By David Singh in Gatineau, Que. | Photography by John Kealey
By David Singh in Gatineau, Que. | Photography by John Kealey
COVID-19 brought regular life to a halt in North America back in March. Unlike most ballplayers, for Canadian pitcher Phillippe Aumont it never resumed.

A blood-orange Kubota carrying about two dozen wooden beams pulls up next to a 120-by-30 foot rectangular patch of gravel. The rumble of the engine falls somewhere between distracting and deafening. However, to the man operating the tractor, this noise is now just a part of his daily melody.

Phillippe Aumont is dropping off materials to build the base of a greenhouse, which will be the hub of his new farm in Gatineau, Que. If all goes well, once the structure is done, it will produce four different types of tomatoes, two varieties of cucumbers, green and yellow beans and all kinds of peppers. Seeding needs to begin on Dec. 1, so there’s plenty to be done on this early August morning and in the weeks ahead.

Aumont’s mentor, a 58-year-old veteran farmer named Denis Dube, begins unloading the beams. He uses both hands and generously exerts himself. Aumont steps out of the cab to help and, thanks to his towering six-foot-seven frame, expends considerably less energy. He hauls the beams one-handed, hugging them to his side as if he’s carrying a yoga mat.

The 31-year-old Gatineau native is wearing a camo bucket hat, black shades and a grey Under Armour shirt with the word “baseball” in thick, black lettering across his chest. Aumont’s three-quarter sleeves reveal tattoos on both arms, and the back of his neck is almost as red as the ink, likely from the 12-hour days he’s been putting in, mostly in blistering heat. His fiancée, Frederique Dery, says he is “melting” and Aumont estimates that he’s lost a solid 20 to 25 pounds since the spring, down from his 265-pound playing weight.

Just a few months ago, the right-hander was in Dunedin, Fla., trying to make the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff out of spring training. Of course, regular daily life stopped for everybody in North America back in March, thanks to COVID-19. But unlike many players, for Aumont it never resumed. The 11th-overall pick of the 2007 MLB draft changed during the early stages of the global pandemic. Sure, we all did in some way, but the shift in mindset that occurred in Aumont was somewhat more extreme than most. It caused him to quit baseball entirely and devote himself to a whole new profession — despite the fact that he’d never spent one day of his life farming.

“We can do something good,” Aumont says. “We can grow vegetables and make a living out of it and provide some sort of security for families around here.”

Dery estimates Aumont has lost 20-25 pounds since he began farming in the spring

One of a baseball scout’s main tasks is to profile young players and try to determine apt comparisons to known big-leaguers. When Andrew Tinnish first saw Aumont in March of 2007 in Cocoa Beach, Fla., he asked himself, ‘Who does this guy remind me of?’ and the answer was impressive. “Honestly, at the time, he reminded me a lot of [Roy] Halladay,” says Tinnish, who was then amateur scouting coordinator for the Blue Jays. Halladay was well established by that point, of course; on his way to a Hall-of-Fame career. The comparison was a generous one, yet the similarities existed.

“Just a big, physical kid,” says Tinnish. “Extremely wide shoulders. He had that arm slot that was probably a little lower than Halladay; 92-to-97 miles per hour with heavy, heavy, heavy sink. And the very similar, wide breaking ball. And it was just power. Wasn’t obviously the same feel or command [as Halladay], but you’re talking about a teenager.”

Aumont grew up in a low-income housing complex about 20 minutes from the Gatineau farm. He’s the third of four children to Johanne, who worked at a hotel, and Jean-Pierre, who worked for a moving company. Tinnish hails from nearby Ottawa and is familiar with the area in which Aumont was raised and where he first learned baseball. It’s a rare place for any future major-leaguer to come from, he says, let alone a high-profile prospect like the one Aumont became.

He was drafted by Seattle in 2007 and traded to Philadelphia as part of the three-team deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Mariners and Halladay to the Phillies. Aumont made his MLB debut in 2012 and pitched in a total of 46 games over four seasons with Philadelphia, posting a 6.80 ERA and -0.7 WAR.

