In looking back through franchise history, I have no doubt that the Erik Bedard-for-Adam Jones trade will be looked at as the turning point in this era. However, I think we often forget that there were other players involved in that trade, namely Chris Tillman. Of course, at the time of the trade, Tillman was only a prospect, and he was immediately inserted into the Orioles’ minor league system. I attended his major league debut in July 2009, and I can’t say that I wasn’t impressed.
If you read my Birds Watcher column, you’ve probably noticed I like that Tillman Island term. It’s a play on Tilghman Island, of course; call it my own attempt at a Chris Berman-like nickname as seen on ESPN over the years. However, things weren’t always rosy for Tillman, and at various points, many people wondered if he had run his course. Through the first three years or so of his big league career, Tillman was on the Norfolk shuttle so many times that John Farrell argued that he should cease to be Orioles property. (Small joke playing on Farrell’s antics arguing with umpires this weekend.) The instability in the organization at that time added to Tillman’s struggles as well, a trend that even extended to the first part of Buck Showalter’s tenure.
What seemed to turn it around for Tillman was the addition of director of pitching development Rick Peterson last year. There was no looking back for Tillman once he was called up to the big leagues last July. While many fans will recall that he was optioned back to the minors immediately following that July 4 game, that was designed to keep him on schedule during the 2012 All-Star break. He rejoined the team following the break, and hasn’t seen the minors since.
Tillman has a lot to be proud of today as a major league pitcher. Furthermore, Orioles fans have a lot of reasons to be proud of Tillman. This is a guy who struggled - and struggled mightily - for several years and at times seemed lost. Obviously, I’m not privy to Tillman’s work regiment or conversations with Peterson, but the fact is that he no longer resembles the pitcher with control issues that he was early in his tenure with the O’s.
I see Tillman as a classic Baltimore story. I’ve said before that the whole concept of not giving up or playing until the last out is a pretty Baltimorean idea in itself. After all, this is the city that withstood hours upon hours of British bombardment during the war of 1812, yet at the end our flag still flew a Fort McHenry. To draw another parallel, Rocky Balboa said something to the effect that it’s not how many blows you give, it’s how many you can take and continually bounce back from. That’s Tillman, and that’s the Orioles over the past 15 years or so.
I think that young fans (and old for that matter) can probably learn a lot from the Tillman story. The results to this point would dictate that Tillman never made the dangerous transition between struggling mightily and giving up or simply going through the motions. As much as we hear about the Orioles clubhouse being so close and being all about the team, Tillman’s attitude is probably one of the paramount sources of this sentiment. And for sure, when you know that you’ve worked hard at something and eventually succeeded it’s easy to have a good attitude.
Many Orioles fans have waited for the bottom to fall out on Tillman, however at 13-3 on the season I’m not sure that’s going to happen anytime soon. The last time the Orioles had a 20-game winner was 1984, when Mike Boddicker did it. Tillman might have a shot at 20 this year. While he wasn’t drafted by the Birds and thus truly a homegrown prospect, Tillman is a tribute to how the organization re-dedicated itself to developing pitching.
However more importantly, the real story behind Tillman is to never give up. It’s something that Orioles fans have heard for quite some time, and for my money he’s one of the personifications of that attitude on the field. Tillman wanted to be a big league pitcher, and despite numerous setbacks he stuck with it. And look at him now, pitching like an ace on Tillman Island.
With that said, welcome to Tillman Island, Md., whose population is growing with each start.
Domenic Vadala blogs about the Orioles at Birds Watcher, and his opinions appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.