Except for a stray Sandlot-type pickup game here and there, the dozens of baseball fields scattered throughout our Valley sat mostly vacant on June 13. The Little League season had concluded a couple of weeks earlier; the UNLV baseball team had been eliminated from the Mountain West Conference tournament before that; and the final pitch in the high school state championship game had long since been thrown. Sure, on that sweltering Saturday evening, the Las Vegas 51s pounded out a 10-5 victory over instate Pacific Coast League rival Reno at Cashman Field, but nothing particularly noteworthy happened in that contest.
And yet, June 13, 2015, will be remembered—at least by local seamheads—as a milestone day in Las Vegas baseball history.
It all started some 1,200 miles away in Arlington, Texas. That’s where Rangers rookie third baseman/outfielder Joey Gallo launched a fourth-inning pitch deep into the right-field stands for his third home run in just his 10th big league game, helping Texas outslug the Twins 11-7. It continued in Milwaukee, where Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper went 3-for-3 and drove in a pair of runs (his 50th and 51st RBIs of the season) in a 7-2 victory over the Brewers. And finally, 90 minutes south in Chicago, rookie third baseman Kris Bryant went 3-for-4 with three runs scored, guiding the Cubs to a 4-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds.
For the day, the trio of Gallo (age 21), Harper (22) and Bryant (23) combined to go 7-for-8 with four walks, six runs scored, three extra-base hits, three RBIs … and three victories. The significance to Las Vegas? All three grew up and played youth baseball together and against one another in the 702. And here they were, three of Major League Baseball’s most exciting young players, dominating at the highest level of the sport on the exact same day, all the while collectively—if unwittingly—delivering a strong message: The Vegas baseball boom is here.
To be clear: these guys didn’t sneak up on anyone. Las Vegas has been following the triumvirate of Harper (Las Vegas High School and College of Southern Nevada), Bryant (Bonanza High School) and Gallo (Bishop Gorman High School) for years. Harper has been ticketed for stardom since 2009, when as a 16-year-old he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated next to the headline “The Chosen One.” A year later, he was the No. 1 overall pick in MLB’s first-year player draft. Bryant gained fame before he reached the majors, too, belting 31 home runs in his final season at the University of San Diego en route to being selected No. 2 overall by the Cubs in 2013. Gallo was similarly touted, as he entered the 2015 season at No. 6 in Baseball America’s list of Top 100 prospects.
So far this season, the trio have more than lived up to what seemed like impossible-to-live-up-to hype—none more so than the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Harper, who is putting together an MVP-caliber campaign. Through July 6, Harper ranked at or near the top of every meaningful offensive category: batting average (.344, fourth), home runs (25, tied for second), RBIs (60, fourth), walks (62, third), on-base percentage (.471, first), slugging percentage (.714, first), OPS (1.185, first) and the sabermetrics-era stat of Wins Above Replacement, or WAR (6.1, first). No wonder Harper received more All-Star Game votes than any other National League player—nearly 14 million in all.
Like Harper, Bryant will be in the NL’s starting lineup for the July 14 All-Star Game, even though his success this season wasn’t nearly as immediate as his fellow Las Vegan. Despite hitting a major league-best nine home runs in spring training, Bryant was sent to Triple A to start the year for no other reason than the Cubs wanted to delay the start of his free-agent clock. After finally getting called up April 17, the 6-foot-5 slugger promptly went 0-for-4, striking out in each of his first three at-bats. Before the naysayers could even spit out the last syllable of “overrated,” Bryant then embarked on a five-game hitting streak in which he went 9-for-20 with four doubles, four runs scored and six RBIs.
It would take 20 games before Bryant finally displayed his prodigious power, clubbing his first home run on May 9. From that point, he tallied 12 home runs and 36 RBIs in his ensuing 52 games.
Unlike Bryant, Gallo didn’t have to wait very long to circle the bases. On June 2, after getting called up from Double A, the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder singled in his first at bat, then in his next trip to the plate crushed a pitch into the upper deck of Globe Life Park. With the home crowd cheering him on, Gallo finished the night 3-for-4 with a walk, three runs scored and four RBIs. For an encore the next night, he launched another moonshot into the upper deck, becoming the first player in Rangers history to homer in his first two major league games.
