By the time the 2020 season finally started, 121 days after the originally-scheduled Opening Day as we were still in the midst of pandemic closures, it was just great to see baseball again. With emotions already running high, Rockies fans – and Texas Rangers fans – were treated to an extra dose of inspiration in the form of seeing Sam Hilliard’s family, centered around his dad, Jim, in attendance at Globe Life Field.
It was a big day for the Hilliard family as Jim, who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (also known as ALS) in early 2018 just after retiring from a 35-year career as an orthopedic surgeon, was able to watch his son play as the starting left fielder for the Rockies.
Little did the world know that at that time, Sam’s mom, Tamara, was already at work behind the scenes as an architect for MLB’s newest special day, Lou Gehrig Day, which will make its debut on June 2. The day is designed as a way to bring attention to and raise money for research for ALS, a progressive neurological disease that results in the death of nerve cells called motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, in addition to honoring the Yankee legend who died of the disease.
One month before that new July 24 Opening Day, Tamara was contacted by Nashville songwriter Bryan Wayne Galentine, who had been diagnosed with ALS in 2017. Knowing that the MLB already honored Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, Galentine figured Gehrig was also deserving a day that could help raise awareness for the devastating disease that has no cure and leaves those who are diagnosed with a prognosis of three to five years to live. He also knew Tamara had a son in the minor leagues at the time and could maybe help get the ball rolling. Having already started Team Hilliard, an organization to raise money for ALS Therapy Development Institute, Tamara joined the board for the Lou Gehrig Day committee.
“It’s such an awesome thing,” Sam Hilliard told MLB Network. “My mom is on the Lou Gehrig Day committee and she’s been working really hard. She pretty much spends all her time with that and helping my dad.”
It was slow going in gaining momentum, but, according to the Denver Post’s Patrick Saunders, “the Rockies were the first organization to get on board, in part because Jim Kellogg, the club’s vice president of community and retail operations, was all in. Kellogg’s mother died from ALS.” Even though Galentine passed away in October, he did learn before he died that his efforts would come to fruition in the 2021 season.
Sam also sat in on quite a few of the Zoom committee meetings to help with organizing and planning for the new annual celebration. Hilliard just made his MLB debut with the Rockies in 2019 and has since played in 63 games with 201 plate appearances. He is currently battling for the starting center fielder position for the Rockies in spring training, but he’ll also provide depth in left and right field for the Rockies this season.
While Hilliard was still paying his dues in the minors, he also had to decide how to help his family. It’s a lot for a young prospect to take on, but the 27-year-old faced the realization that he could do more, as he told MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince:
“It was uncomfortable and just a weird thing to talk about,” Hilliard said. “But I’ve realized recently that I do have this platform, and I would be doing a disservice to my father and others that are suffering if I didn’t help bring awareness to it. That’s what my dad wants, and I know what people are going through. So it’s the very least I can do.”
Fittingly, the Rockies will be hosting the Texas Rangers on June 2. Players, coaches, and managers will all be wearing special patches to commemorate the day, as well as wearing red wristbands that say “4-ALS,” a shoutout to the Iron Horse’s number. Each team and home park are expected to have additional ceremonies and features on the day and you can bet Team Hilliard, which has already helped to raise over $77,000 for ALS research, will be a part of it. Even though Jim is confined to his motorized wheelchair, having lost the use of his arms and legs and needing a forced-air ventilator to breathe, Sam is already thinking about what June 2 might be like.
“It’s a really awesome thing that he’s here to be able to see this happen and hopefully he can be there on the day on June 2 at the ballpark in Denver to see it take place for the first time,” Sam said. “I think it’s a really special moment and it’s great for the game of baseball.”
To learn more, check out the Team Hilliard webpage.
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After noting that the Rockies have not only had the worst production in all of baseball from first basemen in terms of WAR since 2010, but also are the only team that’s in the negative (-2.0) over the last decade, Nick Groke gives a rundown of the current battle to make first base great again for the Rockies.
After ending 2020 as the team’s hottest hitter, Josh Fuentes seemed to be the starter and he certainly prepped during the offseason for that role. He is the best defender of the group and, if he keeps hitting like last September and his 3-for-5 start this spring, he stands to have the highest batting average. One of those hits is a double, but if the Rockies are looking for power, specifically homers, and experience, they may go with C.J. Cron, who Groke believes is currently sitting atop the fluid depth chart. The starting role may depend on if Bud Black wants more power, or more defense and action on the bases. Black also indicated in press conferences on Thursday that he’s open to flexible rosters that favor the best matchups, the hottest bat, and having players that play multiple positions like how the Dodgers use Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger. Either way, first base is definitely an interesting competition to watch this spring.
Fun fact: Black and Andrés Galarraga were winter ball teammates when the former Rockies first baseman was a teenager in Venezuela.
It had been a long time, 661 days to be specific, since Brenden Rodgers went yard like he did with an opposite-fielder homer in a 9-9 tie against Seattle on Thursday. That drought included 2020 spring training and his short 7-game MLB stint and Rodgers injuries in 2019.
“It’s been a long time coming — definitely felt so good to get one on the board,” Rodgers told Thomas Harding.
Rodgers is now 2-for-7 in spring training with two RBI, two runs scored, and two walks.
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