The words Division III and Minor League Baseball do not typically belong in the same sentence. The name A.J. Gill and MiLB player do not belong in the same sentence. Well, so he thought after he was cut from his junior varsity baseball team in Clay Hill, Florida. Little did he know, at just 14 years old, not making the junior varsity baseball team would place a chip on his shoulder that he would carry into college and now into the Chicago White Sox organization.
“That’s when the grind started for me,” Gill said. “Instead of feeling sorry for myself after being cut from the J.V. team, I decided to play travel ball at Next Level Academy to try and develop into a better ball player.” That’s also where he met Sean Stevens, a man who would help shape his baseball career.
Playing at Aurora University at the time, Stevens coached Gill during his off time throughout the summer, helping him get better in all facets of the game. After a year of vigorous training to prove that he belongs on the Middleburg High School baseball team, Gill tried out and earned a spot on the varsity roster.
After having a successful three years on the diamond for Middleburg, Gill started to think about playing at the collegiate level. Unfortunately, collegiate teams were not thinking the same as the Floridian.
Refusing to accept that he didn’t belong at the next level, Gill leaned on his high school coach to help get an offer from Blackburn College, a Division III school in Carlinville, Illinois. After batting .272 with one homer and 18 RBI in his freshman season, Gill decided to transfer. “I did the same thing every day,” he said. “I would just go into the weight room every day, grind it out, go to the cage, go to work, and go to class. It felt miserable but it was an opportunity and I saw it as that.”
Although Blackburn was his opportunity at playing baseball at a higher level and he knew DIII baseball would be a grind, Gill figured there had to be a better fit somewhere else out there.
The Blackburn College head coach did not take to Gill transferring too well, telling A.J. that he likely wouldn’t start anywhere else and he should ride it out in Carlinville. Gill decided to bet on himself. The journey for a new school began.
“As I am exploring options, the same guy who coached me when I was 15, Sean Stevens, called me and told me about Aurora University,” Gill said. “He told me just to go check out the place before I head back home to Florida to start looking at Junior Colleges to play at.”
Gill listened to one of his baseball mentors and drove just over 200 miles north of Blackburn College to Aurora University to meet with the Spartans’ head coach, Adam Stevens. After some time went by to think about his decision, Gill had found a new baseball home in Aurora, IL, in the spring of 2018.
Once he enrolled at AU, the coaches told Gill that he would be a P.O., which means he would be a “Pitcher Only.” The funny thing for Gill, he had never worried about perfecting his pitching because he was just a player who could throw in the low 90’s, not a legit collegiate pitcher. After a week went by by with him on the bump, the coaches found out pitching wasn’t going to suit Gill either, adding some confusion to Gill’s early collegiate career.
“We sit down and talk about my future position with the team but all the positions that I played before were already locked up by better players,” Gill said. “Left field was up for grabs so we decided to try me out there. Keep in mind, I’ve never played outfield in my entire life.” Gill was penciled in as the left fielder on opening day just a few weeks later.
Not doing great on the diamond and feeling homesick, Gill decided to have a couple tough conversations with his dad and head coach about possibly leaving the team. “If you quit right now, you’ll be a quitter the rest of your life.” That’s what Gill recalls his dad saying over the phone. His coach wasn’t as blunt with him but he did tell Gill that he believed in his talents and knew he would succeed at Aurora University. That’s all Gill needed to hear; assurance that he belonged.
That weekend, he recorded eight hits and then hit close to .450 for the rest of the season.
After his sophomore year, he told himself that he wanted to work to become a really good college player. He was never really thinking about professional baseball. That was until something “just clicked” for him in what was to become a monster junior season for the DIII outfielder.
In his junior season, Gill was named an All-Region (Midwest) First-Team outfielder and a Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference First-Team outfielder after batting .337 with nine doubles, five triples, 10 home runs, and 52 RBIs. After putting up those numbers, Gill started to seriously think about professional baseball.
“Keep in mind, if you ever mentioned pro ball to someone, you would get laughed at,” Gill said. “It’s D-III baseball. You don’t go on to play in the minors or majors. Nobody does that. I even told my coach one time that I wanted to play pro ball and he basically told me that I shouldn’t bet on it.”
Following his junior season, he started to hear from some Major League scouts. The Braves were the first one to reach out and then he heard from the White Sox. The dream of his to play ball at the next level started to feel more real, but he knew he had to have an even bigger senior year if he wanted a chance at getting drafted or signed.
Before going into his senior season, Gill got a call from a coach of a summer collegiate team in the Northwoods League, asking Gill to be a fill-in for a couple weeks. As SEC, ACC, Big Ten, and a plethora of other Power-5 school players were being announced each night, so was a player who played small D-III baseball at Aurora University.
“I remember thinking about how good those Power-5 players must be but after playing with them for a couple weeks, I realized I was just as good and I remember just feeling very comfortable around ‘better’ players.” That was Gill’s introduction to top-tier collegiate talent and he now knew where he needed to get to for him to have a chance to make it.
