Hillman, Gordon family share a special bond
Former MLB reliever Tom Gordon has given the Indians' second-round pick guidance and a home
CLEVELAND -- Tom Gordon could not believe his eyes. The skinny kid out in right field had just heaved a baseball from deep in the outfield to home plate on a fly. The former Major League pitcher happened to be at the diamond while coaching his travel ball team.
Gordon began asking around about the kid, who was all of 11 years old, but had a rifle for an arm. He found out his name was Juan Hillman and the local high school was already eyeing the boy as its future quarterback. On that day seven years ago, neither Gordon nor Hillman could have predicted how their lives would become connected.
"Without Mr. Gordon and the support of his family," Hillman said on Tuesday, "I don't know where I'd be today."
On Monday night, the 18-year-old Hillman -- now a promising left-handed pitching prospect -- was standing next to Gordon at an Orlando-area restaurant. They were surrounded by family members, friends and many others from their community, who all came out to support Hillman in anticipation of the early rounds of the 2015 MLB Draft.
Hillman heard his name called with the 59th overall pick in the Draft's second round, when the Indians made the lefty their third selection. There were cheers and hugs, and it was a moment Hillman will never forget. The same can be said for the 47-year-old Gordon, who became Hillman's legal guardian nearly four years ago and welcomed the kid with the electric arm into his home.
As much as Gordon undoubtedly changed Hillman's life, the prospect also had an impact on the pro.
"That was a special moment for me," Gordon said. "He's just one of the family members now. He's done a wonderful job and he's a tremendous kid. We love him very, very much and we're excited for him, that he gets this opportunity. We're grateful for him and his family, to see this come about for them."
During his senior year at Olympia High School, Hillman went a perfect 10-0 with a 1.44 ERA in 12 outings. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound lefty piled up 80 strikeouts and issued 12 walks in 62 innings of work. Olympia High is the same school attended by Gordon's son Nick Gordon, who was a first-round pick by the Twins in the '14 Draft. Nick is the half-brother of Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon.
Nick and Dee immediately welcomed Hillman into their home, treating him as a little brother and mentoring him about life, baseball and giving back to the community. Watching the boys become close over the years was special for "Flash" Gordon.
"You love it," said the elder Gordon. "You see them accepting him and accepting him into their household. They've kind of given him that feel of comfort, that feel of, 'Hey, you're one of us. Of course, we'll do what we can to help you.' It's been gratifying for all of us. Of course, when you bring kids in your home, you want them to feel comfortable and not feel like they're an outcast in any way. For Juan, he never felt that."
Hillman was raised in a single-parent home and his mother's attention was divided between taking care of him and his blossoming athletic career, and being there for her other children. As Gordon got to know Juan and his family more over the years, he wanted to do anything he could to help ease the burden, culminating in becoming Hillman's guardian.
Beyond that, Gordon -- a former reliever with 21 seasons of Major League experience -- also served as Hillman's travel team coach. He also helped the young pitcher gain exposure through showcase events around the country.
"With the Draft coming up, he pretty much put me out there," Hillman said. "When my mom couldn't take me, they'd take me and they'd let me know, 'You need to be here. You need to be there. They're calling for you.' They kept me on the right path and had a great impact on my life."
Nick chatted with Hillman on FaceTime shortly before the Indians drafted the pitcher, and Dee reached out as soon as he could from Toronto, where the Marlins are playing the Blue Jays.
"It's amazing, man," Dee said. "Juan works hard. He works with my dad pretty much every day on throwing, so to see him go so high [in the Draft] is amazing. I texted him when I could from the hotel to congratulate him. It's just exciting. His family's excited. We're excited. The sky's the limit for him."
Beyond his abilities on a mound -- Hillman sits around 89-92 mph with his fastball and also features a curveball and changeup -- the Indians were impressed with the left-hander's character. Much of that comes from overcoming adversity and having the Gordon family as a great resource along the way.
"We spent a lot of time with Juan," said Brad Grant, the Indians' director of amateur scouting. "One of the things that stood out was obviously his relationship with Tom -- with Flash -- but also his relationship with Nick and with Dee, what he's learned from them and how they've been mentors to him.
"We feel that's really helped in his progression to this point and look forward to having it be part of his progression moving forward."
An unbelievable throw from the outfield so many years ago sparked a partnership that led to Monday night's special moment for Tom Gordon and Hillman.
The young pitcher's own family was there to share in the celebration, too.
"It was really, really sweet and special for him," Gordon said. "His whole family was there, so that was a positive. It was a plus for all of us, to be there at the same time, to come together."