CHICAGO — Inside DePaul’s loop campus, Charlie Tilson is back in the spotlight. But instead of a major league stadium, the classroom is his new arena.
“It’s definitely a different grind. Being in pro sports gets you ready for something like this,” Tilson said.
After a professional career that started in 2011, the Wilmette native and former Chicago White Sox outfielder traded in his glove for a laptop and enrolled at DePaul in March, taking advantage of MLB’s college scholarship plan (CSP), which pays for players to go back to school full time within 2 years of their release.
“If I could give any advice to pro players considering using this CSP money, I never thought I’d be here, but I’m having lot fun doing it,” Tilson said.
Part of the fun is using his experience on the diamond in DePaul’s sports reporting class, taught by former Chicago Tribune sportswriter Fred Mitchell.
“To use a baseball term, he’s knocked it out of the park as far as assignments and interacts with classmates very well,” Mitchell said. “I think everybody appreciates the opportunity to tap into his insight and knowledge.”
Back when Tilson attended New Trier High School, baseball took priority over books.
“Now I’m focused, that’s the key,” the 30-year-old said. “I Joke with my wife that school is as simple as following directions.”
The St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in the 2nd round a dozen years ago, and Tilson says it was an easy decision to turn down a scholarship to the University of Illinois.
“I just knew I wanted to get into pro ball as fast as I could and learn what it takes be a big leaguer,” he recalled.
In 2016, the Cardinals traded Tilson to his boyhood team—the White Sox. He made his debut on August 2nd that year, singling in his first at bat. But later in the game, the speedster suffered a hamstring injury attempting to make a diving catch and underwent season-ending surgery two days later.
“The injury in my big-league debut was tough. I got to the big leagues because of my speed and my style of play was to take the extra base. I just sort of lost the level of spark with my legs to allow my game to be effective.”
Injuries would continue to torment Tilson, limiting him to 96 career big league games. After his time with the Sox ended following the 2019 season, Tilson kept his career alive, bouncing around independent league ball and the Mexican League. He spent last year back home with the Chicago Dogs, hitting .286 in 92 games with 20 steals.
“When you are on the outskirts of pro ball you develop appreciation for how many good players are there,” Tilson said. “Small separators determining one guy is a major leaguer and the other guy is in Indy ball. It really allowed me to be grateful for the opportunities I had and put on a big-league uniform.”
After the Dogs released him in February, he knew that chapter of his life was likely closed.
“If the Sox came calling, I would jump back on field,” Tilson said with a smile. “I’m at peace. I discovered my potential and wouldn’t change any of it for anything.”
A new father, Tilson juggles schoolwork with daddy duty. The ex-ballplayer doesn’t know yet where his education will take him, but he’s ready to swing away.
“For me now having a son and to tell him I went back to school after 10 years off and truthfully enjoyed it,” he said. “That’s been biggest lesson for me when you approach this the right way It can be a positive experience, not a burden.”
Tilson is majoring in psychology and in the process of working with his advisor on a joint degree in communications. He is hoping to graduate next spring. Right now, he’s dipping his toes in the sports betting industry, writing up baseball betting tips for BetQL.