The past nine years have been a lifetime for Charlie Tilson.
In 2011, an 18-year-old Tilson left Wilmette to chase his lifelong dream of playing Major League Baseball. He lived in different cities, battled a series of injuries, and made that dream his reality.
And in 2020, as if it were a dream, that lifetime was over.
“It was a difficult journey, but every bit worth it,” Tilson said. “I wouldn’t change a thing. I would have loved to play for longer, but it’s been a hell of a ride.”
While Tilson’s time in between the lines may be through, he is far from through with the game.
In the wake of his release from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tilson moved back to Wilmette and secured a coaching position at Northwestern University.
“Going through experiences I had, I felt like I wanted to get back and share a lot of the lessons I’ve learned,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily see it happening like this, right away, but it’s just such a great opportunity to work with people who I have a tremendous amount of respect for.”
Tilson’s rare combination of youth and experience made him a prized asset for the Wildcats, for whom Tilson will work with the outfielders and hitters.
The coaching staff now features two former Trevians, as Tilson joins friend and mentor Dusty Napoleon, son of longtime New Trier coach Mike Napoleon and a former professional catcher in the Oakland A’s organization.
“His experience in the major leagues and what he went through to get there with his work ethic is hard to match,” Dusty Napoleon said. “For someone who played three or four years in the big leagues, he is very humble. He has a way with the guys. He remembers what it’s like to be 19, 20 and 21 years old.”
This was not the first time Tilson was a sought-after talent.
After a standout baseball career at New Trier High School, Tilson — the Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year in 2011 — had to choose between a full athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an immediate professional career complete with signing bonus with the St. Louis Cardinals, who drafted Tilson in the second round.
Tilson, then 18, picked the Cardinals, but missed all of his first professional season, in 2012, with a shoulder injury.
Starting the following year, Tilson began to build his resume with impressive stretches of play in the minor leagues, making his league’s All-Star teams in 2014 and 2015.
A stress fracture in his foot at the end of 2014 slowed him down, but only a bit, as he came back to make the Cardinals 40-man roster in 2015.
On the cusp of the big leagues the following year, Tilson was traded in July to the Chicago White Sox, where he saw a path to playing time with the young and outfield-thin organization.
Tilson was part of the big-league roster in 2016 and notched his first big-league hit in his debut Aug. 2, 2016. But, in the same game, he suffered a hamstring injury that required season-ending surgery.
Prior to the next season, Tilson — who was a favorite to start in center field — again broke his foot and missed the entire 2017 year.
Tilson played on and off with the White Sox in 2018 and 2019, building moments to last a lifetime — like when he made a highlight catch against the wall to rob Chicago Cub Kyle Schwarber of an extra-base hit.
And, of course, there was his first major league home run: a tape-measure grand slam against the Houston Astros in 2019.
“Passing guys like (Carlos) Correa and (Alex) Bregman on the way home, that was a special moment,” Tilson said of his trot around the bases after the home run. “Celebrating with my teammates — I’m such a big White Sox fan, even now. It was a special clubhouse to be a part of.”
After that season, as Tilson said he was finally feeling fully healthy, the White Sox sent him back to the minors, and Tilson chose to become a free agent. He was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates on Jan. 31, 2020.
About a month later, the nation began to shut down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Major sports, including Major League Baseball, were suspended, and eventually, MLB’s plan to resume did not include the minor leagues. Pro rosters were limited. Tilson was released.
“It was tough. It was really tough,” he said. “You get to be 26, 27 after signing out of high school and you come to understand that there’s a lot of maturity that happens over the course of your career. And that maturity allows you to be so much better equipped to succeed at the highest level. I was really looking forward to this year with Pittsburgh because I believe I had made great strides in 2019 with the White Sox. While I hadn’t totally put it together, I felt like I was getting back on track since that injury.
“It was extremely unfortunate because I was going to have a great opportunity with an organization that seemed like they were going to need some depth. … Not much you can do about it, but unfortunate timing for me and my career.”
Sometimes you have a difficult choice: Do you hold on or do you let go? Other times, life doesn’t offer you that luxury.
After Tilson was released by the Pirates, he hunted for new opportunities in baseball, even with COVID-19 complicating nearly every option.
A league in Nashville never panned out. A league in Joliet wasn’t a good fit. And all the while, Major League ballclubs were not calling.
Summertime wore on. To “pass the time,” Tilson coached locally, leading the Wilmette Waves with former teammate Brian Kost in the fall, an experience he called “very rewarding.”
Then, he got a call from Northwestern head coach Spencer Allen, who had an opening on his staff.
It was an incredible opportunity, but pulling the trigger would mean moving on.
“I miss the game. I miss playing,” he said. “It’s tough, but at the end of the day, what’s really important is continuing to be around the game. It has had such a positive effect on me to be around these young players and share the lessons that were able to get me to the next level. It’s an extremely fulfilling experience. While I certainly miss being a ballplayer, I’m excited about this.”
Northwestern has high expectations coming off an interrupted 2020 campaign.
Napoleon said the team has the most talent and depth in his six years with the program, adding the Wildcats “have all the pieces to make a run at the Big Ten” title.
And now one more piece: Charlie Tilson.
“If he wants to continue coaching college baseball, he’s going to be a stud, going to be a star,” Napoleon said. “He knows the game, players like him, trust him and respect him. He’s what we want in a coach.”
Life came at Tilson fast out of high school, and it moved just as quickly nine years later.
Outside his Wilmette home, Tilson tosses the Frisbee to his springy pup, Gus, as he talks about the Wildcats roster.
He doesn’t avoid talking about his release from the Pirates and admits to missing the action. Sometimes at Northwestern practices, he will unleash his skills on the unsuspecting youngsters. He joked that he’s available as a recreational softball sub.
The transition to post-ballplayer life has only just begun, and he knows there will be difficult moments. Tilson looks to his fiancee Abbey Sheridan, a Winnetka native and Loyola Academy graduate, and says she has helped ease the adjustment — so has Gus.
Tilson has spent his career studying and executing situations. He knows a good one when he sees it.
“I’ve been playing (baseball) professionally since high school. I love it,” he said. “It’s tough when it ends — for every player. Whether professionally or after high school, everyone is forced to turn the page at some point. I was fortunate to have some great people take me under their wing.”