he rush of the dinner crowd has a local artisan pizza shop humming in the early evening. Geoffrey Gilbert strolls in at 6:34 still draped in the long sleeves he typically wears underneath his baseball uniform. He was supposed to arrive at 6:45. He’s 11 minutes early.
The restaurant is bubbling busier by the moment. Flour-dusted dough floats through the air, pint glasses are filled with golden ale, dishes clamor as they’re delivered and then retrieved. Conversations carry with laughter that lightens the room until a crying baby rings out above most else.
Gilbert seeks out a quieter table tucked in the back, somewhat private but beside a window so that he can still gaze outside. The rain has begun to fall heavier out there, which is the only reason he’s able to be here tonight.
Bishop England’s left-handed ace was supposed to be pitching today. He’s rarely available for much on game days, especially withdrawn on days he’s scheduled to pitch. Those days always begin the same, early in the morning with bacon, egg and cheese on a cinnamon sugar bagel from his favorite local bakery and an iced coffee with two creams to jumpstart the morning. Maybe it’s the chilled caffeine or maybe it’s the anticipation but he usually stirs about anxiously the rest of the school day.
Today began the same but the rainout has postponed the ending. Instead of taking the mound this evening, the top-ranked pitcher in the state has taken to a steel chair in this pizza parlor where a teenage waitress is ready to take his order. Dinner will be simple tonight — a 10-inch pie with one topping, pepperoni. But first, a Caesar salad with no croutons. Water is all he’d like to drink. Traditional, maybe bland to some, but disciplined, reliable and effective, much like himself.
“There goes Darnell,” he casually throws out, spotting out the corner of his eye Bishop England coach Mike Darnell motoring his blue Toyota Tacoma through the far lane of traffic a couple hundred yards away. Gilbert is attentive to the conversation at the table, but still keenly aware of everything that surrounds him as well. The man sitting in the booth behind him orders the fungi pizza; interesting but too many unusual toppings, he thinks. The table in front of him orders a turkey pita and chicken tenders. "At a pizza place?" he wonders aloud with a facial expression that disapproves. He thinks he might major in psychology in college. He analyzes everything.
Tomorrow morning he’ll restart his game-day routine. Same early start. Same bacon, egg and cheese bagel. Same iced coffee. Same narrow focus throughout the school day. Hopefully the same results too. Less than a month of his senior season remains. There’s no sense in changing anything now. His instincts urge him to stick with what works, what’s always worked.
Gilbert hasn’t taken a loss all season. He didn’t take one last year either, or the year before that. He’s made 44 straight appearances without losing and, since entering high school four years ago, has never lost to a team from his home state of South Carolina.
What he has lost in his ascension, though, isn’t as measurable with analytics. It’s not as straightforward as wins or ERA. It’s a result of the unwavering commitment he’s made to the game. It’s a missed birthday party or bonfire here or there. It’s a movie he didn’t get to see with a girl he never asked out. Or it’s a night on the town with casual friends who lately don’t bother to invite him for nights out quite as often.
There’s been a cost to Gilbert’s success, an expensive price to pay in becoming the best in the state, one of the best in the nation and, in a couple months, likely a Major League draft pick. Rarely accounted for is the cost of such lofty dreams. Gilbert chose to stand out at a point in his life when most of his teenage peers are more interested in fitting in. He subconsciously accepted these sacrifices long ago. But now, just two months from his high school graduation, he’s gained better perspective and become increasingly self aware. He’s begun to analyze himself.
“It’s tough to explain,” he begins, loosening his usually poised posture into a more vulnerable slouch. “I know I’ve missed out on some stuff. I mean, I’m a regular guy. Everyone wants to fit in. You see people posting pictures of all these parties and stuff they’re going to and, to be honest, you always want to be included in everything. I think that’s just natural.
“Right now, though, I have to have the mentality that this is all worth it. Everything I’ve put in, everything I’m doing, the way I’ve done it, you know, whatever I’ve sacrificed. If I allow myself to even begin to think that it might not be worth it, I’ll never make it.”
