A coach praising one of his players on draft night is expected. However, “praise” doesn’t do enough to describe how Tennessee coach Tony Vitello raved about former Vol center fielder Drew Gilbert during the MLB Network’s broadcast of the 2022 MLB Draft.
Vitello said Gilbert changed his life after the Houston Astros selected Gilbert with the 28th pick of the 2022 MLB Draft.
“I didn’t get invited to that party but a great presentation on the podium for a great kid,” Vitello said on the MLB Network podium. “Obviously, a loud personality on the field because he wants to win so bad, but I can’t describe to people how he changed my life when he got to our program. He does things in the locker room and the dugout that are tough to describe especially in a short period of time, but literally changed how the program operates, thinks, competes, works. I think he’s going to do that at the big league level too though he’s going to have to establish himself. Phenomenal kid. I’m so happy for him.”
A late addition to Tennessee’s 2019 signing class, Gilbert was an instant impact player in Knoxville and his play on the field was just the tip of the iceberg of how he affected the Volunteer program.
“Just the mentality. Instead of going to any program he wanted to in the country — which he was originally going to Oregon State who at the time kind of had college baseball by the cajones — instead of doing that he went to the place he thought he could turn into one of the best baseball teams in the country, and he did it,” Vitello said. “He got our guys thinking about being on the attack, believing in themselves and he set a very very high bar for work ethic.”
Gilbert was the undoubted leader of Tennessee’s baseball team that wasn’t afraid to play the role of the villain. While the First Team All-SEC selection was hated amongst fans across the conference, Vitello was quick to defend Drew Gilbert the person and teammate.
“He loves his teammates,” Vitello said. “I texted a couple of the freshmen and asked ‘what was it like to play with him?’ and they just said they took to his leadership. It’s hard to put into words and not get emotional but this is a phenomenal kid. Usually when you have a kid that plays like Ty Cobb on the field, he acts like a maniac off the field. He could not be a better, nicer kid off the field. He’s got a lot of people that don’t like him in the country, but if you ask guys on Team USA that played with him and got to be with him everyday — cause they come from all over — I guarantee you they all love him and they would love to go to battle with him.”
The fifth-year Tennessee head coach admitted that the SEC batting leader would have to tune down some of his antics at the professional level. However, Vitello took the blame for any over the top behavior saying Gilbert never did anything he was told not to do.
“A lot of the things that he maybe needs to correct when he gets to the big league level, I let him do,” Vitello said. “Players are going to do what you let them do, but I thought it was important for him to be who he was. I think he sensed that in us when we recruited him a little bit. He had to be reigned back in certain areas but I’ll tell you this. If you call that kid in the office and say ‘don’t do this anymore’ or ‘do this’, he will do it like that. He is as good as a listener and a kid as you’re going to find. Holy cow, I’m getting light headed up here.”
Gilbert was a defensive stud in center field, becoming one of the Southeastern Conference’s best defensive outfielders. The Stillwater, Minnesota native’s numbers at the plate speak for themselves.
Gilbert showed major growth from his sophomore to junior season, hitting .362 with 21 doubles, 11 home runs and 70 RBIs.
“I think he’s become a lockdown center fielder,” Vitello said. “We literally had to put a rule in place in practice to stay away from the outfield wall because he’s fearless, he’s going to catch every ball and he’s also a relentless communicator with both corner outfielders, which is really important at our level but I think also at the next level. On the hitting side, everyone loves how he got better at balls and strikes, reading pitches, swinging at strikes, taking balls and the other thing he started to do this year was use the whole field.”
Vitello’s MLB Network desk mates were blown away by his praise for Gilbert. Harold Reynolds remarked that Vitello saying Gilbert changed the coach’s life made him want to cry.
The 43-year old head coach doubled down on his remarks while giving his former player some good ole fashioned ribbing.
“It’s the truth,” Vitello said of Gilbert changing his life. “Granted there were a few headaches I had to manage in there but I do that to other people as well. You have to take the good with the bad and the good with this kid far exceeds it, and it’s from the family he comes from and the way he was raised so I’m so happy for him. Where he was at is Peyton Manning’s Saloon (16). He doesn’t need to be at a bar right now. The cages are a mile from Peyton Manning’s place, he needs to make sure the Astros get their money’s worth. Go to the cages Drew!”