Veteran Brewers major and minor league pitcher Tim Dillard considers himself a lucky man. The 37-year-old sidewinding righty has spent almost his entire career within the Milwaukee organization, save for some time playing in Mexico and in the Rangers organization, but in 2020, minor league baseball doesn’t exist.
What’s a professional baseball player to do?
Dillard has kept himself busy off the mound with various projects, including creating a viral Twitter presence, working post-game shows with Fox Sports Wisconsin and freelancing for OnMilwaukee.
But he’s not done playing baseball yet, and with limited options for the season, he reached out to the independent league team based in Franklin, the Milwaukee Milkmen.
A day after getting a call to join them, he took his COVID test from his home in Nashville, rolled off the couch and drove up to Milwaukee. The next day, he threw 92 pitches over 6.2 innings, didn’t give up a walk and threw four strikeouts. He gave up two runs and five hits.
Not too bad for someone who hasn’t pitched in game since last summer for the AAA Nashville Sounds.
I’ve known Dillard since I first interviewed him in Montgomery, Alabama in 2014, when he was pitching for the AA Huntsville Stars. While he hasn’t played in the big leagues since the Brewers sent him down during the All Star Break in 2012, he’s never given up, and has become somewhat of a cult hero among blue-collar Milwaukee fans. As professional athletes go, Dillard is particularly introspective, transparent, self-deprecating and intellectual. And he can still induce plenty of ground balls, particularly on the turf field at the Franklin Field.
While he’s still under contract with the Rangers, Dillard is free to play for the Milkmen, and he says the quality of play is comparable to AAA baseball. He’s using this time to stay in game shape, should the opportunity to arise to play again in affiliated baseball.
We met this week over coffee at Colectivo in Bay View to discuss his return to Milwaukee, as well as what pitching is like in the time of pandemic. Ready to pitch on a moment’s notice – he took on bullpen catcher and bat boy duties in his first week with the Milkmen – he’s just happy to be playing back in the town that has really embraced him.
OnMilwaukee: I see that you are wearing you trademark beanie, orange sunglasses and hoodie.
Tim Dillard: Oh yeah. This is my minor league uniform. I look borderline homeless, but there's a reason: the beard and the hair. It doesn't take months of upkeep. And then I got the beanie. That holds the hair at bay. I usually have a backpack, but I don't really need it right now. And I got my water bottle, but I got a hoodie in case it rains or if it's cold.
You realize it’s August in Milwaukee, right? Isn’t it a little hot for a beanie?
No, this is beanie weather, man.
Well, I guess you’re from Mississippi.
Yeah, no, but I got no socks on, and I got boat shoes so I can slip in and out. When you walk to the field, sometimes it can be raining. So you gotta be prepared. This is my Pacific Coast League outfit.
I have to say, I didn't expect to be sitting in Milwaukee with you this summer, watching you play baseball here. Is it surprising to you, too?
A little bit, but I've been around the game long enough now that in baseball, you can end up anywhere.
So does it feel like a little bit of homecoming? Milwaukee has been especially supportive of you over the years.
For whatever reason, yes. Of course, fans like good players, but it takes a real guy to not be that good and have fans. But no, it's been great. There's been over five people on social media that have said, "Hey, if you need a place to stay, I have an extra room or basement." I don't take offense to that. I think it's awesome.
Have you been recognized yet in the week you’ve been here?
Yeah, I guess I was at the field in uniform, but somebody did recognize me. But what's fun is that I took a picture with a guy that works at the Milwaukee Milkmen field, probably a high school kid or a college kid. He posted it and he tagged me in it and I can see it. Then I just messaged him over Twitter, and I was like, "Hey David, what's going on, man?" That's how you meet people, right? Social media is supposed to be like one giant group text.
I’m assuming that there are some younger fans who don't really remember you being on the Brewers.
If anybody in high school knows who I am here, that's a win.
But, they might know you from Twitter, or you brief broadcasting career, or your Facebook Lives with OnMilwaukee, right?
I actually thought that was my next job. Doing Fox Sports Wisconsin, I thought, man, I can do this. I had a great reaction from fans. And you know, everybody was very encouraging, saying very nice stuff. And I had a blast. We finished the last game and they wrapped up and I shook a couple of hands and then everybody left and I haven't heard back. I'm still waiting for a phone call. Hold on. Let me check my phone.
How did you wind up with the Milkmen?
When minor leagues were canceled and I didn't have a chance at the 60-man thing with the Rangers, I just looked for pretty much any place on the planet that was playing baseball, and sure enough, I found the Milwaukee Milkmen. I was like, well, I know some people in Milwaukee, I could literally live at somebody's house. This was probably July 1, because they were about to play games with fans. So I messaged them on their website, said, "Hey, my name's Tim, I'm a pitcher. If you need a pitcher, here’s my phone number." A month later they called, here I am.