With school starting back up in August, he had professors asking him what he wanted to do after college and he told them every time, “Oh, I’m playing pro ball.”
Nobody ever thought it was going to happen. Gill mentioned that there were days where even he didn’t think it was going to happen but he was going to speak it into existence no matter what. However, going into the biggest year of baseball, he lost his uncle unexpectedly, he lost almost 20 pounds due to stress, and he lost some of the drive to play the game he loved.
On top of all the craziness that life brought to Gill over those months, COVID-19 hit, which abruptly put an end to his collegiate baseball career.
“I thought it was all over. Everything that I worked for; it was over,” Gill said. “I put aside almost my entire social life for this game. I even moved 20+ hours away from home to play D-III baseball and at that moment of us hearing that the season was cancelled, I felt so small. I started reaching out to people in baseball but with everything going on in the world, the last thing people wanted to hear was someone complain about why I wouldn’t get a chance at playing professional baseball.”
As the seriousness of COVID-19 grew, Gill drove back down to Florida and started his own training.
Along with training, he had to work a 9-to-5 job with the uncertainty of what was to come for his baseball career. “I did tree removal. I would get up at 6:00 a.m. to go to work and then I still had to find time to get in my baseball training.”
Leading up to the MLB First-Year Player Draft, Major League Baseball decided to cut down the number of rounds from 40 to just five. The chances shriveled immensely for Gill to get picked up by a MLB team.
“I was in the middle of actually working out when I heard the news. Whenever I got the call, I stopped the workout, packed up my stuff, jumped in my truck, and went home.”
“This was the first time in my life where I actually had to have faith. At that time, all I could do was pray and trust God. That’s it. I had peace about it and whatever outcome.”
Gill got back to it. He kept doing what he was born to do -- grind. He didn’t know if the call was ever going to be made but if it did, he was going to be ready.
Weeks before the draft, Gill could barely sleep or eat and had a constant knot in his stomach, knowing that this draft could shape how the rest of his life might play out. It was the most stressful part of his life.
Just days before the draft, Gill planned a trip to head to Chicago to get the rest of his stuff from his college house and see some buddies on the way up. The trip was scheduled for Monday.
That Sunday morning, his dad asked him to give a Sunday school lesson. “I talked about a harvest,” Gill said. “You plant the seed and you hope it grows and you get some return on your investment. But when you plant the seed, you don’t necessarily know if you are going to get anything out of it. A lot of things can go wrong for it not to grow but you still do it.”
When he left church that day, he turned down the radio in his truck and told God that he wanted to get real for a second. He prayed, “If this is something that you want me to do, open up a door. If it’s not, close the door and I’ll move on.”
The next day, he got into his truck to head up to Chicago to collect his things. It was the first day of free agent signings. “I cross the Illinois border and I get a call. It was a Chicago area code. It was Chris Getz.” Getz is the Assistant General Manager/Player Development for the Chicago White Sox. Gill was caught off guard by the call so much that he couldn’t continue to drive so he pulled over on the side of the interstate to talk to Getz.
“He told me that they wanted to sign me and I didn’t even know what to say. I ended up saying ‘thank you’ 20 times I bet. I didn’t even tell him ‘yes.’ I actually called Getz back and wanted to make sure that he knew I wanted to sign. He laughed with me.”
“Imagine inhaling for four years and then just letting it all out. It felt incredible,” Gill said. “I look back and I just see this master plan that God had for me. I wake up every day just blessed. I don’t take a single opportunity for granted.”
Since being signed by the White Sox, Gill has received a first baseman’s mitt, a third baseman’s mitt, and a new outfield glove for him to play in left field. Reminder, just five years ago in high school, he played second base and pitched a little.
After about a month of spring training at Camelback Ranch in Arizona, Gill didn’t break camp with a team. He kept a good attitude because he knew this time was going to allow him to get better at all these new positions.
However, following an injury to Lency Delgado Jr. in game one for the Cannon Ballers, Gill got the call that he was being promoted to Kannapolis.
Taking a day to settle in, manager Guillermo Quiroz penciled in Gill as his starting third baseman and seven-hole hitter. With his first professional hit being a bloop-single over the second baseman’s head, Gill stepped up to the plate with two guys on in the eighth inning, and the Cannon Ballers down 2-1 to the Wood Ducks. On a 1-1 pitch, he saw all his years of hard work come to light at the professional level with a three-run home run to left field.
Keep in mind, whenever Gill landed in Kannapolis from Arizona just two days prior, he still had that thought in the back of his mind, “Do I belong here?”
That home run helped answer his own question.
“When I step into that batter’s box and I look at that player that stands 60 feet away from me, I know I’ve gone through more crap than that guy has. I know that this means way more to me than it does to him. I definitely feel like I belong here.”
Gill’s dream of making it to The Show got one step closer when he was promoted to the Winston-Salem Dash on June 1st.