Phillippe Aumont: A circle of triumph and struggle

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On Friday, the Toronto Blue Jays signed Canadian pitcher Phillippe Aumont, fresh off a gold medal performance with the national team at the Pan Am Games where he threw 13.0 scoreless innings. The 26-year old was the 11th overall pick in the 2007 MLB Draft by the Seattle Mariners, making him the third-highest Canadian to ever be drafted at the time.

Aumont quickly established himself as a top prospect in the Mariners system, his 6’7″ frame an imposing image atop the mound. Though his mechanics were expected to take longer than normal to grow into his body, Aumont profiled as a top-of-the-rotation starter, maybe a dominant closer if that didn’t pan out.

Fast forward to June 19th of this year, where Aumont was recalled by the Philadelphia Phillies from AAA to make a spot start. Aumont lasted 4.0 innings that day, allowing six earned runs and walking seven batters. Even through the detachment of a television set, the scene was uncomfortable. Not only had Aumont failed to reach his once-stratospheric potential, he’d become this.

After being designated for assignment the next day, Aumont declined a trip back to AAA LeHigh Valley, where he had become a mainstay. Instead, he went home. The Blue Jays called, others did too, and Aumont said no.

Home, for Aumont, has never been a word that is simply defined. Many baseball personnel were curious about Aumont leading into the 2007 MLB Draft as he was living with guardians, but little was known about his upbringing or biological parents. In this fantastic profile by Callum Hughson of Mopup Duty, we learn the story of struggle and vulnerability that built a young Aumont.

From a “broken home”, Aumont was put into foster care at age 13 and lived in an area of Gatineau, Quebec that he describes to Hughson as a “ghetto”. For much of his youth, the future star was headed down an entirely different path.

"“It was a pretty rough place,” Aumont said. “There’s lots of drugs and lots of bad kids. I was going in that direction, and I finally realized that’s not what I want to do. I took soft drugs and then I was involved in some small-time robberies. I was on the wrong track. Two or three of my chums from back then became vegetables because of drugs. Others are totally lost. I wanted a better life. I wanted a future. At one point, I had the willpower to say no.”"

At 14, Aumont was moved from foster care to live with Stephane Petronzio, a baseball coach who was simultaneously in awe of the young teen’s talent, and in fear of the life he had begun on the streets. “We wanted to get him off the street,” Petronzio said. “Our first objective was to make him a good man. Baseball was secondary.”

Aumont drew American scouts across the border in droves, fascinated by the uncanny physical specimen before them who possessed long-term potential to dream on. After being selected 11th overall by the Mariners, Aumont signed a contract for $1.9 million. So far from the ghetto of Gatineau.

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Early in 2009, the Canadian had his coming-out party. Just 20 years old at the time, Aumont was named to Team Canada for the World Baseball Classic. Down 6-4 to the United States of America with the bases loaded, in he lumbered from the bullpen, a fresh-faced prospect without a word of English to link him to many of his teammates

“I couldn’t speak a word,” Aumont told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. Looking at the three names due up to face Aumont, no translation was needed. David Wright. Kevin Youkilis, Curtis Granderson.

After breaking Wright’s bat and striking out Youkilis, Aumont was left with Curtis Granderson, one of the most talented hitters in the game in the prime of his career. With two strikes, the Canadian catcher signalled for a fastball.

Aumont, the kid, shook his catcher off. Instead, he would throw a curveball, striking out Granderson with a violent snap. “The fact that he’s young and he’s coming right at you in that situation, I tip my hat to him,” Granderson told Kepner at the time.

The catcher that Aumont shook off? Russell Martin.

There Aumont stood, towering over his competition. The future of Canadian pitching was being showcased on the world stage, set to lead a Mariners rotation alongside Felix Hernandez and Brandon Morrow for years to come. That inning, in hindsight, proved to be the high point of his career.

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Following that 2009 season, a December trade would send Aumont from the Mariners to the Phillies as the centrepiece of a package for Cliff Lee, just one year removed from winning a Cy Young Award at age 29.

The Phillies attempted to integrate Aumont into their Major League roster on several occasions, but were repeatedly unsuccessful. He landed at AAA LeHigh Valley in mid-2011, and that is where he has spent the majority of his time since. Aumont appeared in 140 games there, primarily as a reliever, before the Phillies converted him back into the rotation prior to his final chance in June. Over four MLB seasons, his career statistics show just 43.2 innings pitched with a 6.80 ERA.

Now, albeit with a thump, Aumont has landed. Perhaps he needed the experience with Team Canada in the Pan Am Games before returning his sights to pro ball, or perhaps the championship restored his belief in the game entirely. The right-hander will report to the bullpen of AAA Buffalo in the coming days to begin again. Now that Aumont has hit rock bottom professionally, we can consider this his first shot at a second chance.

It’s entirely likely that we will never see him don the MLB colors in Toronto. While his physical makeup and memories of tantalizing potential leave a light of hope dimly lit in the corner, Aumont remains a blindfolded shot in the dark.

Perhaps the past month has not been rock bottom for the Canadian, though. That is a point that came long ago for him, in a Gatineau ghetto. This is baseball, nothing more. Aumont has overcome much greater odds than this.

Next: Blue Jays prospects: Checking in on Pompey, Alford

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