Ex-Jacksonville baseball hero now living in a tent

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – “It’s not like they put a sign out there, ‘This is where Rusty Tillman’s ball landed.'”

The ex-slugger is playing down his glory days from a bench in the away dugout at Fletcher High School.

But Kerry Jerome “Rusty” Tillman is basking in not-so-secret pleasure as an old schoolmate is doing his best to resurrect one day in particular.

It was a Senators home game, must have been 1977, Fletcher Athletic Director Joe Reynolds remembers.

A slender 17-year-old in a white-and-purple uniform stepped up to the plate. Then with a crack of wood on stitched leather, Tillman ripped a moon shot.

Fans at the Neptune Beach school swarmed the fence to watch the rocket rise up, up and over the outfield wall. Reynolds was coaching on the track and sent one of his runners after the baseball. He says no one has smashed one so far since.

“I remember where I was when President Kennedy was killed,” Reynolds says. “… I remember when he hit that baseball.”

The story means the world to Tillman, now 48. Now homeless. He is desperate to cling to the things that are good in his life. Even if he has to flash back 30 years to find them.

Those were the days when Chuck Fisette, a lefty who threw 94-mph “smoke” for the Senators, said pitchers cringed when Tillman came up to bat.

“You knew he was going to hit it out of the park. You just didn’t know how far or in what direction,” said the now-veteran Jacksonville corrections officer.

By the time Tillman graduated, he’d turned down a Cincinnati Reds offer. But nobody knew how far Tillman would go. Or later, after his 1979 selection by the New York Mets and time on two other major league teams, how far he would fall.

Or the kind of secrets he was keeping. Most people still don’t know.

Because while Reynolds and Tillman were reminiscing in the dugout that July morning, Reynolds had no idea that Tillman was living in a tent in the woods a few miles away.

He had no idea that Tillman had been a visitor at Fisette’s workplace in recent years, or that he was selling his blood plasma to buy his only luxuries: cell phone minutes, Copenhagen snuff and Sonic banana smoothies.

Sometimes Tillman also splurged on bug spray. It saved his skin from the bloodsuckers that left itchy reminders he had an address marked only by the tags surveyors left on trees.

Somebody’s watchdogs tattle on Tillman as he sneaks through a hole in the fence behind Mayport apartments.

But the intruder doesn’t hesitate. He rolls his bicycle into knee-high weeds, away from manicured lawns, away from painted parking spots and dead-bolted doors, away from everything else there is for anybody to protect. When the animals sense it, the barking stops.

At 6 feet tall and about 200 pounds, it’s mostly the creatures that slither in the grass that worry Tillman in the woods. The muscles that served him in pro ball – a bulk strangely still there – won’t help with a snakebite.

He carries a flashlight at night to spot snakes and zips the opening of his gray tent to keep them out. A blue tarp on top of that tent was all the protection Tillman had during Tropical Storm Fay in August. He stayed put even after two trees crashed onto the tents of homeless friends who left.

“Living out here, I have learned a lot,” he says. “I never thought I’d be here. I guess once I get back, I’ll learn to appreciate what I had.”

Tillman calls the maroon mountain bike that a pastor gave him – after a promise he wasn’t on drugs – his “Escalade.” He says he’s been clean at least three months.

Tillman parks the bike in front of the camp he calls “Tillman Country Club.”

His belongings include blankets, a radio and a battery-operated unit that delivers shock therapy to his sports-worn knees. He sleeps next to a saw blade and a kitchen knife for protection.

Tillman also has a portable TV. He powers it with a car battery that needs a recharge every four days. He has nothing left from his baseball days. No player cards. No uniform caps. No money.

Tillman is a man whose family wants to help – begs to help. He is a man with smarts, with guts, with pride – yes, plenty of that. It is the piston that drives him to believe that after his journey, as he says, “from the penthouse to the craphouse,” he will get his life together without charity.

He knows there is a prize waiting for him when he does. Her name is Sarah Tillman. She turned 2 last month.

Nearly every evening, Tillman pedals from his camp to her mother’s home in the posh Selva Marina section of Atlantic Beach. Then the father tucks the toddler into bed and slips back into the woods.

“I’ll probably die from worrying someday,” Tillman says by his tent on the kind of summer afternoon that demands air conditioning and cool drinks. “I think what keeps me going now is seeing my daughter graduate from high school.”

If Tillman makes it to Sarah’s elementary school days, he says there will be another reward too: a Major League Baseball pension of about $35,000 a year.

Kate Weatherby, Sarah’s mother and Tillman’s ex-girlfriend, says there’s nothing she can do to help him in the meantime. “He knows what he needs to do to get things in order. It’s making the choice to do that,” she says.

But how does a hometown hero who rises to a champagne life skid to the streets?

There were fast times and women, divorces and drugs, is how Tillman tells it. Then there were secrets about the drugs, some Tillman said never should have come out.

Even after he bottomed out, Tillman said he never sold out his baseball family to make a buck. Instead, he accepted it as his short-lived fame slipped away with his modest fortune. Instead, he fumed as he watched ex-Oakland Athletics teammate Jose Canseco rake in attention and money with two books about baseball’s steroids scandal.

Tillman said four teammates, including Canseco, bought and used the steroids Tillman smuggled from Mexico when he played for the A’s. It was 1986, a year after the Mets traded Tillman and he ended up in Oakland.

