Joey Gallo jumped at the chance to join the MLB The Show Players League. He knew how much fans have missed live sports during the coronavirus pandemic, and he knew the opportunity video games represented for Major League Baseball.
"They should have done this a long time ago," the Texas Rangers slugger said of the league, which begins its televised postseason schedule Friday. "When I saw basketball doing it, I thought, why aren't we doing this?"
What Gallo didn't know, though, was just how incredibly good he'd be.
When Gallo got word from his agent that MLB and the players' association were organizing an official Twitch league to livestream the critically acclaimed baseball simulation MLB The Show -- similar to what the NBA had done with NBA 2K -- he recognized it as a unique way for the league to reach out to its fans, and for his fellow players to flex their personalities. But he doubted his own abilities with the sticks.
"I was really nervous because I didn't know how good I was, because I didn't play [The Show] that much," Gallo said. "I knew I was pretty good, but I didn't know how good everyone else was. I was just hoping to win a few games, maybe I'll go .500 or whatever."
Those jitters vanished almost overnight. After the first weekend of games, Gallo was 4-0. Soon, he was 8-0. In a league composed entirely of some of the most competitive athletes in the world, Gallo had quickly become the man to beat, and now he enters the playoffs as the No. 2 seed -- despite controlling one of the lower-ranked teams in the game.
"I'm not gonna lie, I was kind of scared to face him because I didn't get off to a hot start," said Chicago White Sox starter Lucas Giolito, the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. "I lost my first game to Luke Jackson and I was nervous going in because it was weird, uncharted territory for me. I was a little nervous, a little sweaty and I didn't come out of the gates too hot, so when I saw Joey was hitting mammoth homers nonstop and meanwhile I'm over here struggling, I thought I was gonna get smoked."
Giolito managed to hand Gallo just his second loss of the season with a walk-off home run.
"Everyone was coming for me," Gallo said. "Maybe I shouldn't have done that well. Every game had so much pressure, but I definitely didn't expect to do this well going into it. The Rangers team, they ranked us pretty low [20th out of 30], so it makes it tougher to compete with the team that I'm given. I don't have the Yankees' roster."
He does have some gaming experience, though. Gallo got hooked on Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, released in the mid-1990s for Nintendo consoles, but he cut his teeth on all of the classics, from Backyard Baseball to Slugfest to MVP Baseball. By the time Gallo had turned 10, those baseball games had provided a smooth and familiar entry into the greater world of video games.
"I was always playing baseball games," Gallo said. "Like most guys in the major leagues, we were baseball fanatics when we were younger, so I was always playing some kind of baseball game, and that's just how it started. Now I've played all types of games, but it started by just playing baseball games."
Now an established All-Star who has hit 103 homers in 363 games over the past three seasons, Gallo finds himself as a character in the kind of simulations he loved playing growing up. Within the first few days of the Players League, a clip of Gallo critiquing photo choices of himself in The Show's menu system made a splash on Twitter.
Within a few days, changes were made.
"I was hoping people would think it was funny as well, and people ended up thinking it was," Gallo said. "The comments were like, 'I didn't think it was going to be that bad, but it was even worse than I even imagined,' because I kind of hyped it up. They ended up changing the picture, and it got enough traction where they saw it and they made changes to it, so that's the good thing about playing Major League Baseball, you get a little more attention when you gotta complain about that stuff."
Like many baseball players who grew up gamers, Gallo always packs a console when the Rangers hit the road during the season. Video games are a bonding tool in many clubhouses. Gallo and teammate Ronald Guzman discovered a shared passion and got conjoining rooms on every road trip to play Fortnite.
"I would walk into his room, and he would be able to walk into my room," Gallo said. "We asked our travel guy to do that."
When Hunter Pence, the Giants' representative in the Players League, played for the Rangers, half a dozen players, including Gallo, would huddle in the back of the team's charter flights and play Nintendo Switch games together.
"When someone asks why I like video games so much, it's pretty much when you're online, you're on the phone with your friends, you're actually connecting with them and being competitive with them," Gallo said. "You have a goal with them. It's not just being on the phone. I have a bunch of friends in Vegas that I never really see anymore but I literally talk to them every single day because we play video games together.
"People misconstrue video games a little bit in thinking it's dorky or nerdy, but it's really just a way to connect with friends and family that you don't really get to see anymore or you might not get to see as much anymore and still having a way of doing it in a fun, competitive way," Gallo said. "I play with [Cody] Bellinger every day, playing with Gavin Lux and playing in this tournament with all of these different guys, it's a great way of connecting with people, and it's really hard to do that."
When the Players League wraps up, Gallo will participate in a celebrity Call of Duty tournament on a team with Bellinger, Lux and Zach LaVine of the Chicago Bulls. These days, Gallo has a lot more confidence in his video game skills but embraces the fact that he isn't the Players League's No. 1 seed -- his 23-6 record is a hair below Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell, who finished the regular season 24-5. If Gallo, who battles Ian Happ of the Chicago Cubs in the opening round Friday, meets Snell, it won't be until the championship series, which airs Sunday on ESPN.
Who Wins It All?— MLB The Show (@MLBTheShow) April 30, 2020
MLB The Show Players League Playoffs Begin Tomorrow
•Friday, 10pm ET on FS1: Quarterfinals
•Saturday, 3pm ET on ESPN2: Quarter & Semifinals
•Saturday, 8pm ET on FS1: Semifinals
•Sunday, on ESPN: Championship#MLBPlayersLeague #MLBTheShow @MLB @ESPN @MLBonFOX pic.twitter.com/SJbAOv0hrP
"He's not getting enough love, but he's playing with technically the worst-ranked team in terms of MLB The Show ratings and he's in the playoffs," Gallo said. "To be given a team that's not very good on the ratings chart and to make the playoffs, that's really impressive. If he had a team like the Yankees or Dodgers, he would probably be close to being undefeated."
Smith will face off against the New York Mets' Jeff McNeil in the quarterfinals, with the winner advancing to play the winner of Snell against Lux. The winner of the Gallo/Happ matchup will advance to play the winner of the quarterfinal between Giolito and Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette.
Though Gallo is no longer undefeated, his skills have gotten him a lot of attention. After the first weekend of games, Gallo got a text from his general manager, Jon Daniels: "Hey, good first day for you." And over the course of the past few weeks, he has gotten similar messages from all over baseball.
"I was kind of shocked," Gallo said. "Like, dang, that's pretty crazy that J.D. is texting me about a video game."
Other players ask Gallo about his results, and fans are paying close attention too. His Twitch comments provide a constant stream of evidence.
"Every game I'm playing, people are just getting mad at me if I'm not winning. Like, 'Joey, let's go! Pick it up. What are you doing?'" Gallo said. "I get it in real life, but in a video game, cut me some slack. I like being the underdog a lot better than the guy everyone is trying to gun for, especially in the video game. There's definitely a lot of pressure now because I was pulling in a lot of people in the streams every day, so when I lost, I felt bad and people took it personal. It's a lot more pressure than I thought, to be honest with you."
-- with Marly Rivera