Bill Conlin: Phils' Noles on the case with Tyson Gillies

Tyson Gillies: cocaine charge
Tyson Gillies: cocaine charge
Posted: August 23, 2010

 "Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?"

- "Cops" theme

CLEARWATER, Fla. - They came for Tyson Gillies just after 12:30 a.m. Friday. Served him with an arrest warrant after a baggy containing a white powder that was confiscated from the back seat of a Clearwater police prowler on June 11 tested positive as cocaine.

Dickie Noles, the best substance-abuse counselor in the professional sports business, was on the plane before bail was posted later in the morning for the troubled minor league outfielder.

Just as he was on the scene after prized lefthander Cole Hamels busted his pitching hand on some redneck's head during a parking-lot dustup pitting Phillies farmhands and locals.

Just as he had gotten the phone call in the middle of the night when a pitching prospect was arrested in the parking lot of a Clearwater gentleman's club for having sex while nude with one of the club's gentlewomen.

It is what Dickie Noles does. And the less publicity the better. No publicity is just perfect.

I was here on June 11 when Tyson Gillies, a central figure in the infamous Cliff Lee trade, was stopped by a local cop in a police prowl car, just after 3 a.m. The rehabbing outfielder was walking - staggering says it better - along a service road paralleling the infamous U.S. 19. There are still bumper stickers around that say, "Pray For Me, I Drive U.S. 19."

But drunken walking is not a crime, not even in Pinellas County. Gillies was allegedly waving a T-shirt at traffic on the main highway, attempting, he told the officer, to flag down teammates heading back to the La Quinta Inn from a joint named Freaky Tiki.

Freaky Tiki and 3 a.m. just has the sound of trouble. And never mind that the legal closing time in Pinellas County is 1 a.m.

The officer asked Gillies if he had money for a cab, seeing he was too bombed to walk. He may or may not have noticed the hearing aids the legally deaf ballplayer was wearing in each ear. Gillies said he didn't have cab fare. So the officer offered him a courtesy ride to the inn where players from both the Clearwater Threshers and Gulf Coast League Phillies are housed in-season. On June 10, only the high-Class A Threshers and extended spring-training players were in house. The GCL season didn't open until June 21.

I was at Bright House Field June 15 to interview Jimmy Rollins, who was playing his first rehab game for the Threshers. And I was back on the 21st, hoping No. 1 draft pick Jesse Biddle would be pitching the Gulf Coast Phillies' opener. Instead, he was the batboy.

I know just about everybody in the Florida operation. Maybe if I had said, "Any barroom brawls or drug busts lately?" I would have heard something. But there was nary a word about any Tyson Gillies situation.

Which means Dickie Noles was doing his job, a job where confidentiality is at the core of establishing trust with troubled athletes.

Dickie Noles himself was so desperately enmeshed in the tentacles of alcohol and drug addiction as a player, he finally walked into a police station and begged to be arrested. To save him from himself.

I was a witness to one of the celebrated Noles incidents, the one where a near-Chicago hotel-bar dustup with Phillies general manager Paul Owens resulted in his boss being hauled away to the Rush Street Precinct. Rich Ashburn and traveling secretary Eddie Ferenz bailed out The Pope at 3 a.m.

Noles was in full free fall by then and kept falling until he gave himself up and cried for help. He is now one of the finest human beings I have ever met, having gone far beyond full circle to MVP of the Phillies' behind-the-scenes support system.

Tyson Gillies is not his greatest challenge, but he is the most publicized.

And Gillies represents a two-headed monster of a dilemma for the ballclub that ranked him as a key piece in the savagely denounced deal where GM Ruben Amaro Jr. shipped superb lefthander Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners for a troika of mid-level prospects that included 6-7 Class A righthander Phillipe Aumont and 6-2 Double A righthander J.C. Ramirez.

To say the so-called franchise restocking deal has bombed so far would be to understate the obvious. Gillies blew out his left hamstring in April while playing for the Reading Phillies. He has been rehabbing ever since, and appears destined to add another level of rehab to his resume. Aumont was demoted from Reading to Clearwater and currently has a gargantuan ERA. Ramirez was promoted to Reading but has not exactly been the next Brett Myers.

Cliff Lee, you know about.

So that's the competition side of the deal. The legal side is a little more murky.

"I can't discuss the situation for obvious legal reasons," Noles told me Saturday morning, ironically at the Paul Owens Training Facility. "But we're on the case."

The case is complicated by the fact that Gillies is a Canadian citizen here on a Canadian passport. The officer who gave him the courtesy lift alleges he discovered a plastic bag containing a white powder that he confiscated for testing. Any criminal lawyer worth his shingle is going to be able to fight hell out of the case involving the bag: Inebriated young black male exits prowler and officer allegedly discovers a bag on the seat containing a white powder. Confiscates said bag, takes information on Gillies. Two months later, the bag is identified as cocaine. Warrant is issued for third-degree drug possession.

So, let's say the kid pleads out the bust. Takes a misdemeanor charge with no jail time and some community service. But U.S. law is kind of strict on admitting convicted drug offenders of any level into the country. So what would even a misdemeanor cocaine plea do to the ability of Gillies to freely travel to the United States in pursuit of his career?

Meanwhile, not even the Mafia has a stricter code of Omerta - the Code of Silence - than ballplayers. The bus to Bradenton for a Gulf Coast League game against the Pirates left early Friday morning. There are at least 50 members of two Phillies ballclubs staying at La Quinta, two to a room. Gillies was arrested at 12:30 that morning. Players told me they knew nothing about the Gillies drug bust until they were texted by friends and family members who read the story in the St. Petersburg Times. Nor was anybody aware, they said, of the events of 3 a.m. June 11.

Not even the ballplayers Tyson Gillies said he was trying to flag down by waving his T-shirt as he limped down the service road next to U.S. 19.

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