Before COVID-19 canceled the baseball season, Gary Gilmore was ready to coach.
Cancer be damned.
“My wife and I were 100% ready to go and get up Friday morning, drive to Lafayette and planned to actually coach that weekend,” Gilmore said of the days before the season’s cancellation in March. “Houston is three hours to Lafayette and I had all my treatments and bloodwork completed by that Thursday the 12th, but later that night we got the call that everyone was going back home and that the season was coming to halt.”
The 62-year-old head coach was going through cancer treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston when the pandemic forced life in the United States to grind to a halt. Sports leagues around the world were either cancelled or suspended without knowing when they’d return.
Gilmore has led Coastal’s baseball team for 25 years and his program won a College World Series title in 2016. Much like every other sports fan, he still held out hope that the season might resume.
“At that point, we didn’t really know the far reaches of what we know now as the pandemic,” he said. “We were still becoming educated with what was actually going on. At that moment in time to think that our seniors and older guys wouldn’t play another college baseball game, that thought didn’t really come into my mind. I figured that we would be out at least two weeks, at worst a month.”
On March 16, the Sun Belt Conference sent out a release saying that they were canceling all organized athletics, including regular-season competitions, conference championships and practices.
Shortly after the cancellation of the season, Gilmore returned to the Grand Strand after getting a change in his cancer diagnosis. Initially, doctors believed he had a form of liver cancer. During his time at MD Anderson, further testing revealed the source of the Gilmore’s cancer was a spot in the pancreas.
“From the get-go, there never was a 1,000% confirmation as to exactly what kind of cancer I had,” said Gilmore. “The cells very much mimicked liver cancer, but they were off just enough that pathologists and doctors would not jump in and be 1,000% confident of the cancer I had.”
Gilmore was treated at MD Anderson twice before doctors could confidently diagnose what Gilmore had. This caused his diagnosis to change from liver cancer to pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer and the treatment for this type of cancer is very specialized.
“It is a treatable cancer,” he said. “The way I can compare the treatment methods for this is like comparing zebras. No two zebras in the world have the same stripes. No two neuroendocrine cancer patients have the same type of cancer. It is a very unique to your body. It is very unique to you.”
This type of cancer develops from an abnormal growth of hormone-producing cells in the pancreas. Gilmore said this tumor has been growing inside him for the past 20 years and has caused many complications for Gilmore, including challenges with blood pressure and cholesterol.
“They have me on a type of chemo that I will be on for the rest of my life that is simply trying to get this tumor and its secretions completely under control,” he said.
While Gilmore viewed the loss of the college baseball season as highly unfortunate, Gilmore also saw the positive in that he could focus more on his treatments and getting better without the added stress that comes with the job.
“Personally, it was going to be a difficult roller coaster for me to determine when to step in and coach, when to not coach, when to do this, when to do that,” he said. "[I knew] that there were going to be periods of time when I couldn’t do things physically and I couldn’t pull my weight.”
As he adjusted to a season with cancer and without baseball, one source of encouragement for Gilmore came from his peers.
“I had a whole bunch of coaches reach out to me saying, 'God is just letting you know that the rest of us can’t have baseball season until you get well,'” he said. “I got a big kick out of how many guys told me that.”
Even with there being no baseball in mid-June, a time that sees the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals heat up, the Chanticleers still found a way to win as a few of their star players had their dreams come true by getting the opportunity to play pro ball.
On June 11, pitcher Zach McCambley was selected 75th overall in the third round of the MLB Draft by the Miami Marlins. McCambley is the 14th Chanticleer to be taken in the first five rounds of the annual MLB draft, and the first since Michael Paez was taken in the fourth round by the New York Mets in 2016.
He is also just the seventh Chant to be selected in the top three rounds of the draft and the highest pick since Jacob May went in the third round as the 91st pick to the Chicago White Sox in 2013.