On his 14th birthday, Gilbert asked his parents for freestanding floodlights.
“You want what?” his mother, Sharon, asked in confusion. It’s not as though she expected a request for an Xbox or a Playstation. Her son has never owned a video game system in his life. But Sharon hardly expected to be perusing the aisles of Home Depot for 1,000-watt halogens.
“The team and I need them,” he pleaded.
Gilbert didn’t want any limitations. He wanted to be able to illuminate his high school field long after the sun had set and the stadium lights shut down. He wanted free reign to train. He just needed some extra lighting for the longer days that turned to nights.
The first few weeks he experimented with the new lights, police would sometimes circle the parking lot to see what was glowing in the otherwise dark complex. No one really bothers him out there anymore, as if they by now know the unusual light is just Gilbert throwing his usual late-night bullpen or taking hacks in the batting cage. His family once went out to dinner at a restaurant near the field. Geoffrey asked to be excused to get a quick workout in. His parents found him there hours later. He was finally worn out and now sweating over a pizza he had delivered to the park.
“He’s just always been like that. He’s always been different that way,” Sharon said. “He’s just so driven by this goal to play baseball.”
Gilbert isn’t really sure how he ended up here. Neither of his parents played sports competitively. Some kids are groomed to pitch. He wasn’t even allowed to pitch until he was 12 years old. He stands 6-foot-2 now and has built himself to about 200 pounds, but he’s always been naturally bigger than kids his age. He swam competitively when he was younger, which might explain his broad shoulders and triangular torso. He also developed an early addiction to the weight room. Darnell would often arrive to school before 6 a.m. Gilbert would often be waiting by the weight room door, having already texted a couple teammates to see if they’re awake and on their way to join the early-morning session.
“He’s always been extremely self-disciplined," said Gilbert’s father, Greg. “It’s as if he just decides he’s going to succeed at something and then he goes and does it.”
Gilbert made Bishop England’s junior varsity team in seventh grade and by the end of the season was called up to the varsity. He began his eighth grade season back on the junior varsity and was again brought up midway through the year. A lot of things could’ve gone wrong at such a fragile age. Bouncing back and forth wasn’t easy. Neither was facing competition four and five years his elder.
It was both an honor and a sacrifice. Playing a few years ahead most of his peers meant it’d be couple years before they caught back up and he’d get to play with friends his age again. His older teammates embraced him for his potential on the field but they shared little in common off of it.
“Do I really want to do this?” Gilbert would ask himself.
“I felt so old,” he said looking back. “I felt I didn’t feel like I fit in. I just felt like I blended in.”
Success helped. One of Gilbert’s first varsity appearances was against neighboring rival Wando, the year before the Warriors won the state championship. Sharon trembled as she watched her son dig into the mound against the top of the lineup.
“They looked like giants,” she said. “All I could think about was a ball coming right back at him. I thought they were going to hurt my child.”
Gilbert retired the side in order. He trotted calmly back to the dugout with his glove covering his smile. He wanted to scream. Darnell knew then what he had. There was a certain precocity that reminded him of another seventh grader he called up years ago.
“You kind of wonder if a guy that young can handle that sort of thing but he was so much more advanced than most seventh graders in the way he was built physically and the way he handled himself mentally, even at that age,” Darnell said. “The only other player we’ve had like that is Reese Havens.”
Havens was an All-American at Bishop England and again in college at South Carolina before becoming a first-round Major League draft pick. He spent a season as a volunteer coach at Bishop England in 2014, the year Gilbert was first called up to the varsity.
“He was still so young back then but you could kind of see he was going to be a little bit different,” Havens said. “It can be hard for a kid that age but I don’t remember him struggling much really. Even then you could see he was focused and passionate about the game. He was a little different in his approach than most kids his age and that’s the kind of stuff it takes.”
Gilbert has been maybe the state’s most dominant pitcher since joining the varsity full time as a freshman four years ago. He’s struck out 257 batters and allowed just 14 earned runs over 161 ⅔ innings pitched. He’s the first high school junior to ever be named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year. Bishop England has won consecutive state championships the past two seasons and time and again, in the biggest spots, against the toughest opponents, on the largest stages, Gilbert has delivered.
