'It's just surreal': Brewers' Gillies back on mound after cancer battle

February 27th, 2022

PHOENIX -- Tyler Gillies threw his 16 pitches and thanked his catcher. Then he found Jeff Paxson, the athletic trainer going on 28 seasons in the Brewers' organization who was with Gillies at Class A Wisconsin in 2019, the year Gillies was a 24-year-old out of nowhere who powered his way through a promising season as a reliever.

This time, there was nothing high leverage about the situation. Gillies worked on a bullpen mound at American Family Fields of Phoenix on Saturday during the first week of what the Brewers have dubbed a “Build-Up Camp” for prospects who might benefit from some extra time before Minor League Spring Training begins in earnest. Gillies was just getting his work in.

And yet his voice bellowed as he approached Paxson.

“That felt [bleeping] great!” Gillies said.

In this case, the enthusiasm was well-warranted. Gillies had just thrown off a mound -- a real, dirt pitcher’s mound, not the synthetic turf-covered ramp from which he had thrown at home in Ontario, Canada, while preparing for this year. There was a professional catcher presenting a target and professional pitchers humming fastballs from adjacent mounds. This was for real.

For Gillies, it was the first time he’d thrown off a real mound in more than two years, since a cancer diagnosis threatened both his career and his life.

“Just being around everybody again here is incredible,” said Gillies, now 26. “Like [Friday], there were some live BPs going on and I just had to come out and watch and appreciate how lucky we are to play this game at such a high level and play it for a living.

“About a year ago, I wasn’t sure I would ever be back. Now, to be back here, it’s just surreal.”

Gillies’ story in pro baseball began like a fairy tale. Born in London, Ontario, he pitched at the University of British Columbia, but went undrafted in 2017. Over the next year and a half, he pitched in the Independent Can-Am League and in Ontario’s Intercounty Baseball League, an amateur circuit made up of college players and former pros. After the ’18 season, Gillies trained in Seattle at Driveline Baseball and added velocity to his fastball. The Brewers noticed, and signed Gillies out of a tryout in Phoenix.

He capitalized on the opportunity. Gillies delivered a 3.17 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP at Wisconsin, then the Brewers’ low Class A club. Most importantly, he threw strikes, with 65 strikeouts versus 20 walks in 54 innings. By year’s end, Gillies was touching triple digits with his fastball.

But then, right around Halloween, there was a lump on his neck. In December, Gillies received a troubling diagnosis: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He remained optimistic, however, especially after doctors told him there was a 90 percent survival rate. Because the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 Minor League season, Gillies might not even miss any time in his development. He was even more buoyed when chemotherapy proved effective.

But in August 2020, a routine scan detected a menacing spot. Initially, there was some hope it was a false positive, but further testing revealed the grim reality that Gillies’ cancer was back. He spent the next three days in bed, despondent.

The prognosis for survival was significantly scarier now.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, this is a coin toss,’” Gillies said. “That’s pretty scary to think about when you’re 25 years old.”

Gillies said his physician at the London Regional Cancer Program, Dr. Joy Mengel, was “incredible” about keeping his spirits up. At the same time, the Brewers made sure Gillies remained connected to the organization, with boxes of team gear and check-ins from club officials.

Gillies viewed baseball as “the light at the end of the tunnel” as he endured another brutal round of treatments. There was more intense chemotherapy and a stem cell treatment on Jan. 5, 2021. With his immune system wiped out, he was confined for a time in a vacuum-sealed room to prevent exposure to COVID-19.

“It’s an unbelievable story,” said Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan. “I think about what we went through as a country, what everybody went through with COVID. But when you add up all of that, and then layer on top what he was dealing with, that puts it all in perspective for me. He had this ‘never give up’ attitude that really worked for him.”

Gillies’ last treatment was in June 2021 and he is currently cancer-free. He spent a month or two building strength before a moment of truth in late July or early August, playing catch for the first time, “just to see if I could still do this.”

It felt surprisingly right.

“After that day I thought, ‘OK, this still could be a thing for me,'” he said. “When you feel the seams on your fingers, you remember why you do it.”

That was the first of countless small moments that led Gillies to Saturday. A notable milestone came in early January, when he got on a synthetic mound at a facility in Ontario and pitched to a catcher for the first time. Then there was the first day last week when he pulled on a uniform. Now there are more to anticipate -- he is eager to face a hitter for the first time, and to pitch in a game once Minor League exhibitions begin March 19. His velocity is creeping up. He has resumed working on a curveball, a project he’d begun at the end of 2019.

The other day, a teammate approached Gillies.

“He said, ‘You know, every time I wake up feeling like crap, I think of you and it doesn’t seem so bad,'” Gillies said.

He broke into a laugh.

“It’s been pretty cool telling my story and having people react,” he said. “When I first finished [treatment], I kind of thought, 'I don’t want to talk about it, I want to leave it in the past.' But talking to other people in the hospital, you realize how much of a difference you can make sharing your experiences. It gives you hope that you can get back to normal life.”