You said you just rolled off the couch and started pitching again?
No, I told you that. I didn't tell the manager that. I told the manager I was ready.
Well, you did you have spring training until that got canceled, right?
Yeah, for most of the big league camps. The minor league spring training hadn't even started yet. So I kept in shape for a while just because I thought I had a chance once baseball started back up, but when everything got canceled, I wasn't invited to Arlington. I thought, well, what's the point? So I didn't work out as much, and dove into my podcast. I'm sure you're totally listening to that every day.
Every single day without fail.
So I finally got a call from the Milkmen and I was just like, let me see if I can do this. And I went and threw a couple of innings at the local field and felt OK. I was bullpen catcher the first night and then pitching the next day. And here I am.
That was a pretty good line for someone who hasn't pitched in a game since last summer.
I told all the defensive guys I just met, "Listen, guys, I like to work fast and be ready to field the ball because I'm hoping to get a whole bunch of ground balls." And I did; we turned two or three double plays. I had some diving catches. I mean, when you have a good defense, that's where I thrive … because I ain't striking people out.
Do you really think the quality of play in this league is AAA caliber?
I would say so because you have guys on the team that know what they're doing, and that's the same in minor league baseball. When you're playing in AAA, you’ve got older guys that they know how to handle the strike zone. I would say there's at least four or five guys in every lineup that can do some damage.
You’ve played independent ball before in Mexico. Is this different?
To a certain degree, baseball is baseball. In my contract here with the Milkmen, if they wanted to dress me up as a mascot, technically I'd have to. So hopefully the owner doesn't get any ideas, but actually, I don't know. Maybe I wouldn't do that. Hey, a paycheck is a paycheck.
Do you know any of the guys on this team?
Yeah. The Brewers had Angel Ventura, and we played together in Colorado Springs and in AAA a couple of years ago. I just saw Mitch Lambson. He's on another team, but he’s a left-handed pitcher we had about four or five years ago in Colorado Springs. A lot of these guys I’ve played against, some in AAA last year, and they got hits off of me then. And they're getting hits off of me now.
Does your arm feel reasonably rested? I’ve heard people say that sidearm is easier on the body.
Sure. I know how to prepare, and I'm going to give it all I got. I’ve got kids, and they keep me young. I run around on the field. I run around during batting practice and pick up the baseballs. If I'm still kind of athletic, I can hopefully throw a ball over the plate. Maybe I can get somebody out.
For the last couple of years, it must've felt like every outing could be your last one, right?
It's felt like that for the last 10 years. If you have that sense of urgency, it's almost like a healthy sphere. Or just a perspective of knowing, honestly, this could be the last time I get out of here, because think about the people that blow their arms out or maybe they can't find a job. They get released and they don't know that that was their last time they were going to ever play the game. So what's that going to look like if my kids are in the stands watching, what am I going to show them? They like that the last time you ever pitched, man, you gave it your all. You wanted the baseball, you were diving on the mountain, you were making the plays, you were fired up. What else am I here to do? Besides have delicious coffee, right?
Do you guys have to wear masks while you're playing?
Not while we are playing. I know some guys do just because they have cool masks, so you might as well wear them. For me, I'm just wearing a mask in in the clubhouse or the in the bullpen.
Is it hard to adjust to lack of high fiving, spitting and crotch grabbing?
There's not a whole lot of high fives going on. There's a lot of gloves bumped. I think guys are just being normal and aware. And it's not a stressful thing at all. I was actually wondering about that: I’ve talked to some guys that are doing that at the big league level and the minor league level of the taxi squad and they say that once you get used to it, it’s just not that hard.
But there’s so much spitting in baseball!
Think about Ben Sheets. When he played, he licked his fingers every five seconds. There's a little bit of that consciousness where you think, I can't really be licking at my fingers. Maybe I never thought about it before, but I don't mind germs. I feel like they keep me healthy. I get sick maybe once every five to six years.
So what you’re saying is that the germs are helpful to your longevity?
I think with all the physicality in baseball, when you're around these guys for so long and you're part of a team, you get close. It’s like family. Yeah, I just saw you eight hours ago. But I’m going up and giving a hug. That's what you do with the people that you love. It's tougher now because you don't get that contact, but there's still the love. The love is still there.
Do you think you’ll finally get a chance to explore Milwaukee now? I know you’re tight with the Broken Bat Brewery guys, but this is your first Colectivo coffee.
I've had stickers on my sticker bench back home. And that's what I love about Milwaukee: everything's very local. I will go to Taco Bell, but that's more of a staple.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.