how to overcome it.”
After four years in the Mariners organization and five with the Phillies, Gillies is in his first season with the Double-A San Antonio Missions in the San Diego Padres organization. When he joined them during spring training, he knew that the Pan Am Games were coming up, and had no idea what his new club’s stance would be on leaving in July to represent his country.
“I didn’t know, actually,” Gillies said. “I was just happy that they gave me the opportunity to leave the organization for a little bit. I’m really happy about that. All I know is that this is probably one of the best baseball moments of my life, so I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”
The chance Gillies was afforded to win a mid-season championship on home soil came with an unlikely mix of players – including two who came out of retirement, a couple who continued playing just for a chance at the squad, three who had never played for Canada before and two who were no longer with teams when they joined their Canadian teammates.
“A lot of teams don’t expect us to come out here and compete, let alone win two times in a row,” Gillies said. “This is huge for Baseball Canada and Greg [Hamilton, director of national teams] and Ernie [Whitt, manager] and the whole coaching staff, all of them. What they do for this program, Larry [Walker] coming out, for all these kids watching, this is huge.
“I know that every kid wants to come out here and be a part of this program. Everybody counts the days. I know I count the days to put on the uniform again. I can’t wait for the next time. It’s a bittersweet moment [when it’s over]. I don’t want to leave these guys. It’s a sad day, but I’m going back wearing a gold medal.”
Before joining the two-time Pan Am Games champions at the tournament in Ajax, and for exhibition games in Cary, NC, Gillies had just been given two brand new sets of hearing aids from Starkey Hearing Technologies, an inside-the-canal SoundLens2 set for his time on the field, and a receiver-in-the-canal Halo set for his time off.
Right away, the latest technology in the hearing devices allowed him to begin taking in sounds he had never heard before. It was an entirely new experience, and when things got loud as he and Team Canada competed on home soil for the top spot in the tournament, he had to shut them down to tune it out.
“I tested them out pretty well,” Gillies said of the new hearing aids. “It was pretty loud, I can tell you that. Especially with the home crowd. I heard a lot of instruments from the fans that I had never heard at a baseball games. It was definitely tough, and I’m not going to lie to you, I had to turn them off for a couple of at-bats because it was just getting too crazy.”
Especially in front of a crazy home-country crowd – even with the added noise – there’s nothing better for Gillies than putting on the red-and-white uniform and getting out on the field and representing the country north of the border.
“Playing with Team Canada is absolutely the No. 1 thing that I look forward to,” he said. “I remember back when I wasn’t good enough to make the Junior National Team and I got sent home in Cuba and I was pretty crushed. Every single time they ask me to come here and play again, I’ll be the first one in the door.”
In eight games on the way to Pan Am gold with Team Canada, the squad’s centre fielder went 7-for-27 with three home runs, a double, two walks, eight runs scored and seven runs driven in. In extra innings in the final, he scored Canada’s first run on a Pete Orr (Newmarket, Ont.) single before getting a front row seat to the storybook finish he’d been waiting for.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited in my life,” Gillies said. “I was screaming and jumping for joy, and it was like a fairy tale.”