“He was my hero’’
On Lou Gehrig Day, Rockies outfielder Sam Hilliard will be thinking of his late father, Jim
By Jerry Crasnick
More than eight months after Jim Hilliard’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig’s Disease -- his youngest son is only now comfortable sharing the quiet interludes that defined and crystallized their relationship.
Some moments are accessible on Sam Hilliard’s cell phone. He has a photo of the two of them at the family’s home in Fort Worth, Texas, puffing cigars and holding glasses of bourbon in the latter stages of his dad’s illness. A favorite family video shows Jim Hilliard being interviewed by Rockies broadcaster Ryan Spilborghs during Sam’s debut in the Colorado outfield in 2019 and answering questions with his typical dry wit.
Other moments are seared into Sam Hilliard’s brain. When he was a teenager and aspiring pitcher, his father would come home from work, squat in the dirt and pluck fastballs out of the air with no catching equipment. And if the son ever had a question about sports, life or anything else, he would tap his father’s considerable intellect for the answer. “My dad was like my Google,’’ Sam says. “If I ever had a question, I could just ask him. That’s one of the things I really miss.’’
Today, as Major League Baseball celebrates Lou Gehrig Day, players, coaches and managers will wear a special patch on their uniforms and “4-ALS’’ logos will adorn ballparks around the game in an effort to raise money, expand awareness and ultimately find a cure for ALS.
The day hits close to home for some families. Oakland A’s outfielder Steven Piscotty will continue to draw strength from the example of his mother, Gretchen, who passed from ALS in 2018 at age 55. At Camden Yards, former major league pitcher Jim Poole will throw out the ceremonial first pitch and Matt Kurkjian, the brother of longtime ESPN personality Tim Kurkjian, will deliver the lineup card to home plate. Both Poole and Kurkjian are navigating the challenges of ALS with the support of loved ones and the baseball community.
Sam Hilliard, his mother, Tamara, brother Max, stepbrother Blake and their extended family will use the occasion to celebrate the courage and strength Jim Hilliard displayed during his nearly four-year ordeal with ALS. Sam will wear custom cleats in his dad’s honor, and he and his teammates will take batting practice in T-shirts emblazoned with the logo and website for Team Hilliard, the charitable foundation the family has formed in Jim’s memory.
“Our bond was really special,’’ Sam Hilliard says. “He was my hero and a guy I looked up to in every aspect of life. Anybody who knows me knows how I feel about my dad and how close we were. So if I can use this as a way to kind of shine a light on who my dad was as a person, that would be great.’’
June 2 was a seminal date in the life of Gehrig, the Baseball Hall of Famer who inspired a nation with his fight against ALS. He replaced Wally Pipp as the Yankees’ starting first baseman on June 2, 1925 on his way to 2,130 consecutive games played, and died from the disease on the same date in 1941 at age 37.
ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, afflicts more than 200,000 people worldwide and about 12,000-15,000 people in the U.S., according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people are diagnosed with the disease between age 55 and 75 and live from two to five years after symptoms develop.
Robert James “Jim’’ Hilliard, who died on Sept. 12, 2021 at age 68, was an athlete and a scholar. He played football at the University of Texas until injuries and a bout of mononucleosis prompted him to change course and follow an alternate path. He graduated from the UT medical school in 1979, did his residency in Galveston and spent 35 years as an orthopedic surgeon in Arlington.
He was a renaissance man, a tireless reader capable of passionate yet respectful discussions on politics, religion and philosophy. “A seeker of truth,’’ Tamara says. Jim Hilliard loved working in the garden, playing tennis, running marathons, mountain biking, hunting and cross country skiing. He was driven to help the underprivileged and never ceased to surprise people with his wide range of skills.
“He was an amazing chef,’’ Tamara says. “I mean, like a restaurant chef. He would come home every day in his scrubs from surgery or a full day of seeing patients and head right to the refrigerator and start pulling out stuff to cook, and we would have this gourmet meal. Everybody else was eating hot dogs and macaroni and cheese and we were having sauteed peppers and corn and chicken and steaks and that sort of thing. My kids were the best eating kids on the block.’’
In 2017, Jim had retired and immersed himself in golf when he noticed a weakness in his hands and a difficulty gripping and swinging the club. When tests confirmed an ALS diagnosis, the family gathered to confront reality and acknowledge the difficult days ahead.
“I remember him coming home with my mom, and from the look on their faces, I knew it wasn’t good,’’ Sam says. “I had never seen my dad cry. He was a very even-keeled guy who never showed much emotion. And he just broke down. Who wouldn’t? It’s essentially a death sentence, because there’s no cure as of right now. We had that moment where we cried together and had to figure out what to do next.’’
In August 2019, when Sam joined the Rockies from Triple-A Albuquerque, his parents caught a late flight to Denver and were in the Coors Field stands when he homered off Boston’s Josh Smith for his first big-league hit. Even in the final months of Jim Hilliard’s life, when he was confined to a wheelchair and reliant on eye gaze communication technology, he watched Rockies games, critiqued his son’s approach at the plate and offered constant guidance and support.
In early September 2021, Sam learned the end was near and flew home to say goodbye. A few days later, after he had rejoined the Rockies in Philadelphia, he received a call that Jim had passed. The Hilliards and Jim’s network of friends held a celebration of life in Texas that focused on his embrace of his Christian faith.
“It told the story about how my dad went from being a nonbeliever to a believer and became one of the smartest spiritual and logical people that anybody knew,’’ Sam says. “It was better than any Sunday morning church service I've ever been to, because it kind of had a message about coming to Christ. I just thought it was really powerful.’’
The Hilliards channeled their grief into change. Tamara Hilliard, a 1984 Miss Texas and Miss America runner-up, businesswoman and doer in the truest sense of the word, is the driving force. She was part of the LG4 Day committee that pushed for Major League Baseball to hold an annual Lou Gehrig Day and continue the momentum that began in 2014 with the Ice Bucket Challenge, a national campaign that raised awareness and spurred fundraising toward an ALS cure.
After helping to raise $300,000 for the ALS Therapy Development Institute near Boston, the Hilliards formed the Team Hilliard Foundation, a 5013C charity organization dedicated to supporting research, treatments and families coping with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The main event on the group’s 2022 calendar is a golf tournament at the Texas Rangers Golf Club on Oct. 31. It will revolve, naturally, around a baseball theme.
“It's an honor to be able to continue trying to make the world a better place for the families that have to face ALS,’’ Tamara says. “It impacts you forever. I'm happy that my family has rallied around me to say, ‘We want to continue. We’re not going to just close the door on this chapter and hide. We're going to step up and try to make a difference in this cause, because we know how devastating it can be in families.’ ’’
Which is precisely what Jim Hilliard would have wanted. On Lou Gehrig Day, a son, a mother and a baseball family will honor their patron with the requisite perspective and passion. They will continue to mourn Jim Hilliard’s loss, while celebrating the way he lived.