PRINCETON — Tom Gilles gave Princeton Youth Baseball and Softball League coaches a quick rundown of coaching tips to help make their ballplayers more successful.
The former big leaguer reviewed hitting tips, proper throwing form, and when it came to fielding, he said he teaches his players to be in proper fielding position every time, ready to go one way or the other. He said to be sure to keep their gloves ready, about knee high.
Then he turned to his sister, Tonya (Gilles) Koch, a former college All-American on the softball diamond, who has taught softball pitching for 29 years, and asked if she had anything further to add.
Like any little sister usually does ... she did. Matter of fact, she said she teaches her softball girls to keep their gloves on the ground, “dirty gloves,” as she calls it.
Some sibling rivalries never die, no matter how old they are.
“It’s not unusual,” Gilles said, with a smile behind his sunglasses, of their differences of opinion.
And who was right?
“I am,” he said.
“Me,” Koch said laughing, “for softball, but he was right for baseball.”
But they both agreed on one thing — it helps to learn how to play the game properly. On Saturday they worked three hours instructing aspiring Princeton players on the finer points of the game. Gilles had 40 boys on the baseball diamond, and Koch had 25 girls on the softball field.
The Gilles grew up in Kickapoo, a small town west of Peoria. You might say they were born into baseball. Their dad, Tom, built four different pitching mounds for each of the kids — Tom and his brother, Mark, who played AA ball for the Indians, and the girls, Tonya and Brenda, both All-Americans in college.
“That’s pretty much how we got started getting interested in pitching. I was also interested in playing a position. I liked playing more every day,” Tom said.
“My dad bought us equipment and we caught each other,” said Koch, 47, the oldest. “And my brothers did not like when I threw over their head, because we didn’t have a fence in our yard. They weren’t real happy about that.”
Koch said their father would line them up for a game of pepper and made them all more fundamentally strong. She said her sister could hang with all of them and had an “arm like a man.”
The Gilleses said they never could have made it without their parents, Tom and Norma.
“They were from a middle class family and always had a glove for us and the ride to wherever we needed,” Tom said of his parents
Tom Gilles was drafted in 1984 as a third baseman by the New York Yankees. He played extended spring training and went to play for future Yankees manager Buck Showalter, in Yankees system. His release in 1986 by became the start of a rollercoaster ride. He moved to the pitching mound and was signed and released by both the Royals and Twins, reaching AA ball in 1988.
He then joined his fourth organization when the Blue Jays purchased his contract over the winter of 1988. He returned to AA ball in 1989, and moved up to AAA with the Blue Jays.
‘Cup of coffee’
Then, he got his big break in 1990. Called to the show by the big league team in Toronto, he made his big league debut on June 7, at the Sky Dome, against Minnesota. He pitched the ninth inning of a 10-3 Toronto win in relief of Todd Stottlemyre, allowing hits to the first two batters he faced, Brian Harper and Fred Manrique (a double). He retired the next three with only one run scored.
“First night, got to pitch in front of 50,000 people. That was nice,” he said of the spacious Sky Dome.
A day later, he came on in relief at Milwaukee, retiring the Brewers Glen Braggs on a comeback, for the last out of the seventh inning. It was the only man he would face, but he earned the win when the Blue Jays scored four runs in the eighth and three in the ninth.
It would also be the last man he would face in the big leagues.
Blue Jays star George Bell hurt his thumb. He could still hit, but couldn’t play the field, so the Blue Jays signed outfielder Kenny Williams, now the White Sox general manager, and sent Gilles back to the minors.
“They had to get Kenny Williams as an outfielder on waivers and sent me down. It was just bad timing,” Gilles said.
He had more arm problems and played some independent ball, but never got to the big leagues again. He had to be satisfied with what they call in the game a “cup of coffee.”
“I was blessed to make it in the big leagues,” he said. “However, in my heart, I could have pitched eight or 10 years. Then again, they didn’t have to bring me up either. It is what it is. I did all I could. I went a long way. I was released three times before I ever made it, and was told many times to do something else. I never gave up. If you believe in yourself and got good ability, you can do it.”
And the fact he played in the major leagues is something no one can ever take away from him.
“I’ve got a major league card. Not many people can say that,” said wearing a Blue Jays cap and jersey. “You get that status. Once you’re a major leaguer, you’re always a major leaguer. They don’t care if you’re there a day or 10 years. You wore that uniform.”
Gilles leases a building in Pekin where he runs two batting cages and provides nearly year-round instruction. He takes the month of November off to go hunting. Princeton’s Brik Wedekind has been an on-and-off student of Gilles, over the years.
Koch teaches pitching there and also travels to give lessons to local teams in the Peoria area. Even though she said her brother teases her all the way, she said they compliment each other because she will send some girls his way for further instruction on throwing and hitting.
She tells coaches and her girls to be patient, because softball pitchers aren’t made overnight. They must learn to throw fast first, and the control will eventually come.
“Pitchers are made in the backyard,” she said.
Koch went to nearby Illinois Central College in East Peoria, where she was tutored by Hall of Fame coach Lorraine Ramsey. Two years later, she had offers from 24 Division I schools and chose to pitch for another ace pitching coach in Margie Wright at Illinois State.
She continued pitching competitively, once stymieing the Pan-Am team with her tantalizing change-up, and pitched eight years for the Pekin Lettes. She now concentrates on teaching the art of pitching, including her 12-year-old daughter.
Her brother may have pitched in the major leagues, but Koch has one up on him — she pitched in Hollywood.
She was an extra player in “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 movie portraying the All-American Girls’ Baseball League of the 1940s, during World War II. Koch was the pitcher in the first minutes of the movie who pitched to Geena Davis.
Davis, aka Dottie Hinson, got this big hit to win a game off Koch, which superscout Ernie Capadino (Jon Livitz) witnessed. He then wanted to sign Hinson to play in the new All-American Girls’ Baseball League
“If you missed the first five minutes, you missed me,” Koch said.
Koch said there were more than 400 women and girls there to audition for the movie. They all had to show their baseball skills, not softball, and Koch found throwing across the diamond overhand from short to first was really far.
She was called back a year later by Columbia Pictures for a second audition, and by that time she was two months pregnant. She was cleared to pitch by her daughter, but didn’t tell any of the producers she was pregnant. Although she didn’t make the baseball team, director Penny Marshall, picked her to play the role of the underhand pitcher to Geena Davis.
Geena Davis is portrayed to be this athletic player, but in reality, Koch said she couldn’t hit a lick. Koch said that scene of Davis hitting the ball off of her is all edited, showing her pitching, Davis hitting, and the ball going out on a fly.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would ever happen,” she said. “It was a fluky thing. I’ve never acted, but I do sing.”
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