Nearly 20 years ago, Chris Gies came this close to being named the Opening Night starter for his beloved Phillies.
In the present day, the 45-year-old Gies is still competing at the semi-pro level. The fact that it’s not under the bright lights of Citizens Bank Park is irrelevant; when baseball is in your blood, walking away is never easy.
Gies, who grew up down the street from Vogt Playground in Tacony, graduated from Father Judge in 1987, helping the Crusaders to Catholic League titles in his sophomore and senior campaigns. His success on the mound at Judge led him to Temple University. He was drafted in the 49th round of the 1989 Major League Baseball Draft by the Houston Astros, but opted not to sign with the team.
“When I got drafted, I honestly didn’t think I was ready for it,” Gies said during a Monday afternoon interview at Chickie’s & Pete’s in South Philadelphia. “I thought if I gave it another year, it would really start clicking for me.”
It did. Gies decided to take his talents far from Philly, ending up at Seminole State College in Oklahoma, a known “baseball factory” at the junior college level. Gies developed his best pitch, a changeup, at Seminole, and the team was ranked No. 1 in the country at one point.
Gies was drafted again in the 1990 MLB Draft, this time by the Texas Rangers in the 38th round. He had a strong inaugural season in Rookie Ball for his team in Butte, Montana, tossing five complete games in 14 starts. He bounced back and forth at the minor league level, getting as high as AA ball throughout parts of the 1991-93 seasons. He pitched fairly well and participated in spring training with the Rangers, but was ultimately released.
“They say that once you get drafted that all the prospects are the same, but that’s really not the case,” he said. “Guys like me that are drafted in the lower rounds have to work much harder. The guy who gets $500,000 will get a longer look than a guy they give $1,000 and a plane ticket to. When you’re a low-round pick and you struggle, the team doesn’t have as much money invested in you, so you have to take advantage right away and do your job.”
Gies struggled in his final go-round with the Rangers’ AA team in Tulsa in 1993, going 1-5 with a 5.02 ERA in 26 games (eight starts). After Texas released him, he said he got some calls from some independent league teams, but that it wasn’t for him.
“Double-A is kind of when I lost my feel for it,” he said. “That’s usually the level where you figure it out. If you get out of AA, you’ve got a shot to make it to the big leagues, but I couldn’t get over that hump.”
Gies’ first child, Jacqueline, was born in 1990, and he married his wife, Roseanne, in the fall of 1993. At that juncture in his life, “I had a family to raise, so I had to go out and find some work.”
But fate stepped in during the 1994 baseball season, when a player strike wiped out the rest of season from Aug. 12 onward, canceling the entire postseason, including the World Series. With no progress being made early in 1995, MLB approved the use of replacement players for spring training and the regular season if the strike was not resolved in time.
Gies figured that if it was something he was going to do, then why not try to latch on to his hometown team? He was invited to the Phillies’ spring training in Clearwater and pitched well; in six appearances — four starts — Gies went 1-1 with a 3.05 ERA, including firing a two-hitter against Texas, the team that had drafted and released him.
However, the strike was ultimately resolved in April, and the Phillies didn’t keep any of the fill-in players. Gies said he harbored no bitterness, saying that in the end, he had no delusions of grandeur of becoming a Phillie. Baseball was using the replacement players as a scare tactic, something that Gies understood.
“It wasn’t that shocking,” Gies said. “It was a great experience pitching for the team I grew up watching, and the coaches who were there, guys like Larry Bowa and John Vukovich, they were great. They never treated us any differently.”
After his successful spring training, Gies was slated to start the Phillies’ first game in St. Louis. They had sold 30,000 tickets to the game, and the opportunity of a lifetime was so close to reality.
“It was great to gear up for, but in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” Gies said. “I never went in thinking I was a Phillie. I just wanted to do well enough to get a minor league contract somewhere to try again. When you don’t get to where you want to be, it’s tough, no matter what you do.”
Gies’ big-league dreams never came to fruition, and he came back home to his family and friends, who were his biggest supporters throughout the process. He began a career with the postal service in 1997, a job he still works as a supervisor. Gies and his family — sons David, 18, and Ryan, 13, came after Jacqueline — settled in Mullica Hill, N.J.
Despite coming up short in the pros, Gies still to this day plays semi-pro ball in the summer; he’s played in the Perkiomen Twilight League and currently is part of the Pen-Del League for a team called LOMA. Aside from a gap between ages 41-43 when he sat out with an arm injury, Gies has played every summer.
Now, at 45, he’s still pitching for LOMA, mainly due to the fact that his oldest son, David, is also on the team. David and his younger brother are also baseball players, so Chris gets to pass down his knowledge and experience to his own children, something he said is a major thrill for him.
“It’s great to see David play and help him out,” Gies said. “I just want to give both of my sons as much knowledge as I can without coming off as overbearing or pushy. Maybe I can hang around for another four years until I can get Ryan on the team.”
Gies also said he enjoys helping younger teammates develop, including recent local grads like Bobby Romano (Archbishop Ryan) and Austin Mikula (Father Judge).
He loves the competition and camaraderie that baseball provides, and that he couldn’t imagine where his life would be today without the game he loves. Gies said he’ll know when it’s time to hang it up, be it due to injury or simply being unable to get anyone out. Either way, he’s thankful for the ride.
“When I was as young as 5 years old, it was the dream to play pro baseball,” Gies said. “It’s in my blood. You meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends, and if you’re lucky you get to a spot where a lot of others don’t. If I can still be successful and have my kids involved, I don’t see any reason to stop.
“When Jacqui was born the year I was drafted, she was my inspiration to be the best I could be. My wife has been by my side for 25 years, even when things weren’t glamourous. My mother and brother Michael, who both passed away in the last year, were my biggest supporters. All of that plus my sons are why I’m still playing. I’m a lot more sore in the morning, but you know what? I’ll be out there the next game we play.” ••