Although he was sent down to Triple A on June 30 for roster reasons, Gallo—who hammered five homers in 25 games with Texas—left little doubt that he can produce at baseball’s highest level.
“This has always been a good baseball market,” says Las Vegas 51s president Don Logan, a Nevada native who has spent three decades with our Triple-A franchise. “But this is a unique situation with these guys hitting at the same time.”
To prove logan’s point that southern Nevada has long been a fertile baseball ground, we rewind more than three decades—a blink of an eye in baseball time, but an eternity in Vegas years—when another trio of homegrown prospects swept through the desert and stormed the big leagues.
That wave started in 1978, when the Oakland A’s used their first-round pick (No. 4 overall) on Mike Morgan out of Valley High School. The big righty made his major league debut less than a week later, beginning a 22-year career that saw him make the All-Star team in 1991.
One year after Morgan was drafted, Rancho High School alum Marty Barrett (then at Arizona State) was the first overall pick, going to the Boston Red Sox. Barrett went on to bat .278 over 10 major league seasons, a stretch that included an American League Championship Series MVP award in 1986.
The most famous Las Vegas ballplayer to emerge during this era was in 1984, when the Cubs in the second round drafted a spindly pitcher named Greg Maddux. Like Morgan, Maddux was a Valley High product. Like Morgan, Maddux lasted more than 20 years in the bigs (23, to be exact). Unlike Morgan, Maddux piled up 355 victories, claimed four consecutive Cy Young Awards, anchored a World Series winner, became regarded by many of his peers as the greatest right-handed pitcher in history, and, just last summer, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the eighth highest percentage of votes in history of the institution.
This was the first time a group of high-profile major leaguers came out of Las Vegas at roughly the same time, and it occurred at a point when the city was still finding its footing as a metropolitan area. (In 1980, the U.S. Census pegged the Valley’s population at fewer than 500,000.)
“I’ve coached baseball in this town now for 27 years,” says Tim Chambers, the fifth-year UNLV coach who has also held local posts at the high school and junior college level, including serving as Harper’s manager at College of Southern Nevada in 2010. “When I got here there were nine high schools. Now there are 37 4A [level] schools. So that’s a big difference right there.”
Yet as Southern Nevada exploded over the years, with the area’s population eventually topping 2 million, our diamond exports didn’t keep up with the pace. The Valley went through something of a baseball drought, without many real impact players reaching the majors over the next few decades. There were some successes—first-rounders and decent ballplayers such as Marty Cordova (a Bishop Gorman grad who took home Rookie of the Year honors with the Minnesota Twins in 1995 before settling into a nine-year journeyman career) and Tyler Houston (another Valley High product drafted second overall by the Braves in 1989 who waited nearly seven years to make his major league debut, and then, like Cordova, bounced around for eight years).
Cordova and Houston combined to hit more than 180 home runs and earn in excess of $20 million in their major league careers, but neither put Las Vegas on the national baseball map like Morgan and Barrett (let alone Maddux). Moreover, it seemed like for every Ryan Ludwick (a Durango High/UNLV outfielder who was a 1999 second-round pick and played 12 seasons, the most memorable being with the Cardinals in 2008 when he had 37 home runs and 113 RBIs and made the NL All-Star team) there were a half-dozen Chad Hermansens (a Green Valley High outfielder who was the 10th overall pick of the Pirates in 1995, but hit just .195 in 189 major league games over parts of six seasons).
“There was a stretch where Las Vegas kind of hit a setback, when baseball maybe wasn’t as good for some years,” Chambers says. “And then we got Harper, and it was like ‘Bang,’ and all of a sudden it came back.”
Not only is it back, but people outside of Vegas are taking notice. When Bryant’s Cubs hosted Harper’s Nationals on May 26, ESPN’s SportsCenter aired a live, nearly seven-minute pregame interview in which the two gleefully chatted about their relationship and Las Vegas roots. Hours later, both guys hit home runs.
The following week, after Gallo’s impressive debut, a photo that Gallo tweeted in January 2014—an image of him and Harper playing on the same youth baseball team at ages 8 and 9—went viral. National sports blog SBNation was among the media that published the photo, along with a mention of Bryant and the quip: “What were they feeding those kids in Las Vegas?”
