Tournaments | Story | 7/6/2016

Gilliland fights for future

Vincent Cervino        
Photo: Perfect Game

EMERSON, Ga. – If you scan the Texas Sundevils roster at the 2016 17u WWBA National Championship there’s one name that seems out of place. Not surprisingly, almost every single member of the Sundevils is indeed from Texas, except for one – righthander pitcher Ben Gilliland of Middletown, Conn. – and for reasons that span far past his geographic location, he’s incredibly fortunate to even be at this event, much less performing at a high level.

Diagnosed with Kawasaki’s disease at a young age, Gilliland has been fighting for his life since he was born. At age nine he was diagnosed with the rare heart disease and at the age of 11 he had a double bypass to repair artery damage in his heart.

The road has been long and tough for Gilliland but the toughest blow might have been dealt to him in November of last year. Gilliland was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and his cardiologist would not clear him to play baseball. He and his father, Mike, were referred to a cardiologist in Boston. Dr. Bill Stevenson performed a procedure called an ablation to attempt to remedy the irregular heartbeat.

“He had a little scar on his heart which was causing irregular heart rhythms,” said Mike Gilliland. “His cardiologist team is the best in the world. His primary cardiologist now is at Brigham & Women’s hospital in Boston, which is like the fourth or fifth best cardiac hospital in the country. His primary pediatric cardiologist was at Harvard and Boston Children’s and she was incredible too.

“He had a disease caused Kawasaki’s disease which is very, very rare. He had it when he was nine months old and it caused problems with the arteries in his heart and that’s why they did the double bypass to correct that. In November he had an irregular heart rhythm and that’s why his pediatric cardiologist said that he would not be approved to play baseball.”

Gilliland continued to train throughout the spring as he clung to the hope of playing baseball again. After numerous meetings with his cardiologist team, Gilliland was finally cleared to play baseball again in May of this year.

“I was just hanging on, obviously it was really hard,” said Gilliland. “I felt like if I persevered then I could make it through. Once I got the okay then I just hoped the health problems would cease and give me the opportunity to have a career. It’s happened really fast. It went from ‘you can’t play at all’ to ‘you can’t be able to play’ and then I finally got clearance. I kept training through the spring to stay ready in case I got the green light.”

Gilliland’s father gives all the credit to his son’s ability to persevere and overcome the hand he was dealt. His work ethic and toughness was evident throughout the entire process and his coaches and teammates took notice.

“This is all on him,” said Mike of his son. “It’s not like anyone told him to do it he just kept working hard. When we decided to put the pacemaker in, Ben’s focus was probably more on swimming. He was a very good swimmer. He would have gone to college for swimming.”

Ben Gilliland, who is from Connecticut, has had a heart condition since he was nine years old,” added Sundevils manager J.R. Barton. “He’s had a lot of ups and downs in his life, he’s had to fight for his life so he understands not taking each day for granted. He works hard and fights every day. He works harder than everyone on the team. For a guy to be in the situation he’s in now, he had a couple offers before this tournament, and he stepped out there on day one and sat 90-93 and now everyone in the country knows who Ben is.

“Everyone knows how much he wants to be great and he takes that onto the field with him every day. He’s grinding and busting every day.”

When the doctors initially told Gilliland and his family of the news, he was devastated. He was told that swimming was completely out of the question but there was a slim chance that he could return to baseball. Gilliland took the news and ran with it. He knew that if he worked hard and persevered that he would be able to return to baseball.

“It was rough when they told me I couldn’t swim,” said Gilliland. “When they told me there was a slight chance to play baseball that’s what I hung onto. I had already been through being totally denied swimming so that slim chance to play baseball was all I needed.”

Gilliland has had about four starts this season and has been impressive in almost all of them. Last Friday was his most dominant performance to date. He sat 89-91 and topped out at 93 with his fastball. He also added nine strikeouts over four innings. His dad was extremely proud of his son’s determination.

“The day after graduation he flew down to Texas to start working with his pitching coach where he joined the Sundevils,” said Mike Gilliland. “He pitched in tournaments in Houston and Waco and pitched well. Friday was the fourth game he pitched this year and it was really special. He struck out nine in four innings and topped out at 93.”

Given his background it almost seems irrelevant that the Sundevils went 2-4-1 in pool play, or that Gilliland provided 1 1/3 scoreless innings in their final game of the 17u WWBA National Championship on Wednesday. What is important is that Gilliland is healthy enough to enjoy some of the things in life he enjoys most, such as taking the mound.

The good news for Gilliland is that, for the time being, the worst is in the past. He has a clean bill of health, is surrounded by family and friends, and is finally playing baseball again. Gilliland is an inspiration to kids everywhere and shows that no matter what hand you are dealt that there is always a way to take the adversity and work hard to overcome all the obstacles in your way.

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