“Just Compete.” Anyone who has played a sport in their life has heard the phrase. Whether it be from a disgruntled coach or an inspired teammate, we have all heard the phrase. But for all of those who have listened to it, there are only a select few who take it to heart and embrace it. There may not be a better example than current Blue Jays prospect and Coronado High School alum Luke Gillingham.
Luke grew up in a military family, like many here in Coronado. Living in various other places like California, Puerto Rico, Toronto, Jacksonville, Florida, and Chesapeake, Virginia. But throughout all the movement, sports were always a constant.
“I can remember going down to tidelands and Bradley to play my little league games and just spending my whole day down there. And even when I would come home, my brothers and I would always want to keep playing. Whether it be wiffleball, basketball, or football, we were always competing.”
For Luke, Coronado has always been home. He attended Coronado High School, class of 2012, and was a varsity athlete starring in basketball and baseball. While Luke admits he loved his time on the basketball team, baseball was always his first love and main focus. Following a strong junior year with the Islanders, college interest and phone calls started rolling in.
“In a lot of ways, you kind of have to treat recruitment like dating,” said Gillingham. “I talked to a good amount of schools, but when I heard from Navy and started talking to them, it really became clear to me where I wanted to go.” For Luke, while baseball was a passion he wanted to pursue, being in the Navy was also a dream that he had. So when the opportunity arose to pursue both, it was an easy decision. Following his junior year, Luke signed to be a Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy. However, before he left Coronado, he hoped to bring a CIF title to the Islanders.
“My last year as an Islander, we had a great team and a great pitching staff. I thought it was going to be a special year.” Unfortunately, early in the season, Luke suffered a broken foot and ended not only his season but his career as an Islander. “It was tough to have my high school career end like that, and even worse to watch every game knowing that I couldn’t help. The only silver lining was that with my injury, they called up my younger brother Matt, so I got to be his teammate and cheer him on. So that was cool.”
Luke’s success at Coronado was just a glimpse of what the future held for him. As an incoming freshman at the Naval Academy, Luke knew it would be an uphill battle to earn time on the mound. But being the competitor he is, the challenge to make innings was one that he embraced. It would not be until Feb. 16 of 2013, in a game against Norfolk State that Luke would see his first action.
“I can remember that game, so clearly. I was frozen to the bone because it was 26 degrees that game. I had just been sitting in the dugout for the first two games, freezing, and then they told me to get loose in the middle of the 3rd game. I was trying everything to get loose, but nothing was working. I think it was just a combination of the weather and my nerves that made it difficult.” But if Luke was nervous, it didn’t show – in his first appearance as a Midshipmen he tossed three innings of two-hit ball. “It was a special day. It was made even more special because my dad was able to be there because he was stationed in Virginia.” Luke would make 14 total appearances his freshman season and posted 3.23 ERA over 53 innings, 45:9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and would record his first complete game against Leigh.
After a strong freshmen showing, many would think caliber players like Luke would be a set piece for the Navy rotation the following season. But that wasn’t the case for his sophomore year. “It was kind of inferred to me that I wasn’t going to get a spot in that rotation because I wasn’t one of their higher recruits. And that was something that stuck with me.” To help remind himself of his coach’s words, Luke wrote the phrase “prove them wrong” under the brim of his cap, something he would look to before the start of each inning. “Looking back on it now, it’s kind of corny, but it’s how I felt. I used it as motivation because I felt like I was good enough to be a part of that rotation. I wanted to prove them wrong. So, every time I suited up and saw that, I definitely got a little gassed up.” And if they hadn’t gotten the message, they would soon hear it loud and clear in 2015.