While he enjoyed the competitive aspect of The Show, other areas grated on him. “They feed you on a silver spoon,” Aumont says. “It’s the rich life — I don’t like it. I never liked that. Never felt comfortable. I never felt that I should be above anybody … Sometimes I think athletes do deserve their money, but in some other ways, we don’t deserve that money. It’s too much money for just playing a game.”

Dery says Aumont has never really talked about money during their three-year relationship and when they first met, he was humble about his line of work. “He told me he played baseball,” Dery says, “And I was like, ‘Yeah. What’s your real job?’ I didn’t know anything about him, about his career or whatever. So, it took me a while to understand that he went to the big leagues and he made a lot of money. But it never showed. It’s in his personality to just not be flashy.”

After his time with the Phillies, Aumont bounced around the minor-league systems of the Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox, before spending 2017 with the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League. He pitched the next season in the Detroit Tigers system, then rejoined the Champions as a player-coach in 2019. “Other players looked up to him a lot,” says Evan Rutckyj, a New York Yankees draft pick who was a teammate on the Champions. “With all the stuff he’s been through, I feel like he related really well. A lot of times, coaches are set in their ways and they’re really pushy about their stuff and what they want you to do. But Phil has been through so many different coaches that he figured out for himself that [as a pitcher] you need to [discover] what you want to do for yourself and what works for you. He just gave pointers and didn’t try to totally change somebody. Guys on the team really liked that.”

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The Blue Jays regularly keep an eye on the independent league, and Tinnish, who’s now vice president of international scouting for the club, received reports of Aumont’s dominance on the mound — his fastball reached 94 mph, his breaking ball had power and his command was excellent. The Blue Jays reached out to Aumont’s agent in the summer of 2019 and heard back that he wasn’t interested in signing with the organization. He was comfortable and in a great frame of mind playing close to home. Dery had also just given birth to their first child, Gabrielle.

That fall, Aumont represented Team Canada at an Olympic qualifying tournament in South Korea and manhandled the higher-seeded Cuban squad, allowing two hits over eight shutout innings. “It was pretty damn impressive,” says Tinnish. “This wasn’t the same Cuban National Team that it was like seven or eight years ago, but it’s still a Cuban National Team. And he just absolutely dominated them.”

Tinnish and Co. picked up their pursuit again and were successful this time, inking Aumont in December to a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training. “He wasn’t throwing 97 anymore,” says Tinnish. “Obviously, he’s 31 years old. But you could tell there was still something there.”

“We can do something good,” Aumont says. “We can grow vegetables and make a living out of it and provide some sort of security for families around here.”

Aumont is relaxing on a wooden bench in the shade of a tree in the front yard of his farmhouse. He removes his bucket hat and sunglasses to wipe the sweat off his brow. The Blue Jays are down in Atlanta today for the finale of a three-game set. Just this past weekend, Toronto saw its series against Philadelphia postponed due to COVID-19 concerns, and on the Friday, 20 per cent of MLB teams had their games called off.

Aumont was with the Blue Jays during spring training and felt he was close to making the team as a bullpen arm. (Tinnish wouldn’t go that far, saying that while Aumont pitched well in March, he would likely have put himself in the mix in a group of pitchers who could earn early season consideration as call-ups from the minors.) When the pandemic hit and baseball shut down, though, Aumont came back home to be with his family.

He and Dery began looking at real estate listings with the intention of moving away from the city. They visited this farmhouse and immediately fell in love with it, gravitating to the idea of owning land and potentially growing produce. They moved in and a few months later, Aumont began to hear rumblings about the resumption of the baseball season.

Since Gabrielle’s birth, Aumont had not been separated from his family. Dery, on maternity leave from her HR job with the federal government, had brought the baby along as she travelled with Aumont to all his stops with Team Canada in the fall, including trips to Arizona, Japan and South Korea. They’d also gone to Florida for spring training. Gabrielle began to walk during the early days of the pandemic and Aumont feels that being in lockdown with her afforded him a powerful sense of gratitude. “It was just a period where I knew I wasn’t supposed to get that quality time with her and to see her grow,” he says. “If there wasn’t a pandemic, I wouldn’t have been here, I would have been with the Jays. I would have been playing.