“Every time we needed a big strikeout, a big inning, he would come through,” said former Bishops catcher Will Bastian, now a freshman at The Citadel. “Geoffrey was definitely a leader from the get-go; the upperclassmen, the seniors, everybody embraced that. I think everybody understood if we want to win, we have to just let this kid go and let him be the leader that he is. I can just picture him slapping his glove and getting fired up after a strikeout. The guy is just a fierce competitor.”
Gilbert began his career just trying to overpower batters. He rode untamed emotion to propel fastballs past hitters. He was sitting in the mid-80s heading into the summer after his freshman season. He knew he needed to evolve both technically and mentally so he sought out help. He studied every book and video he could get his hands on. He called every coach and trainer willing to assist.
One of those trainers was Mike Williams, owner of Diamond Elite in Conway. Gilbert came to him asking for another pitch. Williams introduced him to a knuckle curve ball. It took about 15 minutes, maybe five or 10 tries before Gilbert had it down. He unleashed it a week later at the Palmetto Games, a summer showcase in Columbia. Scouts fawned. Both Clemson and South Carolina offered on the spot. Gilbert chose Clemson and hasn’t wavered since.
Now his fastball reaches the mid-90s. His curve has gotten nastier and he’s added a slider and a change-up that falls off the table. Maybe most importantly though, he’s learned to harness his emotions. He can calmly phase out the noise and heckling better than he used to, or he can crank things up to shut down dicey situations. He much prefers the latter.
“He’s always been such a student of the game. He’s obsessive in every way. How can he get his body better? How can he pitch better? How can he learn more of the mental side,” said Williams, who for years has been evaluating prospects for scouting services. “There’s just a different level of competitiveness in him. He can flip a switch and go to another level when he needs to. It’s scary. I think that really separates him. Other kids can’t do that the same way.
“There are the top pitchers in this state, and then there is Geoffrey Gilbert.”
Gilbert puts down his slice of pizza to check his phone. He’d ignored his text messages most of the night but this one is from his girlfriend.
He met Chandler Hutto at a College of Charleston basketball game in January. She’s a freshman cheerleader on the Cougars’ Spirit Squad. He didn’t make the greatest first impression, fumbling through a shy introduction. Wooing girls doesn’t come quite as easy for him as bending a curve ball but he redeemed himself in the weeks to come with beach trips and chicken tender dinner dates. Hutto was hesitant initially; baseball players carry a certain stigma in her mind. But Gilbert’s patience and persistence began to win her over.
“He’s very hard-headed. I learned that quickly,” she said. “When he has his mind set on something, there’s no stopping him.”
Gilbert is tall and strong, clean cut and polite, always addressing everyone, even people his own age, as sir and ma’am. He’s intelligent and disciplined, having grown up within a family of educators. He ranks toward the top of his class in grade point average, although he admits it bothers him a little that he’s not ranked first overall.
He’s strong in his faith, raised in the Catholic school system and still serves altar at church. He’s philanthropic, a longtime volunteer at the Charleston Miracle League, where last summer he facilitated a $1,000 donation without any fanfare.
He’s unnecessarily kind. Few know he’s befriended a 6-year-old autistic girl unless they’ve seen them sitting together at church or together in the stands at a Bishop England basketball game. There's not much of a story to their relationship. She just needed a friend.
He seems nearly flawless but underneath the multiple layers of excellence he knows he’s not. Hutto is the first legitimate girlfriend he’s had in high school. And Gilbert figures he has less than 10 true friends, probably more like five if he’s being honest. He’s never been able, or willing, to devote much time to any sort of relationship outside of baseball. Ignoring that sort of interpersonal connection is something he didn’t realize he was doing until recently, until it was already done. Those who’ve been in his position say it’s a common trait, even flaw, of athletes on his type of ascension.
