Rewinding Charlie Tilson’s White Sox story to the very beginning

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Charlie Tilson’s jersey hung down to his knees. He may not have looked like much, but he dug into the batter’s box like a young man who knew a thing or two about a thing or two. The pitch came. The bat fired off his shoulder.

Double.

The pitcher had recently completed his freshman season of high school ball. Tilson had just wrapped up fourth grade.

A prodigy? The Tilsons weren’t fully sure, but older brother Steve’s summer-league team was down a player, and, well, Charlie always was game for anything baseball-related.

Nine-year-old Charlie Tilson of the Wilmette Travelers hoists a championship trophy. (Photo courtesy of Tilson family)

“Nobody loved baseball like Charlie,” said Joe Tilson, father of the White Sox center fielder.

That Tilson was ahead of his time merely gives him something in common with so many of his peers who made it all the way to the major leagues. That the Wilmette native and former New Trier star is getting to play for the team he grew up rooting for makes him special.

The basics of the 24-year-old’s story have somewhat made the rounds. Unfortunately, the story has been on hold since early last August, when — two days after the Sox traded reliever Zach Duke to St. Louis for him — Tilson tore his left hamstring diving for a gapper off the bat of the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera.

It was Tilson’s big-league debut, and it ended his season. He entered spring training as the seeming front-runner for the starting job in center, but a right-foot injury has kept him out of action since the early going.

“Don’t count him out” for Opening Day, manager Rick Renteria advised Thursday. Still, Tilson’s story — begging to move forward — is stuck on “pause.” So you know what? Let’s try to rewind instead.

Joe Tilson has been a Sox fan since he moved to the Chicago area in 1980. A Cubs fan, too — hey, it’s allowed — who eventually purchased season tickets on both sides of town.

When Charlie, the middle of five children, first started going to games, he’d watch intently, never taking his eyes off the field, while others his age toggled between desperate needs for concession items and the bathroom.

“He would just soak it up,” said his father, a prominent attorney at a Loop law firm.

When Charlie was 6, he made an unassisted triple play. He caught a pop-up at shortstop, tagged one baserunner and stepped on the bag at third — all before his coaches could shout to him what to do.

The Sox’ “The Kids Can Play” slogan resonated with Tilson, who pledged his allegiance to Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, Paul Konerko, Mark Buehrle. Whenever his dad took him to Wrigley Field, he’d wear Sox black. Unless the Cubs were playing the Cardinals, in which case Charlie would wear red.

Soon, center fielder Scott Podsednik came — Tilson’s favorite Sox player to this day. When the team won the World Series in 2005, Charlie and Steve begged their parents to let them teepee the houses of their Cubs-fan neighbors.

As Tilson grew into a young star, his summer-league pals on the Highwood Braves came around one by one to the idea that a future major-leaguer was in their midst.

“And now I’m here,” Tilson said. “I’m really here. It’s the ultimate opportunity. It’s very special to me.”

And for his family?

“There’s nothing quite like having your kid’s dream come true,” Joe Tilson said. “I think every parent enjoys that more than their own success. To have him home playing for the Sox — his lifelong dream — is surreal for all of us.”

About that pause button: Tilson will play again soon. A few days? A week?

Maybe then, his story really will get good.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.
Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com