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Eric Stubben is a mechanical engineering sophomore and Mustang News conservative columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the opinion or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
A midseason baseball game in Baggett Stadium is always good for raw emotions and sparks flying. Thirteen years ago, those sparks caught fire.
After a violent home plate collision, both benches began to clear. Cal Poly’s captain and second baseman threw his glove down and sprinted to the opposing team’s dugout, ready to take on the entire team. His name was Kevin Tillman.
Tillman was in his second year as Cal Poly’s starting second baseman, after transferring from Arizona State. He certainly wasn’t the biggest guy on the team — listed at only 5-foot-10, 190 pounds — but he could play with the best of them. He led the team in hits, runs, RBIs and walks before being voted team MVP and Big West All-First Team after his senior season in 2001.
Following the 2001 baseball season, Tillman was selected in the MLB Draft in the 10th round by the Cleveland Indians. After passing up two previous opportunities to play professionally with the Anaheim Angels and Houston Astros, Tillman joined the Indians franchise. Shortly after graduating from Cal Poly with a philosophy degree, Tillman played his first season for the Indians Rookie League team, the Burlington Indians.
Tillman’s second season in the big leagues was much different from the first, however. After making his way up to a Double-A team, he played two games before quitting baseball forever. On May 31, 2002, Tillman left behind his dream of playing professional baseball and enlisted in the Army Rangers alongside his brother Pat, who famously left the NFL to join the Army Rangers.
Though Pat’s decision to leave the NFL has become more well-known over the years, the decision was mutual.
“It was an easy decision for him to do this,” said Terry Hardtke, the brothers’ high school football coach and hitting coach. “There was no question … It was one of those things where they talked it over and they wanted to have a larger purpose in life.”
The bond between Pat and Kevin Tillman could not be broken.
“They had a really special bond,” said former Cal Poly head baseball coach Rich Price as he recalled one specific weekend during Kevin’s senior year. “Pat came up to San Luis Obispo and spent the weekend, and he was hitting in the (batting) cages with (Kevin) before the game, and they were really tight.”
To many, including Price, it was no surprise when Kevin left baseball to be alongside Pat in the Army Rangers.
After the Tillmans joined the Army Rangers, their story became public. Both brothers completed basic training together before being assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion. However, on April 22, 2004, Pat was tragically killed by friendly fire while serving in Afghanistan.
Pat’s death came with the fame and publicity that one would expect from someone with his story. But with the fame and publicity came a firestorm of controversy. Initially described as “killed by enemy fire,” it was later revealed that Pat was killed by friendly fire.
Leading the charge for the truth was none other than Kevin Tillman. Kevin put pressure and blame on the government and media for using the death of his brother as propaganda to increase support for the Iraq War.
“We believe this narrative was intended to deceive the family, but more importantly to deceive the American public,” Kevin said.
Though his brother was dead, their bond was never more alive.
Though the Tillman brothers’ story is often told as just Pat’s story, Kevin’s story is one of a true American hero. Not only did he give up baseball — the game he loved — he gave up much of his future, too. With Kevin’s talent and work ethic, he had an opportunity to make it to the big leagues.
“I think he could’ve made the big leagues, I really do,” Hardtke said. “He had the tools to be able to do it.”
“I think if he would’ve grinded it through and spent four or five years in the minor leagues, I think most definitely he could have played in the big leagues,” he said.
Though there’s a lot of uncertainty when it comes to playing professional sports, there’s no doubt that Cal Poly was lucky to have Kevin Tillman.
“It was an absolute pleasure to coach that young man,” Price said. “He is without question one of the finest competitors I’ve ever been associated with in my 35 years of baseball.”
Kevin Tillman’s effort and the enthusiasm he put into the Cal Poly baseball was part of the ignition that brought the program to where it is today. His selflessness, patriotism and heart are heroic examples of why America continues to be a dominant force around the world. Kevin Tillman’s story needs to be told, as we live in the land of the free because of the brave heroes like him.