Then on June 27, during a national telecast of a Cubs-Cardinals game, Fox Sports flashed a graphic celebrating the exploits of Las Vegas-based sluggers Harper, Bryant, Gallo and Chris Carter, the latter a Sierra Vista High alum who has hit 100 home runs in six seasons with the Oakland A’s and Houston Astros.
Indeed, while our city remains without an MLB team, it’s a really good time to be a baseball fan in Las Vegas. And the best part is there’s reason to be optimistic that this isn’t a one-hit-wonder type of situation. Unlike 30 years ago, when Vegas pumped out a lot of talent that drained the well for years, there are signs that a permanent pipeline has opened for future Southern Nevada baseball stars.
For one thing, the local baseball community has done a good job of keeping up with the city’s expansion, with more fields, more equipment and more coaches dedicated to nurturing the widening talent pool. This was most evident last summer, when the Mountain Ridge Little League team galvanized the community in the Little League World Series. (Mountain Ridge lost in the title game, but earlier this year they were crowned champions when their opponent was stripped of the title.) Also, Bishop Gorman’s baseball team this past season finished No. 2 in USA Today’s national prep rankings.
And while Harper, Bryant and Gallo are making headlines this summer, they’re hardly the only successful ballplayers who have sprouted from our youth baseball ranks—an unofficial count shows more than 70 professional players from the area currently active in the major and minor leagues, and more continue to cycle through annually. “I think it’s a tribute to youth baseball here,” Logan says. “As we’ve exploded population-wise, the community has done a great job getting kids involved [in the game] and making sure they have good fields. A lot of times, those things can get political, but the adults have been smart and put the kids first. If you look at the number of players per capita, I have to think Las Vegas is as good, if not better, than anywhere else.”
The climate and lifestyle—not to mention tax structure—also make the Valley a popular destination for current big leaguers, which only helps boost our image. Most notably, two-time All-Star Shane Victorino (now with the Red Sox) and former two-time American League MVP Frank Thomas (who entered the Hall of Fame last year with Maddux) have for years lived here during the offseason.
Additionally, Chambers welcomes MLB players into UNLV’s baseball facilities every year, and he has seen the positive effect it has had on young prospects. “Two years ago, when [Colorado Rockies shortstop] Troy Tulowitzki was having issues with his hip, he wanted to work out at our field,” he says. “So he was here and he hit on our field every day for three or four months, and he took Joey Gallo under his wing. Joey was out there every day with Tulo, pounding balls, talking, just soaking it in. You think that didn’t have an effect on Joey?”
With the population, weather, infrastructure and passion for the sport all working in its favor, Las Vegas’ baseball future looks promising. In the 11 years before Bryce Harper was drafted first overall, the city produced just four first-rounders. In the five years since Harper broke through, six Vegas-based prospects have been first-round selections. In addition, such non-first-round picks as pitchers Michael Blazek (Milwaukee Brewers/Arbor View High), Chasen Shreve (New York Yankees/Bonanza High and CSN), and Brandon Kintzler (Brewers/Palo Verde High) have all contributed at the big league level this season.
Obviously, it’s impossible to predict that the next Harper, Bryant or Gallo is waiting in the on-deck circle, simply because the world doesn’t amply produce humans with their physical attributes. “People have to realize what we have with these kids,” Chambers says. “Bryce is 6-foot-3, Kris is 6-foot-5 and Joey is 6-foot-5. Guys like that, with their athleticism and power, they usually don’t come around more than once every 10 years. If you’re 5-foot-10, you can chase the dream all you want, but [Harper, Bryant and Gallo] are special.”
Translation: If you’re a baseball fan and a proud Las Vegan, appreciate what you’re seeing this summer (and beyond). Because while our city will probably continue to churn out its share of major league players going forward, it may be another 30 years before we see another young, dynamic trio like Harper, Bryant and Gallo.
“Those three guys are all going to be All-Stars,” Chambers says. “You can’t explain it. It just doesn’t happen like that. I think everyone is asking ‘What’s going on in Las Vegas?’”
Writer Mike Grimala talks about “The Boys of Summer” on on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.