WASHINGTON, Pennsylvania (Feb. 10) – The PONY International Headquarters staff was pleased to receive a visit from Tom Gillespie yesterday. In addition to serving as a full-time scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates in Europe and Africa, Gillespie is the Executive Director of Play Global, a registered non-profit organization whose mission it is to develop respect and teamwork through baseball all over the world.
After growing up in Lake Park, Iowa, which is a small town of just over 1,000 people, and playing five different high school sports, Gillespie chose to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and play baseball for the Scots. Then, after a year of graduate school at Ball State University, he moved to England as part of an exchange program in 2001, and he said “he hasn’t left since.” During his time spent at the University of Worcester, he set up a youth basketball program and began to help coach baseball on the weekends during the season.
He said the one paid baseball job in the country opened up and they offered it to him. Six to eight years later, the Oakland Athletics called him to ask about him becoming their European scout, since they didn’t have a foothold there. Later, he joined the Pirates full-time. Though Gillespie said he never imagined growing up that he’d ever become a scout, he has relished the opportunity because of where it has taken him.
“The thing I like best is getting to be around baseball every day and seeing a lot of the world through it,” said Gillespie. “It gives me a lot of opportunities to meet a lot of good people. It’s not always a glorious life style, but it is pretty fun to get to go to places that I may have never gone, and I try to take advantage of that every time I can.”
During his five years of scouting, Gillespie said he’s been able to see Japanese flame-throwing pitcher Shohei Otani when he was 17 years old. He believes Otani, in a short time, will be a household name to American baseball fans because of his 97 to 101 mile per hour fastball and wicked slider. Also, he’s been able to see Max Kepler, who recently broke into the big leagues and became a starter for the Minnesota Twins this year, as well as Pirates’ minor leaguers Gift Ngoepe (from South Africa) and Dovydas Neverauskas (from Lithuania). Besides the physical tools and on-field ability, Gillespie says it’s a scout’s job to get to know the player’s support system to find out how he handles the good and bad times.
“A lot of it is getting to know the player to know where the head and the heart is,” said Gillespie. “Understanding what drives them and the numbers give a good indication of what the player’s potential is, and one thing we take pride in is finding players that have the chance to reach that potential.”
Because his work takes him across two continents, half a world away, and because of the inspiration to develop a program for coach education and outreach in areas off the beaten path, Gillespie said he founded Play Global in 2012 with good friend and Hall of Fame coach in the California junior college system, Pat Doyle. It wasn’t until another good friend, Julia McCarthy, moved to Europe with her husband that the organization really got off the ground. McCarthy was able to use her non-profit administrative experience, and after setting up the constitution and legal structure, Play Global could really get going.
“A lot of the conversations over the past two or three years are about what we can do baseball-wise and where we can have the most impact and where the most bag for our buck can be. We can do more and more of the program side of it, and it’s starting to pay off all of the work it took to get the organization established.”
A photo from Gillespie's mission to Israel in 2015.
Among many places, through Play Global, Gillespie and his team have been to Israel, India, Kyrgyzstan, South Africa, Uganda, and they are planning even more trips in the coming months ahead. He said he’ll never forget his first mission to Uganda where he went on a four to six hour drive into rural areas where he saw baseball was growing and the people were excited about it, but there was no outside influence. He said he’ll never forget seeing cows walking across the field, but by the end of the first day, they had a group of 40 or so kids all wondering when he was going to be back. He was happy to know that someone would be back and they could provide equipment as well.
A photo from Gillespie's mission to Uganda in 2010 and 2015. Courtesy of Play-Global.org.
“A lot of times, it just takes that little spur to get people to come out of their house and try it for the first time,” said Gillespie. “Once they’ve tried it, if they realize that we can give them a good experience the first time, it gives the people that are leaving their blood, sweat and tears on the field and the ability to organize things themselves, it gives them that little push that can help with some recruiting.”
More photos from Gillespie's mission in Uganda in 2015 and 2014. Courtesy of Play-Global.org.
According to Gillespie, that same push gives people the motivation to organize and approach the government for funding, so then, in turn, they can gather more players. Through Play Global, Gillespie said he has witnessed some incredible sights, like Arab and Jewish children playing on the same team together in Israel or a coach in Kyrgyzstan bathing in a river every day because that was the only running water available. Overall, he believes there are genuinely kind people in the baseball community who will participate in an unlimited number of experiences in these types of remote areas and he hopes to find other coaches from areas like the United States, Canada and Europe who are motivated to join in the cause.
“As my day job, I’d love to have one of the kids in these programs become the next second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates,” said Gillespie. “But the idea, really, is just that they are a part of something. They are developing the ability to work within a team, understand others, to really see how sports, baseball-specific, can create these feelings of commitment and teamwork and how that can work in everyday life. And for the coaches, being able to say, ‘how do we develop leaders?’ For the players within a team, how do we develop leaders and how can those skills translate into the rest of their lives? Hopefully, in our little bit, we’re helping society.”
A photo from Play Global's mission to Kyrgyzstan in 2016 and just this month in India. Courtesy of Play-Global.org.
Gillespie said he appreciates and sees how PONY’s and Play Global’s missions to do what is best for the kids fall in line together. Additionally, he appreciates how PONY’s programs allow for kids to get seen playing together at one event, so college coaches can see them, or they make a connection to a high school coach who knows a college coach, or they make connections with scouts. This allows more players more opportunities to advance to the next level.
“That’s the very simple thing that it comes down to: kids first,” said Gillespie. “How do we provide the best opportunity for these kids, whether it’s an opportunity within baseball, or in general, to be surrounded by good people and get good instruction and have that strong leader? How are we getting into a situation where we’re creating that? That’s something PONY has done a great job of and staying focused on the kids. Along with Play Global, that’s what we’re trying to do too. How do we provide the best opportunity for kids. If we can keep our blinders on ad stay focused on that, then it’s pretty easy to find out what to do next.”