Winning the CMWS: D-BAT Gallegos manager credits his mentor for teaching him about baseball, life
FARMINGTON — The celebration started moments after D-BAT Gallegos third baseman Noah Hill lifted his glove into the air, signaling he had caught the game-winning out of Friday's championship game against the Midland Redskins.
Players from the Dallas-based team sprinted to the center of the infield, piling on top of each other and basking in the bliss of winning the Connie Mack World Series.
Lost among the entangled arms and legs of the dog pile and drowned out by the cheers of the packed Ricketts Park crowd was Roberto Gallegos, the team's 27-year-old manager.
The win surprised many baseball fans, who expected the Redskins to take the title over D-BAT Gallegos, the youngest team in the tournament with a roster of nearly all 17-year-olds.
But it didn't surprise Ken Guthrie, Gallegos' mentor and former coach.
"I see the way these kids carry themselves in the dugout and on the field, and I see the way they carry themselves away from the field, and I know it's a direct relation to what he's teaching them," Guthrie said.
Gallegos, though, says it's Guthrie who did the teaching. The son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in a poor community, Gallegos ascended to the pinnacle of amateur baseball largely because of Guthrie's support.
"He's my mentor," Gallegos said of Guthrie. "I go to him for baseball, life, anything. I look up to him like a father figure. I'd do anything for that man. I'd wear a bullet for him."
The two men's friendship started in 2000. At the time, Guthrie, a 12th-round pick in the 1997 MLB draft, was coaching the Dallas Mariners, a team of 14-year-olds from the upstart D-BAT program.
"We were in a tournament in Austin, and there was another team in the tournament that I just happened to catch playing before us," said Guthrie, 38, who is now a professional scout for the Baltimore Orioles. "I saw this little shortstop, and I was like, 'Man, this little dude gets after it.' I was just so intrigued by the way he went about the game. It was like watching a college player at 14 years old."
He approached the young player, Gallegos, and asked him to join the Mariners' roster for the season's final tournament in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
"So here I am, talking to this 14-year-old kid who's talking to me like a man at this time," Guthrie recalled. "I said, 'Hey, we're going to go to this tournament in Steamboat. I really like the way you play.' He was kind of talking in broken English, 'Let me talk to my mom. I call you back.' And I thought this is going to go nowhere."
A few days later, Gallegos called back and accepted the offer. But there was a problem.
"I told him, 'Ken, I don't have any money. I'd love to go, I'd love to play, but I don't have money,'" Gallegos remembered. "And he said, 'Don't worry. We'll take care of it.'"
Guthrie booked the teenager a cheap flight and offered him a spot to stay at the condo he rented for the week.
"It was like God put this guy here for me," Gallegos said. "It wasn't like this guy knew me through a family friend. It was just he saw me at the right time and liked how I played and wanted to help me."
Over the next several years, Gallegos went to Dallas each summer to play for Guthrie, learning the game of baseball from a man who became more like a father to him.
Early on, Guthrie knew nothing of his young player's background. The teenager grew up in poverty in one of the roughest parts of southern New Mexico's Sunland Park. He was the first member of his family born in the United States, and his parents, Ricardo and Maria de Carmen, didn't speak English and had sixth-grade educations. The few times Gallegos' family had enough money to travel to watch him play baseball, Gallegos himself arranged booking the hotel rooms and paying the bills.
Guthrie remembers wondering how two parents could let their teenage son leave home each summer to play baseball in a different city for a guy they didn't know. But, he said, "I guess at the time, they were raising a man."
It was Guthrie who helped Gallegos apply for college, calling coaches he knew to make his case. While Gallegos likely wouldn't be a starter, Guthrie pitched him as someone whose influence in the locker room would propel a team to new heights.
One of those coaches was Skip Johnson, the head of the baseball program at Navarro College, a junior college in Corsicana, Texas.
"Ken called me about an infielder who was really good for him and who he wanted to get into a program," said Johnson, who is now an assistant coach at the University of Texas. "Ken kind of took Roberto under his wing and wanted to make sure he played for someone who respected the game and had some of the same core values."
Gallegos passed over nearby schools in Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas, and opted to play baseball at Navarro College. He admits part of his motivation stemmed from wanting to escape his hometown.
"It's a hole. Sunland Park is a hole," said Gallegos, who was the first in his family to attend college. "I love it. It's where I was raised. It made me, but I couldn't see myself there. I got cousins down the street. I got aunts living on the next block. My grandma. Everybody was there. It's a trap. If you don't get out, you're gonna end up on the next block, next to your parents. I could have fallen into that hole, or I could have gotten out. I saw the things that were going on, the bad stuff that was going on in that town, and my mom and dad supported me."
