SAN DIEGO -- Outfielder Sam Hilliard is giving Rockies fans a unique opportunity to share in his family’s fight against ALS, the disease that his father, Jim, has been battling since before his official diagnosis in 2018.
MLB has launched its 2019 Winter Meeting Charity Auction to benefit five charities committed to research, care, awareness and education relating to ALS, and Hilliard is part of that effort.
A Spring Training VIP experience with Hilliard as one of three items for bid from the Rockies. The winning bid is good for a tour of Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Ariz., with Hilliard. Other bid items are lunch with general manager Jeff Bridich and manager Bud Black at Coors Field, and a VIP experience at Coors Field that includes tours of the press box and broadcast booths, plus time on the field to watch batting practice.
Hilliard, 25, has come a long way since the days he kept his family’s situation private, simply because he wasn’t sure of the right words. During the 2019 season, Hilliard became more vocal with Team Hilliard – the family’s effort to raise awareness, and raise money for ALS Therapy Development Institute.
Hilliard had a solid start to his Major League career -- .273 with seven home runs and 13 RBIs in 27 games after his August debut.
His mother, Tamara Hext Hilliard, a former Miss Texas, business owner and commercial actor, has been the main driving force behind Team Hilliard -- with its website, Twitter handle (@TeamHilliardALS) and hashtag (#strikeoutals). But Sam Hilliard has learned his bat has given him a platform.
“I didn’t want to talk about it too much,” Hilliard said during the season. “It was brand new to me. I didn’t know what was going on, what to expect. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to answer questions. It was emotional, obviously -- still is.
“I just got to a point where I said to myself, ‘You’re not doing anything to help if you’re not talking about it. “Getting the word out there, spreading the word about the foundation, and doing whatever I can to help. They say there’s no cure, but it’s just an underfunded disease, and they’re working to find a cure.”
Hilliard could not make it to the Winter Meetings in San Diego for the press conference announcing the initiative, but A's outfielder Stephen Piscotty -- who lost his mother to the disease in 2018 -- spoke of Hilliard, and his admiration for how the family has joined the fight.
Like Hilliard, Piscotty struggled with the daunting amount of education he needed -- about the disease itself, and about its challenges -- after his mother was diagnosed. Piscotty was playing at the time for the Cardinals, who traded him to the A's so he could be closer to his mother.
“I remember when I first found out the news, I didn’t know much about it either,” Piscotty said. “I just kept quiet for four or five days and did my own research. It started to eat at me, and the Cardinals could see that on me. They asked me what was going on and they sent me home for a few days so we could regroup as a family, which was really special for them to do.
“We regrouped. It was planning and things you need to do. You need to take those steps.”
Sam Hilliard, being younger and not established in his career when the diagnosis came, counts himself as fortunate he has parents in position to help.
Jim Hilliard, a longtime orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Arlington, Texas, who also played football at the University of Texas in the early 1970s, began experiencing the effects of the disease in 2017.
On the November day that Sam Hilliard received the call that he would be invited to his first Major League camp, Jim was receiving treatments for the symptoms and hoping that ALS would not be the diagnosis.
The parents did their best to ease Sam’s mind.
“I was worried,” Tamara Hilliard said. “This is a tough road, mentally and emotionally. I was worried this was going to be a strain on him emotionally. The first few months we were all very uncertain. We’re living a new normal now. When you’re first diagnosed with a disease like this, the fear of what is going to be is more powerful than what you really are in the day.
“I didn’t want to put a lot of that pressure on Sam in the beginning. He wasn’t comfortable talking about it, and I didn’t think he needed to. I knew the time would come when he would feel more comfortable talking about it. I think he’s done a beautiful job.”
The disease didn’t affect Jim Hilliard’s sense of perspective.
“It was a difficult time, and for him to accomplish what he accomplished, he needed to be fairly focused, obviously,” Jim Hilliard said. “I didn’t want my situation to detract from that.
“My situation is a gradual situation we’re dealing with. ... There wasn’t anything that was going to happen the next day. The main thing was let Sam focus on Sam, and not try to burden him with everything that we were dealing with.”
The Hilliards keep moving forward.
In November, more than 235 people celebrated Jim Hilliard and raised funds for ALS TDI at Whiskey Ranch in Fort Worth. Baylor Orthopedic Spine Hospital and Mary and Dick Lowe helped fund the event, which served as a retirement party and 65th birthday party -- occasions put on hold by the diagnosis.
Also, the Hilliards are participating in the I AM ALS takeover of Times Square in New York on Dec. 17. The basis is the belief that if a cure is found for ALS, critical breakthroughs could be unlocked for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and other diseases. Messages such as the one displayed by Jim and Tamara Hilliard in recent tweets from @TeamHilliard will be displayed on nearly a dozen screens, and photos will be taken in Times Square that morning.
Additionally, the Piscotty and Hilliard families are talking about ways to assist the Crawford Family Invitational Golf Tournament in Phoenix on Feb. 22, with net proceeds benefitting ALS CURE, a non-profit special fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation established by Stephen Piscotty. The event is put on by Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford and Piscotty.
Hilliard will return next season hoping to earn his first Major League Opening Day roster spot. Even as his father’s disease advances, he will keep an attitude fostered by his parents.
“My mom always says we’re not [letting] it kill our joy,” Hilliard said. “My dad, like I’ve said a bunch, is the same guy. He’s not going to let it change who he is as a person.
“He didn’t say that. But he just showed me that through life and the way he’s living. I never had a thought that it was going to change him and he was going to be a different guy.”
Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and like his Facebook page.