By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
OTTAWA, Ontario – Almost exactly a year ago, Phillippe Aumont officially retired from baseball.
Following two seasons in the Mariners organization – after being selected 11th overall in the 2007 draft by Seattle – and six seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, acquired as a piece in a trade for Cliff Lee, and a brief stint down on the farm with the Toronto Blue Jays, the right-handed hurler was entering his fourth month in the Chicago White Sox organization.
He had made his 10th appearance for the triple-A Charlotte Knights the evening before, and after not allowing a run in his previous four outings for the club, in his last professional appearance he left without recording an out.
Against his old team, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Aumont faced six batters, allowing a home run, a single, committing a throwing error on a potential double-play ball, walking the next hitter, advancing the runners with a wild pitch, then allowing a triple and another single before exiting the game. Some time after that, Aumont came to the realization that he just couldn’t do it anymore.
“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my entire life,” the 28-year-old said. “I called Stéphane [Pétronzio], because he was my mentor and he’s been there through the goods and the bads, and I started with him [playing at Sport Études Baseball de Gatineau]. I called him and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m not happy. I’m in a dark place. I don’t know what to do.’”
Aumont’s pseudo-family member Pétronzio told the right-hander to pack his things and head back home to Québec, offering support whether Aumont just wanted to take a break from everything, or if he decided to return to the game. The encouragement took a weight off the hurler’s shoulders, but didn’t make the difficult decision much easier.
“It was still hard,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on but I went with it. I needed it. It wasn’t going super great in Charlotte, and I was mentally just wrecked. They had no intention of letting me go, and they were willing to work with me. They put in a lot of effort and I was really grateful for that. They pitched in a lot of parts to try to help me. But at the end of the day, if you’re not committed, you’re not with it, it’s not going to work. So I needed to go away to kind of flush the darkness out.”
Aumont’s downward spiral through a dark tunnel came on quickly in Charlotte. After working with Montreal Canadiens sports psychologist Sylvain Guimond through the winter, he was in a good place as he entered spring training and moved into the season. After leaving the Phillies – and the game, however briefly – the previous year, Guimond helped Aumont get back to a healthy head space with a shift from the belief that all his life’s chips were on baseball.
“I told him I was struggling mentally and I don’t know what I want to do anymore,” the 6-foot-7, 240-pound righty said in Glendale, Arizona during spring training with the Sox. “I always run into uncertainties and I don’t know what I’m doing. We talked a little bit and he came up with the question, and what it comes down to is, is baseball your whole life or is baseball part of your life? Who is Phillippe Aumont to you? I didn’t know what to answer. He just shocked me. I didn’t know what to say. I’m Phillippe Aumont, the baseball player.
“He said, ‘You’re wrong. You’re more than that. You’re a son, you’re a brother, you’re a friend, you’re all these things. Baseball is part of your life but you’re more than that.’ So he kind of opened my eyes to all that, and eased up on baseball being my whole life and that if I fail in that, I’m a complete failure. Baseball is part of my life but I’ve got other things around me. Family, friends, they’ll still love me even though I’m getting my ass whooped out there, or even though I got crushed for 17 runs or whatever. They care, but not about that, as long as I’m healthy or happy.”
Breaking camp with the Knights, and going on the disabled list early in the season, Aumont got away from that school of thought somewhere along the line. He went from treading water to sinking to drowning in his thoughts.
“Everything just got darker and darker,” he said. “There were expectations there. I had a great spring and I didn’t make the team, and I was okay with that. There was no room for me and everybody was under contract, and that’s understandable, so I thought I would just go down there and work.
“Then things were not working and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working for me. I’m putting in the effort, I’m putting the time in, I’m doing everything I can to get this going, to be consistent in throwing strikes, to be consistent in getting guys out, day in and day out. Two or three games in a row everything was clicking, boom, boom, boom, and the next thing you know, it was like I had never pitched before. I couldn’t understand it.
“It all funnelled down and I kind of zoned out of everything, and it just came from myself. Nobody really took me aside to say, ‘You need to step up. You need to get that gear, get that second gear going.’ It was myself putting that pressure on me, that I needed to go from first gear to fourth in a hurry. That’s how I am. I’m always trying to perfect everything and nobody’s perfect. In can be a good thing, but it can be a really bad thing.”
For a little more than 10 months, Aumont stayed retired from the game he loves so much. In brief moments, he found clarity and satisfaction in his decision. But then he began working with the Sport Études program, and in teaching young players how to play and approach the game, he learned more about himself.
