Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Joey Gallo rushes into the home dugout at the Bishop Gorman High baseball complex and quickly changes into his practice gear.
Next thing you know, Gallo is driving a utility cart, fetching groundskeeping equipment to prepare the infield.
It’s 15 minutes before the start of practice, and some of Gallo’s teammates are standing around. Gallo, though, can’t stand to waste time.
His intensity and dedication are paying off. Gallo, a senior infielder, is the state’s unquestioned top player, a member of the USA Baseball 18U National Team and, depending on which trade publication you read, a sure-thing first round draft pick in June.
But on this day — like most practice days leading up to the start of the season in March — Gallo is simply another member of the state’s six-time defending state championship team. For the moment, his job isn’t fielding grounders, hitting home runs or leading his team to another title. There’s an infield to prepare. And, like everything he does in the sport, he’s a perfectionist.
Gallo helps water and rake the infield dirt and puts down the bases. Others are now helping, but it’s pretty clear Gallo has taken charge.
“It’s all about setting an example for the younger kids and showing them how a senior leader takes care of the field and respects it,” Gallo said.
The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Gallo, who ESPN rates as the nation’s top high school corner infielder, is a left-handed swinging power hitter who — despite often getting pitched around — batted .471 last spring with 25 home runs, 78 RBIs and 64 runs scored. He can play first base and third, and as a right-handed pitcher, he has a fastball clocked in the mid-90s and a mean curveball and change-up.
He’ll likely become the third Las Vegas teenager in as many years to be selected in the first round, joining prodigy and Sports Illustrated cover boy Bryce Harper, who in 2010 went No. 1 overall to the Washington Nationals, and Sierra Vista High shortstop Jake Hager, who in 2011 went No. 32 overall to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Nobody compares to Harper, who received a contract worth nearly $10 million and this spring could end up as the Nationals’ opening day right-fielder, but Gallo has some of the same qualities as a hitter.
The two played together on the club travel circuit for part of their childhood. Harper batted No. 3 in the order, and with his home-hitting reputation forcing several walks, Gallo thrived in the No. 4 slot.
“They walked him a lot, so I got a lot of good pitches to hit,” Gallo said. “It makes me happy knowing a guy I competed with my whole life is at that level, and knowing I can be there, too, if I put in the work and dedicate myself.”
The Sports Illustrated article documented a 570-foot home run Harper hit during his freshman season at Las Vegas High. Gallo’s resume also includes a monster home run — a 443-foot blast into the center-field bleachers he hit last summer during the Perfect Game All-American Classic at Petco Park in San Diego.
The home run came on a 93-mph pitch from another top prospect, showing Gallo as good as advertised. Last week, Gallo had two hits in three at-bats in a scrimmage against Lucas Giolito of Harvard-Westlake School in California, who is projected to be the top overall pick.
“All the way around — defensively, pitching and hitting — he’s dangerous all over the field,” Gorman coach Nick Day said. “There is a reason why he’ll be drafted high, and it’s not all about his God-given ability. It’s because of the hard work he puts in.”
Although Gallo, who in November signed with college power LSU, says his sole focus is leading No. 1 ranked Gorman to the national title, he still can’t help thinking about the draft.
Each time he plays, whether in fall league scrimmages with Gorman or with the national team in Colombia, scouts are stationed behind home plate evaluating his every move. As many as two dozen scouts, with some clubs sending multiple staffers, attend virtually every game.
They use stopwatches, video cameras and radar guns to record every at-bat, pitch thrown, basepath run and grounder fielded. When the games are over, they are at Gallo’s house to meet with his family and evaluate his character.
It’s a side of baseball Gallo, who is seemingly always in control on the diamond, has no control over. It could be considered frustrating or a hassle, but for Gallo it’s part of taking the next step in his career. He’s perfectly content fulfilling his obligation to LSU — which would prevent him from being drafted until after his junior season in college — but realizes that as good as he is, he could turn pro.
“It is kind of weird because you look over at your coach and there are (scouts) with video cameras taping everything you do,” Gallo said. “It makes the game that much more fun knowing everyone is watching you and relying on you to do something special.
“It helps me focus more knowing people are emailing, texting and calling me every day. It helps me work harder knowing I’m close to my goal.”
At Gorman, Gallo is surrounded with resources — particularly Day — for how to navigate the draft process.
Day, who was one of the top high school players in Nevada history, was projected to be a top-round pick in 1996 from Green Valley High. On draft day, he received phone calls from several organizations in the top three rounds, but none was willing to pay a signing bonus big enough to turn down a scholarship to Stanford.
Day played in the College World Series with Stanford, but a leg injury hindered his professional dreams. He played a few seasons in the minor leagues before retiring and using his economics degree to enter the workforce.
Gorman’s coaching staff also includes Chad Hermansen, a Green Valley product who was the 10th overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1995 and hit 13 home runs in 189 major league games, and Chris Latham of Basic High, who in 1991 was picked in the 11th round.
The coaches could speak for hours on the trials and tribulations of the draft process, trying to reach the major leagues and fitting into the community once retiring. They are like Gallo’s personal library.
“It all depends on the situation in front of you,” Day said of going into pro ball out of high school. “If you are offered the right amount of money and you are smart with it, then you take it. But, for me, I could have been hurt two years into pro ball and had nothing to fall back on.”
Latham, who reached the big leagues with the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees before playing in Japan, has been one of Gallo’s closest mentors.
“He does a lot of things right,” Latham said. “He’s a guy who really carries himself well. I try to stay in his ear a lot about the game, what to look for and what is going to happen (with the draft). I try to tell him to do the best he can each and every day and to not worry about who is in the stands. To me, everyone knows Joey Gallo can hit the ball 500 feet to right field. I want him to work on hitting the ball 450 feet to left field or center field.”
The baseball draft — unlike football or basketball, where prospects have a better idea of where they will be picked — is an absolute mystery. It features 50 rounds and takes high school and college players — both of whom can elect to pass on signing and return to school.
“I’ve heard everything,” Gallo said of stories anticipating who will pick him. “It really depends on the day and who is writing the story. I’ve seen being a top-five pick overall to not being picked in the first round.”
From the conversations with Latham to working extra hours in the batting cage to perfect his smooth swing, Gallo is constantly seeking new information to upgrade his game. At the Pan American Championships in Cartagena, Colombia, where Team USA went 9-0 in dominating the field, Gallo faced a sidearm throwing pitcher from Puerto Rico whose 90-plus-mph pitches came in at a different angle. The team also battled cold showers, long bus rides and scheduling mishaps in combining to outscore opponents 88-8.
For Gallo, it was an experience of a lifetime — one that has made him a more complete hitter and gave him an understanding of the focus it takes to be a professional. At Gorman, those lessons are obvious to teammates.
“It’s his leadership. He is the guy on the field you listen to,” said Tyler Baker, Gorman’s shortstop. “Just being around him, you pick up stuff from how good he is hitting, fielding or other tips.”