Three days after McCambley was selected, three other Chanticleers inked professional contracts over the course of two days. Pitcher Scott Kobos and infielder Scott McKeon signed with Chicago Cubs on June 14. The next day, pitcher Chase Antle signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I was extremely happy for the guys that got the opportunity,” Gilmore said. “Those guys are incredible individuals and very well-deserving of the opportunity. To get the opportunity to showcase your skills after college is a testament to the kind of player that you are.”
As for the future generations of Chanticleer baseball players, the COVID-19 pandemic had very little effect on the recruiting process for the Chanticleers going into next season. The 2020 Chanticleer baseball team was one of the youngest squads to take the field since Gilmore became the head coach.
“The incoming guys are inquisitive about the size of the roster,” Gilmore said. “They want to know who is going to be there and who’s coming back. Because we are such a young team, we are not in a position like other programs to bring back six or seven seniors to play an extra year.”
Gilmore feels that the roster for 2021 is in “a really good spot at the moment.” The expectation for the younger players, however, still remains the same.
“We have taken some shots from the pro ranks and graduations, but some of these transfers and young pitchers are going to have to step up into some big shoes,” Gilmore said.
So what does Gilmore’s future look like at Coastal?
“Life for me, personally, is going to be a bigger challenge when I am out there in the real world,” the coach said.
Because of his health challenges, Gilmore said he’s taking additional precautions to stay safe.
“I have not been to a store in so long,” he said.
State health officials recommended that the public practice social distancing, wear face coverings and urge people to frequently wash their hands.
“Evidence is increasing about the high rates of infection in people who do not have symptoms and don’t know they are infectious,” a release from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) says. “This places everyone at risk of getting the virus or unknowingly transmitting it to someone else.”
That uncertainty makes Gilmore a little anxious about interacting with others in ways he has done in the past.
“I am more concerned about catching this coronavirus than dealing with what I have going on right now with cancer,” he said. “My body doesn’t need both of those things to try and fight off. I have been a handshaker, hugger, backslapper and an in-your-face kind of guy. I have to find ways now to still be that guy, but be that guy within eight to 10 feet of the people I am interacting with.”
When he does return to college baseball, Gilmore said he will take an approach to his health similar to what legendary NFL coach and commentator John Madden has done.
“There will be no flights for me until they figure out a way to cure this mess,” he said. “I’m going to have to have a driver or two and when our team goes places, I can’t get on that bus with that recirculated air. That’s not a good place for me to be.”
With his current diagnosis, Gilmore is more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. Recent regulations put forth by Horry County officials are now requiring facial coverings be worn to help slow the spread. While there are some in the community and around the country who oppose such mandates, Gilmore is not in that camp.
“I feel sorry for people that view masks as an invasion of their life and the way they do things,” he said. “At the end of the day, when you don’t wear a mask, it is basically a direct reflection of the fact that you don’t respect my life. I’ve had a few people bark at me because I’ve said something to them and I’ll continue to say something. Believe me, I hate wearing them. But if I do my part to slow it down, then we are one step closer to stopping the spread.”
Gilmore said that when he returns to the diamond, there will be “every protocol humanly possible” in order to protect him.
“Until there is a 100% cure for this thing, I will be wearing a mask,” he said. “You will see me wearing one at a baseball game, especially when I am in the dugout and am forced to be within close proximity. I am going to have every protocol imaginable put in place in an effort to protect me.”
Gilmore said the adjustments he will have to make going forward are not just for the protection of himself and members of the program, but to also ensure that he can remain with the program that he has built into a mid-major powerhouse.
“I have no plans of immediately stepping down. I got plenty of fight left within me,” he said. “Now, with that being said, if I feel like I am being a drag to the team, I will retire. I am not going to be a drag.”
Recently, the coach said he’s become more optimistic about 2021.
“As long as my body continues to respond the way it is responding right now, I have no doubt in my mind that I will be coaching third base,” he said.