Once his steroids confession starts spilling out, Tillman makes it clear he’s not naming names like Canseco did. Tillman sees himself as a backup outfielder who knew how to take one for the team.

“The code is whatever you do, you’re on your own. I’m not going to take you down with me. I didn’t get the time that these guys got. But I was one of the lucky ones who got to be around these guys. And I kept my mouth shut.”

Canseco didn’t mention Tillman in his two books and didn’t respond to interview requests through his attorney, Gregory Emerson. In his 2008 book Vindicated, Canseco describes getting his first steroids in 1984 from a weightlifter friend from high school.

“I was his first in major leagues,” Tillman says. “… I’m the one who started bringing it from Mexico.”

Tillman said he got the steroids when he’d make extra money playing in a Mexican pro league in the offseason. He started using them after a torn rotator cuff sidelined him. He’d already suffered through a wrist injury, getting so many cortisone shots that his black skin turned white around the injection site. Tillman also had multiple knee surgeries.

The steroids were cheap and easy to buy at Mexican pharmacies. And they got results.

When Tillman took charter flights back to America, he said no one would check a pro ball player’s bags. When his steroids supply ran low, someone he trusted crossed the border and brought him more. The person he named refused to do a Times-Union interview.

“It wasn’t that I was trying to make money on this,” Tillman explains of the 30 to 40 boxes he said he sold for $400 or $500 each. “It was for the family.”

He took a shot a week, something to give him an edge so he was ready to come off the bench.

“A lot of people think it’s cheating, but if you don’t go out there and perform, they’re going to say you’re a bum.”

In March 1987, the A’s
released Tillman after 11 months and 22 games. His best highlight came off a pitch from Hall of Fame lefty Steve Carlton that he hit out of the park in a game against the White Sox on Sept. 23, 1986.

By 1988, Tillman was with the San Francisco Giants, when he hit his second and last home run in the majors. After that, he went back to the minors and was expecting another call-up after a hitting streak. But the call never came.

While Tillman said no one ever caught him, accused him or arrested him for steroids, he suspects the game blackballed him for it.

“Word might have gotten around that the real Juiceman was here,” he said.

In the 1990s, Tillman went back to Mexico, helping lead his team in Tabasco to a 1993 championship. In all, he had played 38 games in the majors, 11 seasons in the minors and about six seasons abroad. Tillman says he made maybe a half-million dollars in all and has no regrets about steroids or anything else.

“There’s a dark side of all of sports. What I done is what I done.”

In early August, Tillman got a job in the kitchen of a seafood place in Jacksonville Beach. After more than a year on the streets, there was joy in his voice as he prepared for his first shift.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “I mean, I’m blessed for what I got.”

Hugh Palmer, a social worker at the mission where the ex-athlete eats and showers, said Tillman doesn’t talk about his past. He said Tillman has an unusual mix of humility and confidence that makes him stand out among his peers.

“To see a homeless person that’s kind of larger than life, that just goes back to homelessness can happen to anyone,” Palmer said.

Tillman has plenty of job experience outside of baseball. He’s had a few jobs in food service, including cooking for the Jaguars at their downtown stadium last season.

In the late 1990s, he worked as a heavy equipment operator in Jacksonville. At the time, he was married to his second wife, Alycia Tillman. The 34-year-old divorcee called her ex-husband, who also has two grown sons from prior relationships, a good provider who worked a second job at Krystal to make extra money.

The two of them went to work renovating his grandmother’s home on the block he grew up on in Atlantic Beach, after marrying in 1999. It was a few doors from the home where Tillman’s late father, a Jacksonville Beach city mechanic, and late mother, a school custodian, raised him, his three brothers and his sister.

But Alycia Tillman said her husband started indulging a drug addiction when the two moved back to his hometown. Tillman said he had his own reasons for their split.

When a judge granted the uncontested divorce in 2003, a copy of the order he mailed to Tillman came back marked like this: “Tillman moved. Left no address. Unable to forward. Return to sender.”

In September, Alycia Tillman said she was shocked to hear that her ex was living in the woods.

“If I’d known he was in that situation, he could have come to me. If it’s not Kerry’s way,” she said, using Tillman’s given name, “he just won’t do it. If he can’t get it, he doesn’t feel he needs it.”

After a few weeks of restaurant night shifts this summer, Tillman decided he’d rather see Sarah. He was missing those nightly tuck-ins. But a lucky break was coming his way this time.

A former Fletcher schoolmate with a plumbing company agreed to hire him. Tillman had been riding his bicycle past Brian Christy’s business for months, promising to learn quickly if he took a chance on him.

A month ago, Tillman got his call-up.

“Rusty knows what having a lot of money in his pocket is about and he also knows what not having any is about,” Christy said. “A guy like that, you’re not going to beat him down. It’s his decision if he’s going to get back on top of his game.”

After work on Sept. 19, Tillman planned to meet Sarah and her mother at Fletcher High School. The three of them were going to dinner to celebrate the toddler’s birthday.

Before that, Fletcher baseball coach Kevin Brown spotted his former classmate on the diamond. He told Tillman he was thrilled to see him at school, that he should come back and teach the boys how to really hit.

Then the coach found a couple of bats. For the first time in years, Tillman stepped onto the field and took a swing.

“Oh man, this brings back memories for real,” Tillman said. “Oh yeah, I could see myself hitting some. I’d miss a whole bunch. But I’d hit some.”