Heading into his junior year, Luke was the number two starter for the Midshipmen. But following a preseason injury for 2014 Patriot League pitcher of the year Anthony Parenti, Luke was pushed into the role of staff ace. What followed would be a season forever etched into Navy Baseball history. In his first start of the season, Gillingham put the NCAA on notice by striking out the first 12 batters he faced on a mere 54 pitches vs. North Carolina A&T. He would finish with 16 punch outs, the fifth most in a single-game by a Midshipmen and highest total since 1986; among NCAA pitchers Luke would rank 4th that season. He followed it up with a seven inning, 14 strikeout performance vs. The University of Eastern Maryland. “I knew after that second start that I had something special. I was throwing the hardest I ever had, and all my secondary pitches worked. I felt like I was going to dominate every time I was going out there.” And dominate, he did. Luke ended up leading all NCAA D1 pitchers in hits per 9 and WHIP (walk and hits per innings pitched). Luke was also top 10 in strikeouts/9, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and complete games. To cap off the history-making season, Luke was also named a Golden Spikes Semifinalist alongside current MLB All-stars Alex Bregman, Dansby Swanson, Andrew Benintendi, and Ian Happ.
But what Luke recalls being most proud of that season wasn’t the awards of individual accomplishments. It was the change of culture he felt that he and his teammates brought to the Navy baseball program. “I think for me, seeing how much different the team was from years 1 and 2 to years 3 and 4 is the most rewarding thing. We became a winning program and helped change the team’s culture that you can still see at Navy to this day. It’s easily the thing I’m most proud of.”
Even after a phenomenal collegiate career, Luke admitted he thought his chance at Major League baseball was a long shot. “You know it’s funny. I remember hearing stuff from some teams. At one point, I even got some sort of prospect application asking for information on who my agent was. I laughed and put my agent down as my older brother, thinking no one would call. But a week later, my brother called me mad cause some rep from the Seattle Mariners asked him for my workout schedule and information. It’s something I laugh at now because I thought my shot at professional baseball wasn’t there.” But he was wrong.
During the 2016 MLB draft, Luke was attending a close friend’s wedding and almost didn’t have his phone on. “I was at a wedding reception, and I almost turned my phone off, but they insisted I keep it on. And it’s a good thing I did. It was getting late into the third day of the draft, so I went and got a drink just to help forget about it, but shortly after, my phone rang.” When Luke answered, he was informed he was selected in the 37th round of the 2016 MLB draft; Luke’s childhood dream had come true, as the Toronto Blue Jays selected him. “It was such a cool moment, I was around so many close friends at the wedding, and we all just celebrated. It was a moment I won’t ever forget.”
However, after the celebration, Luke was faced with a situation few athletes ever will. As a Naval Academy grad, Luke had to decide what route he wanted to take, join the Navy Reserves and report imminently to the Blue Jays to continue his run at professional baseball. Or enter the Navy as an officer and hope the Blue Jays would allow him to return to their farm system. “It was a really difficult decision for me and was one that I struggled with for a while. I ended up taking my 30-day basket leave and reported to the Blue Jays.” Said Gillingham, “As much as I loved baseball, I came to the Naval Academy to be in the Navy and be an officer and a leader. The Navy was first and foremost in my mind as it was something I also had wanted to do my whole life. I couldn’t leave it behind.”
But after those 30 days with the Blue Jays, Luke practically didn’t throw a baseball or pitch again for two years. From 2016 to 2018, he served as a Surface Warfare Officer aboard the USS Stockdale, whose homeport happens to be here in San Diego. “I didn’t have the chance to throw a ball hardly at all those two years, so when I returned to the mound, I almost had to teach myself how to pitch again.”
Following the end of his first deployment in 2018, Luke reported to the Blue Jays, this time to their Class A affiliate, the Vancouver Canadians. And despite the time off, Luke picked right back up where he left off. In 34 innings, Luke posted a 2.65 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a .181 batting average. The organization’s strong showing was retained and he was promoted to the Blue Jays Double AA affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minor League Baseball season had been canceled; thus, Luke returned to Coronado, where he continues to stay in shape. “I’ve made my younger brother strap on the catching gear and catch my bullpens,” said a laughing Gillingham. “I’m just doing my best to stay in shape, and I hope that the minor league season can get going again.”
Luke’s baseball journey is one that is truly unique. Time and time again, he has shown what it means to compete and lead through all levels, both on and off the diamond. In closing, I asked Luke if there is anything he would change? He told me, “No, I wouldn’t. I’ve had the pleasure of living out two lifelong dreams. Being a Naval Officer and being a professional baseball player. There’s nothing I would have changed.”