“Being there, I’m trying to teach these kids everything about the game, how to take this game seriously and go out there and compete, and have that fire and yet, I blew mine away,” he said. “I left and sort of quit. That’s not what I want to teach these kids. You’ve got to go all the way. If you go all the way then you can look back and know you didn’t have it or it didn’t work out, but you can’t go out being mad at the world, and leave all the tools and talent out to dry. It’s just a waste.
“So that was a big pointer for me, teaching those kids to be winners, to go out and compete, and be bulldogs. The more I kept telling them, the more it was lighting that fire a little bit for me.”
Helping to ignite that flame were Pétronzio and fellow program coordinator and head coach Sebastien Boucher, both also coaches with the independent Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League. Both could see that Aumont hadn’t completely given up on living out his days on the diamond, eventually leading him to join the Champions, for whom he will pitch when he is fully ready to compete.
“At the end of the day, you’re a baseball player and you want to play ball,” Boucher said. “So once the season got closer, I started asking him a little bit more and putting the idea out there a little bit more, and it just worked out…When you’re done playing and you see guys starting to play and getting into it, you get that itch. Every player has it.”
Aumont isn’t yet sure where his season will lead, once he is officially added to Ottawa’s roster and he takes the mound competitively for the first time in 12 months, but he believes that he will find happiness with any outcome.
“I’m just going to go with it,” the Gatineau native said. “I’m going to start here. I’m going to kick back that career that I left last year. I’m going to try to get it going here and I’m not going to have any expectations. I’m not going to be looking for scouts, I’m not going to be waiting for somebody to call me.
“These guys are great and some of these kids never played pro ball before, so I’m going to be out here trying to help them out. I’m already trying to help a few kids here and there. They come and ask questions, and I know they want to learn and that’s what I want to do right now. If I get an offer, if I do get something that I’ll be comfortable with, then I’ll go with it. If not, I’ll be here all year long. They’re defending a championship and that’s fun no matter where you are.”
Happy to be on the field again, Aumont weighed some other options through his time away from the game, and came to the realization that he wanted to be doing the only thing he had ever done, pursuing his passion and not wasting any more time away from it.
“This game is the only thing that I know,” he said. “I’ve never worked in my entire life. I’ve never had an actual job. I did this off-season but it wasn’t actual work…I just couldn’t pull the trigger on doing it because I’m so used to playing baseball and having those days where you sit back and relax, you travel, go to hotels, go to different cities, just to stay home and have a regular job. Those 10 months went by fast because time flies, but that period of time was horrible.
“I was so lost. I didn’t want to go work construction, I thought I wanted to be a cop…but it was just that angry moment a little bit, where you’re mad at yourself, you’re mad at the world, and I got over that, and life is great. You get to wake up every day and live another day. You’ve got to do what you love to do, and go out there and have a smile. If you don’t do that, your life is going to be miserable and you’re going to waste talent, life, breath, air. That’s how I got myself got back together and I’m trying to enjoy the day to day.”
It has been 10 years since Aumont was originally selected by the Mariners. He’s played for 10 different affiliated teams for four organizations, was called up to the majors in each of his last four seasons with the Phillies, and has had some of his favourite moments during his numerous chances to represent his home and native land.
“There are a lot of memories with Team Canada,” he said. “Winning a gold medal [at the Pan Am Games in 2015] is probably one of the craziest things that has happened. Obviously playing in the big leagues is a different level, where you’ve made it to the top out of however many guys, so that’s an accomplishment. That’s something I have under my belt and nobody can take that away from me.
“I have a lot of good memories everywhere, obviously in the Team Canada uniform, that’s where the proudest moments come. My gold medal, and any other tournament I competed with that team is something that I’ll forever have in my mind.”
In a decade of ups and downs, the big right-hander got his start in the professional game, has made temporary exits, and has learned a lot about himself. He is hoping that everything he’s both enjoyed and battled along the journey will assist him as he moves forward onto the next step in his career.
“Obviously, expectations were always high, and as a natural instinct you try to fulfill those,” he said. “When you don’t, you just feel targeted. I mean, that’s how I felt. You feel targeted, like all the eyes are on you, and if you’re not doing well, they’re not the kind of eyes you’re looking for. Then sometimes it can play on your mind. You’re definitely going to try and do much more than you can just go out and do, instead of going out and playing and having some fun.
“But it’s been a lot of travelling, experience. I’ve travelled the world with it and I have no regrets, nothing. It’s been fun. I took about 10 months off, which was the longest but the shortest 10 months at the same time. It was short, went by fast, but it was long not doing anything that I was used to doing every day. But so far, so good. This place is good. It’s a place where I can start slow, on my own program, dictate what I want to do, and build from there and see what happens. I don’t have any expectations of where I want to go, but I’m excited to go out and pitch.”