“I would have seen [her first steps] on my phone, in a text message or video. I wouldn’t have been here to actually witness it with my own eyes and actually see her start walking. I knew all that and I just appreciated every moment.”

Aumont wrestled for several weeks with the thought of leaving to join the Blue Jays for their second iteration of spring training. That “summer camp” did not have its location secured until the last minute, when the organization received special permission from government and health authorities to use Rogers Centre in Toronto. At that point, the club was still hoping to play its regular-season home games in Toronto and then travel to the pandemic-ravaged U.S. for road contests. The uncertainty and risk proved too much for Aumont. If something happened at home and he couldn’t get back, it would destroy him. He also worried that if something happened to him, his family would be left alone.

“I felt that I was leaving my family behind with not a whole lot of security,” says Aumont. “I’m in charge of bringing them security in some way. And I just didn’t think it was worth going to the States to play baseball for the satisfaction of people sitting at home. I didn’t feel that was right.

“It’s no question for me,” he adds. “Family is going to come first before everything. It doesn’t matter. I’ll sleep on the street if I have to, to provide for my family. That’s how I think. Baseball was work. It was a source of income, right? But I’ll find a way somewhere else … I don’t really see it as a sacrifice, as much as I did the right thing for my family.”

Aumont consulted with friends and family and asked them, ‘Am I doing something stupid, here? Am I on the wrong track?’ Some responded that he was still young and could compete at a high level, while others told him that if baseball was going to keep him from sleeping through the night because he’s away from his family and thinking about them, then it’s probably best to stay home. And he certainly wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines — several veteran players, including Buster Posey, David Price and Ryan Zimmerman, ultimately opted out of the season for similar reasons.

“I called it before the season started,” says Aumont. “People were asking me, ‘Do you think anything’s gonna happen?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I guarantee you [the pandemic will affect everything] and guys are going to be tested positive.’ And what happened?”

Asked what he would have done if he were MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, Aumont says he would have cancelled the entire 2020 season from the beginning. But, though he’ll weigh in, baseball’s troubles aren’t a concern of his now. He turned down a shot at a six-figure contract for a life spent in fields, greenhouses and the cab of a Kubota.

“It’s the biggest risk I have ever taken in my life,” he says. “Stressful? It is. I’m not gonna deny that. It’s a big, big risk because, am I going to succeed? I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve been practising since I’m young.”

Gabrielle began to walk in the early days of the pandemic, a milestone Aumont might've missed had he still been playing

Aumont’s farm is only a seven-minute drive from the nearest grocery store, but it certainly doesn’t feel that close to civilization. It’s surrounded on all sides by swaths of neighbouring farmland, lush with soybean plants and corn stalks. The only way to access it is via a one-way gravel driveway and even Google Maps has trouble finding the place.

The 221-acres are still a work in progress, with many buildings unfinished and a fair scattering of wood and other odds and ends. By the second week of April 2021, though, Aumont expects it to be fully operational, and selling directly to locals. He even has plans to add a chicken coop, a pig, goats and sheep, simply so visitors can encounter and admire the animals.

Along with his mentor, Dube, and Dube’s stepson, Guillaume, Aumont is at the greenhouse site unloading stacks of hydrofoam insulation from the back of a pickup truck. In terms of its construction, this greenhouse is currently in the third frame of a nine-inning game. “Once this is over, things are gonna be easy,” Dube tells Aumont, cradling a rake. “Excellente.”

Dube is a fast-talking, quick-moving man with a warm disposition. He’s got a face covered in grey stubble and is wearing a grey Stihl hat with orange lettering and a grey shirt that’s neatly tucked into his navy cargo shorts. He looks like a grizzled farmer, and that’s exactly what he is. Out here he occupies the role once filled by a pitching coach, spending plenty of time explaining to Aumont what’s happening step-by-step and all the reasons behind their work.

