By David Meade
Retired Major League Baseball player Rusty Tillman, who played for the Oakland Athletics and New York Mets, recently relocated to the Williamston area where he plans to teach aspiring baseball players how to play the game, on a higher level.
Tillman is a former right-handed MLB player who was drafted while still in high school and then again in his first semester of college. He began his professional career when ee was drafted by the Mets in 1979.
He grew up on the streets of Jacksonville and started playing baseball in the neighborhood when he was very young. “I found out there were people who cared about the kids in the streets.”
Though he didn’t really love the game, he found out he had the talent to play. “I found out I was pretty good at it,” he said.
Tillman played in the city leagues around town and then in high school, where he was all conference.
His senior year in high school he was drafted by the Cinicinnati Reds. He didn’t sign a contract because he wanted to pay off his parents home, and the amount the ball club was offering wouldn’t accomplish that.
So he went on to college and during his first semester, was again drafted. This time by the Mets.
Looking back he said, “I found out it was an honor which I didn’t recognize at the time.”
Tillman said he had the opportunity to work with some of the best trainers, people like Dusty Baker, Bob Watson, Joe Rudy, Rusty Stobbs and George Foster.
One of his most memorable experiences was having the opportunity to work out with baseball legend Willie Mays.
The first summer after being drafted was spent working out in the instructional league with other guys straight out of the draft. In 1979 he moved into the Rookie League and “did really well” playing in Little Falls, N.Y., and then Grace Harbor, Washington, moving through the systems from A ball to AAA.
While in Washington state, he played ball with major league manager Dave Johnson.
Tillman moved into AAA ball playing in Norfolk with teammates including Dwight Gooden, Darrell Strawberry and Tom Gardenhire.
He played right and left outfield and pinch hitting was his specialty.
“When you are playing behind some of the players I played with, you are just there,” he said. “I came in when someone was hurt or needed a pinch hitter.”
During his career, Tillman played 16 years of professional baseball in the states, four of which were in the major leagues. He also played in foreign countries including the Dominican Republic and Mexico, where he played in the Mexican World Series.
But, as many professional and college players find out, injuries can take a toll, in Tillman’s case, leg and knee injuries.
After retiring from the game, he moved back to Florida and started a hitting school for young players in the Jacksonville area. Tillman said there were a lot of great players there, including a young Brett Butler.
Tillman said he decided to relocate to South Carolina, to spend time with a son who lives here in Williamston. He also heard there was a lot of interest in baseball in the upstate.
“I had a good school in Florida,” he said. “But it was time to move on, to see if I can help kids here in the upstate of South Carolina.”
“In this area, they love baseball he said. “I take my hat off to the coaches who teach the kids. I am not rying to change that, but to try to take them to a different level,” by working on the fundamentals of the game.
“I can take a lot of pressure off the coaches,” he said. “Some players need extra attention. I have seen a lot of talent go to waste becasue they didn’t spend that extra time.”
“I have the knowledge and the best thing I can do is to spread it to the kids when I live here.”
Tillman said his sessions feature working one on one or one on two with players and having good workouts. “There is a right way of doing everything.”
Tillman said he is offering experience and advance knowledge, from hitting and fielding instruction to insight into the game as a former professional.
“I want to teach kids the right way,” he said. “Teaching kids at an early age makes all the difference. From high school to college, alot don’t make it.”
He said he also teaches his students how to handle certain situations.
As a young ballplayer, Tillman said traveling all over the US was “kind of hard for somebody who had not been away from home. I learned a lot from mentors.”
One thing he learned was to give back.
Young kids have idols and one thing many of his teammates, like Chipper Jones and others did, was “alot of charity work. Going to schools and talking with kids.”
His advice to those young players; “Get an education, play sports and stay active.”
His instruction covers the game of baseball in general, and fundamentals, such as fielding, throwing motions and hitting, “at a higher level.”
Sessions with Tillman are about one hour and are offered Monday through Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
He usually works with groups of up to six kids, and will work with players ages four years up to 25.
“I am glad to be in South Carolina,” he said. “I hope parents and kids will take advantage of the knowledge I have to give to them. See you at the ballpark!”
For more information on training sessions with Tillman, call 904-554-2446.