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Houston reliever Ken Giles returns to his hometown to ‘fan’ cancer

Ken Giles, who helped propel the Houston Astros to a World Series championship, returned home to help raise money in the fight against cancer.

By Gary Herron

Jimmy (Tom Hanks) Dugan claimed in “A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball.”

That admonition didn’t apply at a recent “Strike Out Cancer” fundraiser featuring Houston Astros reliever Ken Giles, in Albuquerque to help raise money for two families hit hard by the big C.

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Not about to be accused on a filibuster, after a speech that lasted about five minutes, Giles repeated what his head coach at Rio Grande High School had said earlier: “Once a Raven, always a Raven.”

Giles had pitched but one season for the Rio Grande Ravens, his 2009 season – and was used more as an outfielder at that.

“He came to us with some arm problems when he transferred (from Eldorado High School),” Rio Grande baseball coach Orlando Griego recalled. “I knew he would get better and better. At our 2009 banquet, I told everybody to keep an eye on him – he’ll play professional baseball.”

That, of course, had been Griego’s dream after his days as a Rio Grande ballplayer, followed by an education at New Mexico State University, where he also played baseball. Griego was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 24th round of the June 1990 MLB draft – four spots after a guy named Jorge Posada – and he pitched in 20 games, going 2-2, for the Brew Crew’s Rookie League team in Arizona in 1990.

That was it for his pro days; he soon was back in Albuquerque and coaching the game.

“I took my dream as far as possible,” Griego said, content to instruct his varsity ballplayers and encourage them to, maybe, be the next Kenny Giles.

“It takes people to believe in somebody else and I believe in Kenny,” he said. “I’ve seen him play (in person) about 30 or 40 times.”

 Rio Grande High baseball coach Orlando Griego, at right, helps hang a sign before the recent fundraising banquet.

Rio Grande High baseball coach Orlando Griego, at right, helps hang a sign before the recent fundraising banquet.

Indeed, Griego’s seen Giles pitch for the Phillies and the Astros, and even got to a couple World Series games last October.

So call it a “labor of love” when it came to organizing the “Strike Out Cancer” fundraiser on Jan. 12 and selling 250 tickets at $45 each.

Prior to Giles’ senior season with the Ravens, the Albuquerque Journal noted that Rio Grande would “benefit greatly” from its offseason transfer, touting Giles as a “bona fide draft prospect” and one of “the most-feared fastball pitchers in the state.”

As it turned out, the Ravens exited the state tournament in the quarterfinals, and Giles headed first to New Mexico Junior College, and then Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, which ultimately led to the Phillies drafting him in the seventh round of the 2011 MLB draft. (The Marlins had drafted him after he graduated high school, but in the 44th round, thus his decision to go to college to improve his draft status.)

He worked his way up through Philadelphia’s minor league system – Clearwater, Lakewood, Peoria, Reading, Lehigh Valley – which included two oblique injuries.

He never gave up on his big-league dream.

“In my eyes, I never felt like I was too far away, but you know what, sometimes it’s farther away than you think,” Giles said. “But I’m glad from high school that all the decisions I made, from then, rewarded me in the end.”

 Ken Giles answers questions for a TV interview in the Duke City. (Gary Herron photos)

Ken Giles answers questions for a TV interview in the Duke City. (Gary Herron photos)

He was at the Phillies’ big-league camp in 2014, but began the season in the minors, and then was promoted to “The Show,” making his MLB debut on June 12 – and giving up a home run to the first batter he faced. On Sept. 1, Giles was part of a combined no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves; Cole Hamels, Giles, Jake Diekman and Jonathon Papelbon did not allow a hit.

Giles turned out to be one of the team’s few bright spots, finishing fourth in the National League’s Rookie of the Year balloting after a 3-1 record and 1.18 ERA in 44 appearances out of the bullpen.

When the 2015 season began, he was the primary setup man, but when the Phillies traded their closer (Papelbon), Giles assumed that role – with a fastball that can reach more than 100 mph.

On Dec. 12, 2015, the Phillies traded Giles and Jonathan Arauz to the Astros in exchange for Mark Appel, Vince Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Tom Eshelman and Harold Arauz.

With the ’Stros in 2016, Giles made 69 appearances compiling a 2-5 record, a 4.11 ERA and 15 saves.

 Houston reliever Ken Giles signs a young fan’s Giles replica jersey.

Houston reliever Ken Giles signs a young fan’s Giles replica jersey.

In 2017, he made 63 appearances compiling a 1-3 record, 2.30 ERA and 34 saves in 38 opportunities. The Astros finished the year 101-61, and eventually won their first championship. He was effective closing out games in the American League playoffs against the Red Sox and Yankees.

Then, he misfired in the Fall Classic, surrendering two runs on three hits and a walk while retiring just one batter as the Astros dropped Game 4 of the ALCS to the Yankees on Tuesday.

You’ve heard this one before: Relievers have to have short memories.

“The past is the past,” Giles said, referring to his implosion. “I’ve got to learn through my experiences. That was my first time through; nothing can be perfect. … But at the very end, we came out on top and that’s all that mattered.

“Having such a great team, we took advantage of our great chemistry on our team and our talent. We all band together as one – having the tragedy of (Hurricane) Harvey hitting Houston. That boosted our confidence way up there – we were going to show them what Houston’s all about and we did.”

He was happy to be able to give back in Houston, and happy again to give back in his hometown.

“When I was a kid, I knew that it came with the responsibility – to give back,” he said. “You didn’t see it as much when I was little; we didn’t have the social media then. … Any way to help people and have a great life, that’s what the responsibility of an athlete is.”

When Giles was growing up in Albuquerque, he said, his favorite player had been the “Big Unit,” Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

“That’s my mentality,” Giles said. “I mean, I’m not a starter, but I have that mentality – 100 percent, no matter what you do, just give it your all. Once I get between those lines it’s all about ‘Game on.’ But when … the game’s over, I’m just back to my old self. I’m a goofy guy – I like to mess around a lot, very sarcastic. You just know to flip the switch.”

Don’t think he’s gotten the proverbial “big head” from being a part of the Astros’ success, initially predicted in Sports Illustrated in 2014.

“I’m a stay-at-home guy,” he said. “I have a 1½-year-old now; all my time and attention goes to my family,” he said. “When the season starts, my time with them is very limited. … Having my son (Brody) has motivated me even more. He’s my rock – a when he’s there, he just sees me as Dad, not a professional athlete – and that’s the best thing in the world for me.”

Now living in the Valley of the Sun during the offseason, “I kinda dig into a cave and nobody finds me out there. … I’m a low-key guy. I enjoy my low-keyness. I think it benefits me better than (being in) the spotlight.”

What did he think when he saw himself on baseball card (as a Phillies rookie on a 2014 Bowman) for the first time?

“Hey, I need to make more of these,” Giles said. “I gotta stay in the big leagues longer, get more of these to pass down to my son for him to see who I really am.”

Gary Herron is a longtime sports writer in Albuquerque, where he also serves as an official scorer for the Class AAA Albuquerque Isotopes. Including his time as an OS for the Albuquerque Dukes, he has scored more than 1,500 PCL ballgames played in Albuquerque. He is also a baseball hobbyist and occasional contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.