Aumont has rented this farm from Dube and plans to officially purchase it in about six months. Dube has owned it for 20 years, but decided to give it up because he just couldn’t handle the 80-100 hours of work the farm requires each week. He wants to buy a Winnebago and eventually travel with his wife, but right now, the plan is to stick around and shepherd Aumont.

Dube had the farm up for sale for seven years before he met Aumont, and he’s come across all kinds of prospective buyers in that time. But he didn’t have a connection with any of them like the one he’s found with the former big-leaguer. “He woke up a part of me that I would say was dead,” Dube says. “Seeing that he wanted to do the same thing I wanted to do. When I stopped, it wasn’t because I didn’t like it. It’s because of the hours. But they are a young couple. They can do so many things with this place and they got the time. So, for me, I come and help him and when my day is over, I go home.”

Aumont received approval from the Quebec government for financial aid that should help cover some of his expenses. The government has a desire to double the province’s total greenhouse production area for fruits and vegetables, according to Yohan Dallaire Boily, a public relations officer with Quebec’s ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food. “Since the start of the pandemic, the government of Quebec has repeatedly encouraged Quebeckers to turn to foods from their region,” he says.

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The opportunity to help provide for the community is something that appeals to Aumont. The memory of empty grocery stores in the beginning of the pandemic is one that sticks with him. “I want to put myself and my family in that position of where I will be the supplier,” he says. “I’m not in it for the money. If I would have been in it for money, I would’ve been playing baseball. That’s where the money is. So, now, I just want to be in touch with nature. Having that kind of lifestyle. I don’t mind working. I don’t mind getting up early or going to bed late at night.”

Dube has noticed Aumont’s work ethic and believes his student will be in fine shape. He’s seen the former ballplayer’s passion from Day 1 — Aumont is always asking questions and takes the initiative to do his own research.

Dery agrees. Baseball is all Aumont has ever known, and she feels farming is something of an escape for him. “I’ve never seen Phil having this spark in his eyes,” she says. “Like, he didn’t have this spark when he was talking about baseball … He sees a future here. He sees a legacy for our family. And we always shared this goal to have a legacy for our family. And I think it makes a lot of sense now that we own a farm and operate a farm. That’s what we’re going to leave our family. And that’ll be our legacy.”

Dube had his farm up for sale for seven years before finding just the right buyers in Aumont and Dery

Tucked away against a corner of the farmhouse is a heavy piece of wood that’s shaped like a large wedge, with a slab of rubber on the top. It’s a makeshift mound that Aumont built himself; the only remnant of his sport visible on the property. He uses it every now and then when throwing to a couple of high-school catchers from the area.

While Aumont’s pro career is done, he’s still eyeing one more goal in baseball: The Olympics. Should Canada eventually call on him, the pitcher says he’ll be ready. The farm work is accounting for his physical fitness and he claims his arm usually needs just four or five weeks of preparation to become game ready.

Tinnish says he could see Aumont pulling that off. The Blue Jays exec also notes that even though Aumont’s path in baseball was rocky at times, he still accomplished a lot in the game.

“He’s a first-round pick; he got to the big leagues,” says Tinnish. “Doing those things is incredibly, incredibly difficult. Like, 99.99999 per cent of the world doesn’t sniff those accomplishments.

“I’m just hopeful that he looks back and is proud of everything that he’s accomplished through his minor-league career to the fact that he had four different stints in the big leagues, through the various [appearances with the] national team,” Tinnish continues. “He’s worn the flag and represented his country. That’s what I hope for him: When he’s sitting there farming and working with his family, he can look back and take a lot of pride in what he did.”

Tinnish need not worry. Aumont says he’s happy, completely at peace, and carries no regrets.

“I can definitely leave and be at peace knowing that I worked hard,” says Aumont. “I gave it all. I put in a lot of hours and a lot of effort. It worked out some years. It didn’t work out some other years. But that’s just the way life is. You can’t have it all. You just can’t have it all.”

Photo Credits

All photos by John Kealey