PEORIA, Ariz. — Phillippe Aumont is out to score goals on the ice and one night in early January, he drove the net looking to snipe when a smallish defender dangerously took his legs out. All six-foot-seven, 265 pounds of the former-pitcher-turned-farmer dropped to the ice and while the referee’s arm went up to signal a tripping penalty, there was no power play once the ensuing melee came to a close.
“I roughed up a couple of guys,” Aumont admits sheepishly. “I was kind of mad. Just everybody play. It’s a fun league. It’s a Carleton University league. I mean, everybody works the next day, right?”
Everybody does indeed work but not everyone also needs to get their arm in shape for the World Baseball Classic, which Aumont couldn’t do for some three weeks afterwards because the fall left him with a fractured coccyx, or tailbone. Forget throwing a baseball, he couldn’t even pick up his daughters Gabrielle, 3, and Raphaelle, 1, let alone tend to the pigs and lambs on his 90-hectare farm north of Gatineau, Que.
That put his return to the national team into doubt, but by February he’d healed enough to resume throwing and shortly after he told Baseball Canada he’d be ready for the tournament.
On Thursday, he returned to a mound for the first time since spring camp with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2020 and was up to 92 m.p.h. in a clean inning against the Seattle Mariners, the team that drafted him 11th overall in 2007.
The fracture in his coccyx may still be there, he’s not sure. If it is, it’s not stopping him.
“I’ve dealt with many injuries and I have sort of that hockey mentality where you play injured,” says Aumont. “You’ll have some nicks, some bumps here and there, you just figure out a way, if you want to compete. If you don’t want to compete, you can step off to the side. I want to play.”
Pulling low-90s heat out of his back pocket so quickly at 34 speaks to Aumont’s freakish power and athleticism, traits that made him a highly touted prospect discovered at one of the tryout camps the former MLB Scouting Bureau used to stage across Canada.
In 2009, after Aumont memorably struck out the side against the Americans with the bases loaded at the Classic, he was the key return for the Philadelphia Phillies in the deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners (part of a complicated three-way transaction that also sent Roy Halladay to Philadelphia from the Blue Jays).
Aumont made his MLB debut in 2012, had brief stints in the majors in each of the next three seasons, transitioned between the rotation and back but never found his footing. Over 46 big-league appearances, one start, he posted a 6.80 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 43.2 innings pitched.
“I may be wrong, but I think he would have had a long career in the big leagues but he was going through so many different situations that was just not him. Just leave him alone and let him pitch,” says Canadian manager Ernie Whitt. “That doesn’t always happen in professional ball. The Phillies, Mariners, trying to change different things on him. You don’t have to recreate the wheel if you’ve got a good wheel going. Just let him develop. Let him go out there and pitch.”
Aumont bounced around in the systems of the Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers and twice pitched for Ottawa in the independent Canadian-American Association. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, he went from baseball to organic farming with fiancée Frederique and found contentment in the rural life.
Whitt says he begged the righty to pitch for Canada once more at the Classic because of his dedication to the program. Aumont didn’t pitch for the national team at the 2021 Olympic qualifying tournament but signed up this time.
“After this, I want to keep it where I can still throw a baseball a little bit and then if I get another call (for the national team), it won’t be as big of a mountain to climb to get back to it,” he says. “So I definitely want to keep throwing. I don’t feel interested in going anywhere else than that. But I think I have enough in the tank to come back here and help out somehow and bring some experience.”
Familiar butterflies, ones he had long ago taught himself to suppress on the mound, hit him as he took the mound against the Mariners. He didn’t like them, but he also did because it had been so long. He wasn’t sure what to expect, whether the fastball, curveball, cutter and changeup were good enough for this level.
“I looked out and I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to get through one inning. How is this going to be? Am I going to get rocked? Am I going to throw the ball everywhere?’” he says. “All these thoughts are coming in and you just try to block them out. You go out there trying to have a positive mindset and believe the stuff that I’ve been seeing is going to work out there. Which it did.”
What role Aumont fills once the tournament starts is to be determined.
Certainly, the way he commanded the ball bodes well but after so much time off, the Canadians also must be careful about throwing himself into too much, too soon.
“He’s an animal,” says Whitt. “We just have to be cautious about him overdoing it. But he’s here for a reason.”
And that reason is all about success with the national team.
Whitt praises the way he’s poured into his younger teammates and invested in the group. And Aumont, uninterested in using the Classic experience as a springboard, is fully invested in the moment, at peace that once it’s over, he’ll go back to his livestock, resume throwing at the facility in Gatineau where they call him Farmer Phil and keep hunting for beer-league genos.
“I don’t think a professional job would really get me off (the farm),” says Aumont. “Asia, because they pay way better, and it’s not because it’s about the money, is an interesting place to go play. I showed interest when I left and my heart is still there. But I’m 34, I’m getting up there, the opportunities might be really, really small, so I don’t really focus on that too much.
“Really, I’m enjoying my time here. Obviously, we’re trying to get out of the first round and do all these good things with this group. Once this is over, I’ll just go back to my routine and keep going.”