“He’s at an age right now where everybody is trying to figure themselves out. But he’s known who he is and he’s comfortable with that. That’s part of why he’s so successful,” said Jeff Ridgway, a former Major League pitcher who’s become somewhat of an adviser for Gilbert. “It probably seems like overkill to some people. He’s moving differently than most people his age and not everyone is going to get that. There’s no guesswork with him when he goes and does something. He’s so keen on paying attention to his environment and knowing what’s good for him and what can hurt him. That’s not always going to fit in with everyone else.”
Hutto grew up in a baseball family. Her father played at The Citadel and younger brother plays in high school. She understands the demands and maybe that’s why their relationship works. Or maybe it’s Gilbert finally, for one of the few times in his life, carving out time for someone or something not tied to baseball, school or church.
Gilbert devotes much of his weekends and summers to playing baseball. That sort of schedule doesn’t allow for much of a social life. He rarely can make whatever he’s invited to and because of that isn’t really invited to that much anymore. His strict ideals and self-discipline further complicate things and can sometimes be off-putting to others his age. Too much success inevitably breeds some degree of resentment. He’s selective about who he accepts on social media and has shut down accounts in the past. He’s even more careful about who’s around him. He'll attended football games on Friday nights but often stands on the sideline with the team instead of in the student section of the bleachers. He’s had to let some friendships wither and potential relationships fizzle over the years. This social cocoon is a cost of his ambition.
“People can think it’s lame right now but what’s that really matter?” said Bishops senior third baseman Chris Dengler, one of Gilbert’s closest friends and an Old Dominion signee. “Not everyone is going to understand. Everyone has an opinion. But what are they going to think when he’s on TV playing baseball in a couple years and they’re at home eating McDonald’s?”
Gilbert visited Clemson a couple years ago with a few other baseball players from around the state. They planned to go out on the town one night, not necessarily unusual for athletes visiting colleges. Gilbert, the youngest of the group, was torn. He didn’t really want to go but he wasn’t going to stay back alone by himself. He cured his guilt by having a few Clemson players autograph a baseball for a young Tigers fan back home.
“He has some inner turmoil, I think, being who he is and dealing with normal peer pressure and all that stuff,” Darnell said. “He gives up a lot, no doubt. But he’s begun to find a way to still be one of the guys without compromising who he is. That’ll be even more important as he gets further along in his career.”
Baseball may have cost him certain normalcies but it’s also been a cure for whatever ails him. Nothing quells stress and anxiety for him quite like throwing a strikeout or driving in a run. His father was admitted for quintuple bypass heart surgery the same day Gilbert was to start his junior season at a tournament two hours out of town. Gilbert pleaded to stay home by his dad’s bedside but his parents insisted he go and play. The field was the only escape Gilbert had from worrying about his father that weekend. He hardly left the stadium because of it. It’s sort of always been like that for him. The troubles of the outside world never seem to penetrate the fence of the diamond. So that's where he stays. The Bishops won the tournament. Gilbert didn’t allow a run on the mound, won the home run derby, and was named to the all-tournament team. Gilbert couldn't wait to show the trophies to his father, who ended up being fine after successful surgery.
“Baseball has helped me get through so much in my life,” Gilbert said. “I know it’s cost me some things too. It looks easy but there’s pressure everywhere. It does get to you. It's depressing sometimes. Everyone expects so much from you. You don’t know if you’re doing it all right. My own peers give me crap for success. It sounds stupid but it’s a harsh reality.
“That’s what I signed up for though. I know I don’t live the normal teenage life. That’s not easy, believe me, and it’s something I’ve tried to get better at. But, honestly, I don’t want to be normal.”
Game day has finally arrived.
Dengler awoke to find Gilbert sitting on the couch in his family’s living room. Gilbert was too excited to sit at his own house. So he let himself into Dengler’s, made breakfast and waited for his friend wake up and join him.
“He’s always ready to go,” Dengler said with a laugh.
Gilbert is meticulous about his pregame warm-ups. His routine begins exactly 50 minutes before first pitch. Stretch, throw, long toss, stretch again in the bullpen, towel drills, every minute is assigned.
