by Andrew Huang; photos by Jeff Hall – Like most 19-year-olds, Nick Pratto is hungry. The Lexington Legends’ first baseman arrived in Greenville, SC, only 10 hours before at 2AM. Lunch is the first real meal he’s had since getting off the bus. He takes a few moments to look over a deli menu before settling on half-pound pastrami sandwich — “It sounds like enough food,” he laughs. Pratto is in Anchor Bat Co.’s hometown because the Legends are playing a four-game series against the Greenville Drive, and he’s taking the opportunity to grab lunch with Anchor Bat Co. founder Matthew Rollins.
From a distance, Pratto certainly looks the part of a professional ball player: 6’1”, 215 pounds, athletic. But up close, Pratto still looks every bit the teenager he is: his face is clean shaven and smooth; his eyes clear and bright. A boy’s face on a man’s body.
It’s an amusing contradiction, but Pratto’s youthfulness belies the groundedness of an old soul. Perhaps that shouldn’t be unexpected. Pratto has been in the spotlight for years. In 2011, at just 12 years old, Pratto hit a walk-off single to win the Little League World Series championship game against Japan. In 2015, he pitched Team USA to a gold medal in the U-18 Baseball World Cup.
Along the way, Pratto played in numerous national and international tournaments and collected the kinds of media accolades befitting such promising prep player. Leading up to the 2017 draft, his draft profile pegged him as a can’t-miss prospect: “Pratto has positioned himself as perhaps the best pure high school bat in the country. He's always shown an advanced approach at the plate and the ability to hit for average. What's allowed him to separate from the rest of the class is the added power he showed early this season.”
In short, the Huntington Beach, CA, native has dealt with outsized attention and expectations for nearly half of his life, and his success thus far has come, in part, from a humble perspective on his profession. “My job’s just to go play baseball. In the grand scheme of things, we’re playing a game,” he says. “You really can’t beat that.”
“I don’t pay attention to outside stuff,” he adds. “There’s always going to be pressure. But it doesn’t come from anyone but myself.” It sounds suspiciously like press conference boilerplate, but when Pratto talks about how he’s trained and prepared his entire life, it’s clear that his drive isn’t just something he talks about.
Take, for example, his daily schedule during his senior year at Huntington Beach High School. From 7AM until 1PM, it was class. Then baseball practice, supplemented with some work in the batting cage afterward. Afterwards, there was a lifting session with a trainer, with everything wrapping up around 6PM. And after a solid 11 hours on the go, Pratto would still find the motivation to hit some more with his dad when he got home from work.
“Working hard was just me having fun,” he says. “I had a couple buddies, and on summer days, we’d go to the beach, play video games, and then go hit in the cage for a couple of hours. It was just fun.” Pratto is also quick to disabuse the notion that any of those impromptu sessions were just for goofing off with friends. “Whenever I pick up a bat, there’s always a purpose behind it. There’s pleasure in trying to refine a swing, in the details.”
Even as a child, Pratto had already developed that drive: “I played everything as a kid: baseball, football, basketball, and lots of soccer, but I had a bad experience with soccer. I would be running around, and all the other kids would just be standing around picking grass.”
And, much like his senior year of high school, Pratto could always find an excuse to play baseball. “That was the sport I wanted to play every day. I was always asking my dad if we could go play catch, or if we could hit,” he says.
In essence, for Pratto, there’s no meaningful difference between playing baseball, working hard, and having fun. Even with the pressures that come with being a first round pick, he still can’t wait to warm-up, stretch, get in the cage, run drills, and all the other little, tedious things that go into his preparation. “Seriously, I look forward to going to the field every day,” he says.
But just because playing baseball is fun doesn’t mean the profession of being a baseball player is an easy one. “For me, it’s 140 games a year, and we do thousands of practice reps in a matter of days, but the baseball part isn’t even the grind. That’s what you look forward to. It’s the travel,” he says.
Pratto points to the previous night as an example. “Last night was a pretty standard night. We got in at 2AM after playing a 7PM game, but we’ve had some trips where we’re traveling through the night, sometimes until 5, 6, or 7 in the morning. I like routine and structure, and it can be hard finding routine and the rest you need when you’re getting in at odd hours and sleeping at odd hours.”
The more Pratto talks about baseball, the easier it is to forget how young he is. Certainly, he says all the right things about his dedication and love for the sport, but howhe says it — calm and level — suggests wisdom beyond his years. Pratto is a professional, in every sense of the word, at an age when his peers are still trying to figure out what life holds for them.
But then Pratto’s face cracks into a wide smile and chuckle. “My old roommate just sent me a picture of my lucky Power Rangers comb,” he says. It’s the comb he’s used since he was little, and he recently lost it. As it turns out, his roommate had accidentally packed it up when he moved out. “You better believe he’s sending me that comb back,” Pratto laughs.
As he finishes scarfing down his sandwich, the conversation drifts away from baseball and towards the off-season. “I’m missing things with my family when we play, but I always stay in touch,” he says. “But when I go home, I’m looking forward to In-n-Out the most. This is terrible, and it’s definitely a cheat day thing, but I’m going to get a 4x4 Burger: four patties, four cheese, no tomato, and maybe Animal Style Fries.”
Because even though he’s a professional, he’s also still very much a 19-year-old.