It was at Navarro that Gallegos started to entertain the idea of coaching. He didn't want to work a 9-to-5 job, sitting in a cubicle and staring at a computer screen. He just wanted to be on the diamond.
After graduating, Gallegos moved to Dallas, reconnecting with his mentor and joining Guthrie's D-BAT coaching staff as a volunteer assistant.
"I just wanted to learn," Gallegos said. "I knew that I wanted to coach, and I knew that there wasn't any guy better to learn from, so I volunteered. I didn't get paid. I just wanted to learn."
The following season, Gallegos returned to Guthrie's coaching staff as an assistant, helping the team to a berth in the 2010 Connie Mack World Series.
In the 2011 season, Guthrie decided to step away from coaching to spend more time with his son, who was about to enter elementary school.
That left Gallegos at a crossroads, both professionally and personally. On top of his mentor's departure, he was grieving the death of his father, who had recently passed away at age 52. That, Gallegos said, was the toughest time of his life, and, as always, Guthrie was there to offer support.
Looking for a fresh start, Gallegos accepted the manager position of a D-BAT 14-year-old team. That put him in a position nearly identical to the one Guthrie was in when the two met — a guy in his mid-20s, a couple of years removed from his playing career, leading a group of 14-year-old kids.
"He showed up from El Paso after his dad passed away and really became close with me and a couple of kids, as well as our families," said Braden Williams, who was on that 14-year-old team and was also the starting catcher for Gallegos' Connie Mack World Series champion team. "To a couple of us, he's like a brother to us."
One year later, Guthrie returned to the dugout, coaching the organization's 16-year-old team with Gallegos once again at his side. But the dynamic had shifted.
"That's when Ken made the transition of, 'You're the guy. I just want to sit on the bench and watch you coach. I've showed you enough. You played for me, you learned, you have it,'" Gallegos said. "He would just watch me coach. He'd ask, 'Why'd you do this? Why'd you do that? Why didn't you do this? This is what you should have done.' So I was still learning from him."
Gallegos was still the student and Guthrie was his teacher, only this time he was learning to coach, rather than how to play. Guthrie taught Gallegos how to handle his players, build team chemistry and get his players to gel, and also when to hold back on his energetic style of coaching.
After the season, Gallegos was ready to lead his own team. So he returned in 2013 to coach the team he started with.
It's that group, the original team of 14-year-olds, that Gallegos led to Farmington and the Connie Mack World Series title.
Returning the favor
Now, Gallegos is teaching the next generation of players the same lessons about baseball and life that Guthrie taught him.
"He makes sure we're doing all the things right on and off the field, day in and day out," said Ivan Ulloa, a member of Gallegos' Connie Mack team who has been with Gallegos since 2011. "He's always there for us, and I know he'd do anything for us. That's as or more important than what he does for us on the field, and I thank him a lot for it."
Guthrie says it's that part — seeing how Gallegos is helping his players — that makes him the most proud of his former player and assistant.
"To me, that's what it's all about," Guthrie said. "Really when it gets down to it, what it's all about is giving kids opportunities in life through the game of baseball, and then respecting the game enough to pass those experiences and lessons and values and characteristics back to the game, because then it becomes a cycle."
The relationship between Gallegos and Guthrie extends far beyond the baseball diamond. The two speak every week, and, more often than not, the topic of conversation is something other than baseball.
"Baseball has always been a primary importance in his life, and I've always told him that the two most important things in life are to be a good husband and a good father," Guthrie said. "So he constantly wrestles with chasing his dreams of being a great coach and staying within the game, and what does he do for his family."
Right now, Gallegos' sights are set on reaching the top of the coaching profession and working for a top college program. But the road to coaching a powerhouse team is long and, at times, nomadic. It's a road Gallegos says he's willing to journey down, but not at the expense of his future family with his fiancée.
"But baseball is what makes him tick," Guthrie said. "It's what makes him get up every day and do what he does. It's in his blood. For baseball guys, it's always going to be like that. You can't just walk away from it and be like, 'I'm done.' His purpose on Earth is to coach baseball. There's no doubt in my mind that this kid is going to be a big time college coach someday. Not only because what he knows about the game, but what he can instill in these kids."
Gallegos, though, says those lessons he tries to instill in his players are the same ones Guthrie taught him as a young player.
"I think what he was trying to do was, he was trying to teach me life through the game of baseball. That's what I learned through him," Gallegos said. "There are a lot of things that I learned from him, but that right there was the most important thing that I picked up. What I'm trying to do now for these kids is the same thing. I'm just trying to pay back for what people gave me when I was growing up. This is why I do what I do. I don't care about the money. I just, I'm trying to pay it back. Just like Ken helped me, I'm trying to help those kids."