Sallie's Story: Duke's Jim Gallagher

  • Name: Jim Gallagher
  • Age: 27
  • Organization: Duke University, Charlotte Knights

(Former Duke Blue Devil Jim Gallagher is hitting .247 with three home runs and 27 RBI in 86 games for Triple-A Charlotte in 2013.)

Author: Patrick Kinas, creator.

As far as Jim Gallagher can remember, baseball has always been his life. In the last two years, Gallagher has seen the circle of life up close. He’s lost. He’s found. The former Duke outfielder has embraced an entirely different look into the lens of life.

About once a month, 27-year-old Jim Gallagher picks up his cell phone and calls his mother. Voice mail inevitably picks up, and he listens to his mother’s voice. He calls several times in a row. The calmness of her voice on the message helps to reassure him during the tough times. Hearing her voice is a reminder of the tight bond they shared before she was taken too soon from her husband and two sons. The Gallaghers still pay the monthly fee to maintain Sallie’s cell phone, now even two years after she passed from bone cancer.

“Our relationship was as close as you can imagine for a son and a mother,” recalled Gallagher. “She loved my baseball career, she loved me. She was a really, really special lady.”

Hearing Jim speak about his mother still brings an emotional look to his face. He recalls the drives his mother and father religiously took every weekend from Pittsburgh to watch the Duke baseball team in action. Whether thousand mile hikes to Tallahassee or Coral Gables, Blacksburg or Raleigh, the Gallaghers would take time off from their family-owned executive search firm business, so they could be in the stands wearing Duke gear supporting their son.

“For the games she couldn’t attend, she used to bake cookies for the people at Duke to make sure Gametracker was working! She was a stat rat. She’d always tell me what I needed to do and what others were doing.”

In 2011, four years after being drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the seventh round, Gallagher found himself knocking at the major league door for the first time in his career. But the Gallagher’s lives changed that spring.

“During the spring of 2011, my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer,” Gallagher said. “I wasn’t totally aware of the severity of it.”

Oblivious or insulated from the gravity of his mother’s battle, Gallagher was in the middle of his finest pro season. On June 9th, Gallagher was hitting .300 with 26 doubles at Triple-A Charlotte. It was around that time that Gallagher came to realize the impossible battle his mom was fighting.

“I remember being in Pawtucket in middle of June ’11, and it was one thing after the other. I would talk to dad, and she had developed a tumor in middle of her spine. Then she lost the ability to move. That was the moment that I realized how imminent it was.”

It was the first time Jim had such a strong revelation.

“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, my mom is about to die.’”

“Before, all I was thinking about was going to the major leagues.”

A few weeks later, Gallagher left the Knights to be by the side of his mother.

“She was a strong woman. Invincible. The moment came where we as a family had to make a decision to take her off her respirator. Waking up the next day knowing it’s her last day, it was very difficult.”

Sallie passed just after the 2011 All-Star break.

For Gallagher, the unbreakable bond he shared with his mom made it very difficult to return to his baseball life.

“The rest of that year, I didn’t even want to be at the park. Baseball isn’t like basketball or football where there’s constant action and the ability to keep my mind preoccupied. I’d be standing at first base, kicking around the dirt and thinking about my mom.”

Gallagher’s sorrow impacted his results. He hit .201 the rest of the season and ended at .246 and there was no call-up to the White Sox.

Gallagher’s Rock

“She was with me when my mom passed away.”

She is Meg Bulger. Meg is a former college basketball player at West Virginia, and the sister of NFL quarterback Marc Bulger, a two-time Pro Bowl selection.

“Having Meg there with me, it was huge,” said Jim. “I felt like as the oldest son, my job was to hold up my dad and younger brother. In a sense, it was tough to grieve on my own. She was a rock for me.”

Meg, 28, had met Gallagher’s mom several times after she was sick, and Gallagher beams thinking about how close those two would’ve been.

“They would’ve gotten along so well. They’re very similar in personalities, and would’ve been as close as a daughter and mother-in-law could have been.”

They’ve been married almost a year now, together for three.

According to Jim, he walked into a house of friends and family, looked into one corner of the house, and caught her staring at him. She was a friend of a friend, and after they met each other that fateful night in late 2010, they were inseparable.

“We hung out that night and pretty much never stopped talking.”

They were married last December.

This past spring training, Gallagher’s sixth in the Chicago organization, was more anxiety-filled than any other. Besides trying to position himself more sturdily in the minds of the White Sox decision-makers, Gallagher was going to experience another life-altering moment.

He and Meg were going to have their first child.

“She was due at the end of spring training, around April 1st,” Gallagher remembered. “We weren’t sure how it was going to work. The White Sox were totally fine with me leaving for a few days, but she ended up being a week late.”

This is the time when the Gallagher story takes on a Hollywood hue.

Gallagher’s role on the Charlotte team was fairly undefined at that early stage, and had played in just two of the first four games of the season.

“We (Knights) were in Norfolk on April 8th, and they said that they were going to induce on the 9th. I played that night, and in my first at-bat, the pitcher (Zach Petersmine) hung a slider out over the plate. I hit it a mile. When I got to the dugout, my teammates were telling me that I 'got that daddy strength'.”

A home run on this night would’ve been sufficient for Gallagher, whose life was going to change forever in merely a few hours. However, the screenwriter had more ink left in his pen. Gallagher collected three more hits that night, going 4-6 with 4 RBI, leading the Knights to a 21-4 wipeout of the Tides.

After the three-hour game, Gallagher sprinted to his rental car and drove through the dark Virginia night to Pittsburgh.

“There are such highs and lows in this business. I remember being in the car on Cloud 9. Now I’m driving home to have my first child. Had I not had a good game, say I went 0-6, I’d be questioning my life as to where it’s going. Life could not have been any better. The way it worked out was incredible.”

After touching base with Meg several times during the drive, including fielding a call from Meg after her water had broken, Gallagher arrived at 5am on the 9th. His 6 ½ hour drive was complete and into the hospital he walked.

Right on time. Right into the delivery room. Nola Gallagher arrived a few hours later.

“In that moment, it was the most surreal moment ever,” Gallagher radiated. “Everyone tells you that it will be, but you have no clue. You can think about all the moments in life and think back, for me, that was the best thing that ever happened. In an instant where something happens to you, you feel it. It’s totally indescribable. To be blessed with a healthy child, you just take that for granted.”

With all that Gallagher has endured over the past two years, he’s taken away some life lessons that perhaps he didn’t have the ability to fully comprehend before.

“It’s easy to lose sight of reality. At times it’s easy to get selfish or bitter. You want this, you want that. It’s so easy to forget how blessed your life is. There are people who are sick, who have diseases or different circumstances than you. A year ago, in all honesty, I was a little bit bitter about how things went. I expected the year to go differently and expected to have some things handed to me, which was obviously wrong of me, and the totally wrong perspective.”

“That’s what I’ve learned.”

So while life didn’t allow Sallie and Nola to meet, Jim has saved some videos of his mother to show Nola when she gets a little older. He also has plans to keep his mother’s cell phone active so Nola can hear her grandmother’s voice.

Jim and Meg did have one other tribute through which Nola and Sallie are forever bonded.

Her middle name.

(Photo courtesy: Charlotte Knights/Erica Caldwell.)

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