Hilliard and family turn tragedy into action to fight ALS

After his father died, outfielder's mother helped bring about Lou Gehrig Day in MLB

June 2nd, 2023

This Lou Gehrig Day feature story originally appeared on June 3, 2022, while Sam Hilliard was with the Colorado Rockies. The outfielder was traded to the Braves last November.

DENVER -- Last fall was not an ending for Tamara Hilliard, nor was it for her son, Rockies outfielder Sam Hilliard, and the rest of the family. The need to spur research toward a cure for ALS, which took Dr. Jim Hilliard last Sept. 12 after a four-year fight, and join with an entire community touched by ALS led the Hilliards to continue their efforts to wipe out the disease.

Friday marks Lou Gehrig Day across MLB, with all teams taking time to acknowledge and continue fundraising efforts. Tamara Hilliard, in fact, joined many in and outside the baseball community in helping bring the day to fruition in 2021 as the beginning of an annual event.

During the drive from her Texas home to Denver for last season's festivities, she took time to consider where she draws the energy for such an effort amid the heartbreak that ALS can bring.

“I don’t know. … God gifted me. … I have no idea,” she said. “You have to lean on others who are walking the same walk you are. Together, you can move forward.”

When Jim Hilliard, a longtime orthopedic and sports medicine surgeon, was diagnosed, Sam was a young prospect who was admittedly reticent about even discussing a disease he knew little about. But his mother, a one-time Miss Texas, commercial actor and singer, formed Team Hilliard ALS to raise funding for research. Very quickly, the Hilliards learned they were not alone.

Tamara Hilliard discussed how that community -- one no one on earth would sign up for, but one they won’t hesitate to help -- was instrumental in bringing about Lou Gehrig Day.

A songwriter, a baseball fan, and an inspiration

Tamara Hilliard was gung-ho from the start, and even Sam began speaking publicly during the 2019 season, when he made his Major League debut. And the community embraced them. The baseball community -- forever linked with ALS through the story of the “Iron Horse” himself, Gehrig -- was touched by the disease when it affected and later claimed Gretchen Piscotty, mother of Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty.

Watching this was Bryan Wayne Galentine, a Nashville songwriter who penned multiple hits such as, “What if She’s an Angel” by Tommy Shane Steiner, and worked for Big & Rich, Chris Cagle, Clay Walker, Rodney Carrington and Jason Blaine. Galentine was fighting his own ALS battle, and wanted to see how he could help the baseball community.

Tamara Hilliard and Galentine met through a mutual friend.

“We began communicating,” she said. “Sam was in the Minor Leagues at the time. We tried to meet up when Jim and I were in Nashville to watch him play. We never did get together, but because of our love of baseball, we had a call group of people who have a passion for baseball, a passion for ALS caregivers, and we’re trying to move the meter, move the ball forward trying to increase the ability for these research companies and institutes to research and try to find a cure.”

The effort grows

The effort to put on Lou Gehrig Day grew from there. Tamara Hilliard said one of the key driving forces was Adam Wilson, a Reds fan who is battling the disease.

“He would email -- and this man is full-on ALS,” she said. “He communicates by eye gaze, the way Jim did his last few months. He’s the one that built the web page. He puts all the spreadsheets together that everyone works off of.”

Now the group needed contacts in baseball. Tamara Hilliard and Michael Piscotty, Stephen’s father, already were inside.

“I'm really proud to say that the Rockies were the very first team who gave permission to our committee to use the logo of the Rockies and their full support -- from [owner] Dick Monfort to Jeff Bridich [general manager at the time], Bud Black,” Tamara Hilliard said. “Many of the players, because of Sam, put their names out there.”

D-backs president Derrick Hall spurred momentum by writing a letter to all teams asking their support.

The plan was to make a presentation to MLB in January 2020. Sadly, Galentine passed away in December of '19. But the committee held on to Galentine’s passion. Steve Haverstroh and his brother, Tom, an ESPN employee at the time, were among those who went to MLB, which signed off on the idea. The Haverstrohs came up with the ALS Pepper Challenge after their mother was diagnosed with the disease.

The pandemic season of 2020 delayed the day a year.

MLB began observing the day in 2021. One of the highlights was Wilson, who didn’t have the ability to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at the Reds’ game that day, taught his 11-year-old daughter, Avery.

On Thursday, Sam Hilliard was in a Rockies uniform for the first time on Lou Gehrig Day. He was playing at Triple-A Albuquerque when last year’s day was commemorated.

“There’s a lot of emotions,” Hilliard said at Coors Field on Thursday, before the pregame ceremony. “First of all, I wish my dad was here to see it and take part in this day. Also, we’re proud of this day that we helped to put together. The Rockies were the first team out of all 30 teams to back the support of this day, so we kind of helped get the ball rolling.

“And my mom worked her butt off to get this thing going.”

The Hilliards are keeping their own efforts going

After Jim Hilliard passed, family members met over the holidays to figure out how to go forward. Since then, they’ve make Team Hilliard a full-fledged 501c3 foundation. The Hilliards will hold a golf tournament at the Texas Rangers Golf Course in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 31. Team Hilliard raised funds for ALS Therapy Development Institute in the past and will continue to do so, but will spread contributions to other organizations, as well.

“I’m glad to have this opportunity to keep pushing it forward,” Tamara Hilliard said. “It’s great for my boys and our family to have something positive.

“We’re all going to lose our loved ones in myriad ways. It could be cancer. It could be catastrophic events or diabetes -- all kinds of illnesses are out there. But if you can take your suffering and your struggle and make something positive out of it, everyone feels better.”