He’s just as organized between innings. He’s maintained the same seat in the far corner of the dugout for years. He stays mostly to himself over there, locked into some sort of meditative state. When it’s time to retake the field, his hat goes on first. He takes a small sip of water, the same number of steps toward the field and says the same quick prayer before exiting the dugout.
“Dear Lord, the battles I go through in life, I ask for a chance that’s fair,” he begins in a whisper. “A chance that is equal with all in strife, a courage to strive and dare. If I should win, let it be by the code with my faith and my honor held high. And if I should lose, let me stand by the road and cheer as the winners go by.”
Scouts watch from behind home plate, reading radar guns and jotting notes, as they often do when Gilbert pitches. Nine scouts approached Gilbert on his way from the parking lot to the field before his first exhibition start earlier this season. Nine. For an exhibition. No pressure, though.
Hutto watches from the bleachers, swimming in one of Gilbert’s blue Bishop England baseball shirts and perched beside Greg and Sharon, who she rode with to the game. With Gilbert in control, as usual, the Bishops win. No one seems surprised; everyone seems pleased.
A young fan asks Gilbert for an autograph after the game. Gilbert not only obliges but spends a minute asking the kid about himself. He asks who he plays for, what position, and if one day he’ll play for the Bishops. The kid walks away smitten. Gilbert smiles. If his sacrifices are the cost, moments like this are part of the return on his investment.
“That was me back then, the same kid, looking up to the guys older than me, wanting to be like them, wanting their autographs,” Gilbert said. “That’s why I am the way I am. That’s why I’m so careful about what I do and how I act. I know there’s going to be some kid watching who’s just like me. I don't want to let him down.”
Bishop England legend Drew Meyer is here too, dressed in kelly green along with his 6-year-old son, Hudson, who stares wide-eyed out at Gilbert. They wait for him after the game and Hudson seems enthralled as he approches.
Meyer is one of the best to ever play for the Bishops. He, like Havens, became an All-American at South Carolina and a first-round draft pick. He reached the majors at 24 years old, back when baseball was surely his life. He was retired by 29. Now he sells insurance, coaches his son’s baseball team and has never been happier.
Gilbert and Meyer connected through Twitter last summer when it was announced that Gilbert had won the same Gatorade award that Meyer received 19 years prior. The two met for dinner, shared stories, personal perspectives. Meyer understands Gilbert's pursuit better than most because he’s from the same school, made the same sacrifices and battled similar challenges to reach the mountaintop. He also knows how quickly life changes without baseball.
“It’s not easy to be in his position, trust me. There are sacrifices like crazy but truth be told 99 percent of the guys out there would say, ‘Heck yeah, I’ll sacrifice whatever right now to have these opportunities,’’ Meyer said. “You are trying to be different than everyone else. It’s good he embraces it now because it’s not going to get any easier. He’s shown he can handle it and I’m proud to see the way he has handled it. As a BE alum, I brag about the program all the time. And Geoff is a guy we can brag about.”
The MLB draft awaits in June. Gilbert is likely to become the fifth Bishop to ever have his name called. Some of the toughest decisions of his life will follow. Time has become more valuable than ever. He’s learning — maybe too late or maybe just in time — to find some sense of balance. A reporter asked him last fall about his senior prom. Gilbert laughed it off, saying he doubted he would even attend. Now he is. Small changes like that hint toward his heightened awareness and personal development.
“I didn’t really realize it until it was right in front of my face,” Gilbert said. “High school went by quick. I know my life is going to change in a couple months, whether that’s college or whatever else. I'm not saying I did everything right or I would tell the next guy to do it the same way. It just makes you appreciate the small circle of people that you do have. I know they’re with me the rest of my life even if baseball never works out.”
And what if baseball never works out? Would it all still have been worth it?
“I think it would be,” he said. “At least I’ve learned a good work ethic. I’ve learned how to deny temptation. I’ve learned how to fail and succeed. Even if baseball didn’t work out, everything I’ve gone through to try to get there has made me that much of a better person. I can always take pride in that.”