Determination, hard work and sacrifice pays off, and often when you least expect it.

Don Gilbert, one of the finest hitters to ever come out of this county, gave up a trip with friends to Kings Dominion on Friday because he had a bad night at the plate Thursday.

As a result he was at home Friday morning to take the biggest phone call of his life.

"It's unbelievable, what I've dreamed so longfor and worked so hard for and my chance has come," said Gilbert after agreeing over the phone to a minor-league contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

Gilbert left yesterday morning for Bluefield, W.Va., and the Orioles rookie team. The former Northeast High All-County andAll-Metro infielder (1987) is the county's all-time career hits leader (107 hits in three years).

Gilbert, who went on to a fine career at Winthrop College in South Carolina, received a small bonus and incentive package to sign as a free agent.

"I was 0-for-the-night Thursday at Cannon Stadium and not too happy with my performance," said Gilbert, who was playing for the Arundel Stars unlimited team hoping to get a crack at pro ball.

"A bunch of my teammates were going to Kings Dominion all day because we had off before we were to play four games this weekend. After having an 0-for night, I told everybodyI was not going and was going to stay home and hit some this afternoon. When I got that call this morning, I said who made me stay home, and I said that's upstairs."

The 22-year-old infielder heard from two of his former coaches, Harry Lentz of Northeast High and Clayton Jacobson of the Wagner's Orioles 20-and-under team. Both are local Oriole associate scouts and had been beating the drums for Gilbert for quite some time.

Orioles scouting supervisor Jim Gilbert (no relation to Don), who has been instructing at the Cal Ripken Baseball School in Emmitsburg this week with Lentz, got word from the organizationthat they needed another infielder at Bluefield.

In talking with Lentz and Jacobson the past couple of days, all Jim Gilbert heard was"You've got to sign Donnie Gilbert."

So acting on the recommendations of his colleagues as the good scouts often do, Gilbert got Lentzto call Don about 8 a.m. Friday. Subsequently, a conference call wasset up in the Glen Burnie State Farm office of Jacobson, who is alsohead coach at Anne Arundel Community College.

"Jim called Doug Melvin (Orioles minor-league director) and told him he had the infielder they needed for Bluefield and asked if he could sign Donnie," said Jacobson.

"So, after Harry and I talked on the phone with Donnie we all cried. This is the thrill in coaching to see a kid like Don geta chance."

After graduating from Northeast as the metro area's top hitting infielder, Gilbert went on to have a very good career at Winthrop. He thought that if he worked hard through college, got stronger and showed how badly he wanted a chance at pro ball that his opportunity would come.

He was eligible for the free-agent draft at theend of his junior year at Winthrop last summer, but the phone didn'tring. Then, this year he hit .342 for Winthrop with seven home runs,so he thought someone would take a shot at him.

It didn't happen,and the frustration set in again, but this time it was tougher to swallow. After all, when you get to age 22 and your college career is over, and no offers are available, time begins to run out.

Gilbert started this summer with the Stars, coached by Dan Fielder and Larry Schillenberg (Anne Arundel Community College pitching coach) and credits those two guys for "keeping my hopes up and kept pushing me when everything was down."

Enjoying a great summer with the Stars, Gilbert had 11 homers in fewer than 30 games while playing mostly third base.

Hitting the ball out of the yard is something that Gilbert started doing in his senior year at Winthrop. Up to then, he was a "punch and judy" type hitter, until one day in the batting cage last spring.

"I had been working all year on developing some power, and oneday in the batting cage I discovered a new place to put my hands andstarted to get a little more pop," he said. "Suddenly balls going into the right-center gaps started to carry over the fence. When I see my pitch now, I can drive it."

No one seemed to notice, but Gilbert's college coach, Horace Tureebille, called to encourage him to keepplaying this summer and not give up hope. Tureebille was convinced that Gilbert's new-found power would earn him a ticket to the farm.

It's ironic that his lifelong dream call came after a lousy night with the stick.

"I owe a lot to my parents (Donald and Sharon) because of the push and drive to succeed that they gave me," said Gilbert."That meant a lot and is the main reason I never gave up the dream."

Gilbert feels he is ready for life in the minors because of the people, like Lentz and Jacobson, who helped him prepare.

"Coach Lentz taught me not just how to be a ballplayer, but how to be a good person, how to go about life in a correct way and that helped me get through college," said Gilbert. "And during the summer, it was Clayton who taught me a lot about baseball and life. Those things I will never forget even past baseball."

Besides learning how to swing the bat, the next best thing Gilbert learned from his former coaches is theimportance of playing hard all the time and maintaining great work ethics.

Jumping into pro baseball with great work ethics gives the undrafted free agent a head start and ultimately a shot to move up the ladder. Gilbert knows that and also knows you can't jump steps and have to take them one by one.

"I'm going to go to Bluefield with the attitude that I'm going to do the best I can," said Gilbert. "I know I will start at Bluefield a few weeks behind everyone else, and I have a lot of work to do.

"I know how to play baseball, but now I have to learn how to play professional baseball. It's going to take some time, but I'm going to work every single day I can, every single hour I can to be the best player I can be."

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Gilbert played mostly third base in college and this summer has played every infield position for the Stars. He's not sure what the Orioles' plans are for him at Bluefield, but it doesn't matter because hewill play anywhere they want to put him.

"When I didn't get drafted after my senior year, I knew at age 22 my chances were slim, but Idecided to hit all the (pro baseball tryout) camps and go out fighting," said Gilbert.

"I didn't want anyone to say that I was a person who didn't try hard enough to make it. I was going to do everythingI could do to get signed."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad