Las Vegas Sun

December 9, 2018

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Why ‘Vegas Strong’ takes on a significant meaning for Rangers slugger Joey Gallo

Gallo

Jeff Chiu / AP

Texas Rangers’ Joey Gallo, center, is congratulated by Rougned Odor, left, and Elvis Andrus after hitting a solo home run against the Oakland Athletics during the fourth inning of a baseball game in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018.

It is sunset on a crisp winter day in the desert and the view at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is stunning.

As light glints off the sandstone outcropping in the distance known as the Calico Hills, the rocks flash amber, sienna and finally umber in a natural light show that rivals anything 15 miles down the road on the Las Vegas Strip. It may be the most beautiful bit of nature in a town known for artificiality.

Joey Gallo is mesmerized.

"Amazing," he says.

Click to enlarge photo

He says it with reverential awe, the tone of a tourist in his voice, as if he's never been here before. Because he hasn't. He can tell you where every baseball field in and around Las Vegas is, having spent most of his 24 years on them, but the tourist spots, well, that's usually left to the tourists.

"Everybody thinks Vegas is just The Strip," he says. "But there is so much more."

For today, though, Gallo plays tourist and tour guide all at once. It is more important now. For natives — Gallo was born in suburban Henderson — showing off the city is part of the healing after last October's mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival left 58 people dead and more than 800 injured.

The shooting took place on Oct. 1, the last day of the regular season. Gallo and fellow Las Vegas-raised Ranger Drew Robinson were waiting to return home when the news hit.

"It was kind of surreal," Gallo says after we have driven past the shooting site and Mandalay Bay. "It is different when it is your home where that happens. You drive by those places every day and you don't think anything of it. And then it is never the same. It's hard to believe."

The biggest Vegas-raised stars in the game, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs, both childhood friends of Gallo, were awaiting the start of the playoffs.

"The pride of Vegas runs deep when you are born and raised in such a great town," Harper tweeted in the aftermath of the shooting. "I can't fathom the horrific event that has taken place!

"My thoughts and prayers go out to the families that have been affected by this and to all the people that have lost their lives way too soon!" he added. "Las Vegas I love you and stand with you."

It helped give rise to the Vegas Strong theme that has helped the city recover.

"We've done what we can to promote the city, to tell people that this is a great place," Gallo says. "Don't let one person destroy the reputation of this city. Fortunately, there has been a lot of support, both from people inside the city and outside."

The Gallos beat the rush to Vegas.

Tony Gallo and his wife, Laura, trekked from Long Island to the desert in 1987. Joey, their second son, was born in 1993.

It quickly became apparent this was a different kind of kid.

"When he was a baby, I'd put him on a blanket and if there was baseball or football on TV, he'd roll over toward the TV," Laura Gallo says. "Cartoons? He didn't even try to move."

Around the time Joey turned a year old, Laura put a bunch of squishy balls in his crib. Joey tossed them all out. Except the baseball. He slept with it.

These kinds of things kept happening.

When Joey was a toddler, the parents set up a toy tee. Other kids dribbled the ball a few feet; Joey hit it off the wall of the house.

One day — Laura thinks Joey was 3, maybe 4 — she pointed out a baseball field under construction in their neighborhood.

"When I play there," he told her, "nobody is going to catch it."

"All he wanted to do was talk about baseball," Laura said. "All he wanted to do was be a baseball player. He told me one day, I don't know, maybe he was 10, that 'all this was fluff until I can play baseball every day.'"

The Gallos, who grew up true to their New York roots as Yankees fans, indulged the passion. Together they read The Life You Imagine, the first biography about Derek Jeter, which began with him dreaming of being a major league player as an 8-year-old.

And they dreamed, too.

"We'd read it together and then talk about it," Laura said. "And we said wouldn't that be cool?"

"For us, Jeter was our hero," Gallo said. "He was like our savior. I watched every move he made. I tried to emulate the way he acted and treated people as a player. I wanted to play like him, but I turned out to be such a different player. I try to have the same respect for the game that he had."

A funny thing was happening around Las Vegas at the same time. Other not-so-little boys were showing similar prodigious talents. They harbored such dreams, too. Bryant, 18 months older, was dominating the leagues ahead of them. On Gallo's own youth team, Harper, 13 months older, was a national sensation, too.

"You look back and it's pretty unbelievable how much talent we had then," Gallo said of growing up in a booming Vegas. "Bryce was always the poster boy for superstardom — in a good way. We knew we were good because we beat all the California teams and they were the best. We just had a stupid amount of talent on those teams, but it seemed normal to us. It was cool to be growing up in that."

We are sitting in Gallo's favorite restaurant, Mastro's Ocean Club in The Cosmopolitan. There is a basket of bread — he raves about Mastro's bread — in front of him, a filet on the way and a butter cake on the horizon.

It is the end of a seemingly perfect Vegas day. Or it could be the start of a wild Vegas night.

But only for the tourists.

For Gallo, a perfect day during the winter includes a workout because he is kind of a workout freak.

And he'd just as soon spend the day back at the "bachelor pad" he's rented for the offseason. He shares it with three baseball-playing buddies. The highlight: A game room set up with a bank of TVs all wired for individual access to video games so the group can play Madden or Fortnite.

He would finish the day off not under the lights of The Strip, but at his mother's house, a mile away. And it would include meatballs.

Gallo raves about his mom's meatballs. So much that even during the season, when Laura Gallo comes to Texas, she cooks up a huge batch, freezes them and transports them across state lines so Joey can have his fix.

At home, though, she will serve up a nice Sunday dinner for the extended family with some pasta e fagioli, and ziti or rigatoni (True story: Joey prefers to stab his pasta rather than twirl it). And she will let the meatballs cook a little longer to get a bit of crust.

"She makes pretty good meatballs," Gallo says, crinkling his large brow. "I don't know what it is. They are perfectly cooked. Every time I try to eat them at another place, I expect them to be like that and they aren't."

Maybe there is another reason for that, too. There is no place like home.

And home for Joey Gallo is Las Vegas.