By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Garrett Whitley is one of the best high school baseball players east of the Mississippi River. That might sound like a fan’s exaggeration, but it’s not.
This summer, the rising senior at Niskayuna High School played in both the East Coast Professional Showcase in Syracuse and the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif. Both events are designed for the top high school players in a given region to compete against each other while mingling with professional scouts and coaches; at the showcases, Garrett was ranked ninth and seventh, respectively, out of a field of hundreds.
The stakes for the Area Code Games, which took place for five days in early August, are highest: 25 players are selected from each of eight regions. Garrett was selected after two rounds of intensive tryouts, one at Yankee Stadium and the other at Bentley College in Massachusetts.
Garrett, an outfielder and Red Sox fan, is planning to attend Wake Forest University in North Carolina after his 2015 graduation. But he said he’ll gladly give up that plan if he becomes an early draft pick.
“I want to start my career as soon as possible,” he said.
Promising young baseball players can be drafted immediately after graduating high school, or later on. However, once they enter college, they must wait three years before they’re eligible for the draft again.
Garrett’s mom, Kelly, acts as his agent and manages his many baseball-related obligations.
“We need to come up with a number,” she said, referring to his potential future contract. “If he goes in the first ten rounds, that probably outweighs college.”
Major League Baseball has a program that pays players to go to school, so Garrett would still have the option to earn a degree.
An early spot in the 2015 draft isn’t out of the question. In Long Beach, Garrett played on a team coached by a group of professional scouts. It was intimidating at first, but he quickly adjusted and began fine-tuning his skills.
“Once you get to know them, they’re good guys,” he said. “They are where they are because they know baseball.”
And when it came to Garrett’s work ethic and talent, the scouts liked what they saw. His performance at the Area Code Games led to invitations for three more events this year, including the Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry Classic at Yankee Stadium and the Perfect Game USA tournament in Jupiter, Florida, in October.
He’s particularly proud of the fact that the second-hardest hit ball at the Area Code Games came off his bat. At 108.7 mph, he missed the first-place spot by just 0.2 mph — and his hit was a double, while the winner’s was a foul ball. He also tied for most extra-base hits.
During his work with the scouts, Garrett learned tiny but important details that made him a better player. He even met a local scout who has taken a personal interest in him, meeting Garrett and sometimes his 12-year-old brother, Aaron, for private coaching. His brother is sometimes a little dazzled by the idea of working with a real, professional scout. For Garrett, the experience reminds him of the beginning for his love for baseball.
“It was all I ever wanted to do, and it was all I ever did,” he said.
He began playing catch with his father, Eric, not long after he started walking. At 5, he began tee-ball, and as the years went on he spent all his free time practicing or playing Wiffle ball with Aaron.
Their sister Lindsey, 10, has no interest in baseball.
Though Garrett is focused on his personal goals, it would be impossible not to notice the extra attention that’s come with his athletic successes. New Balance sponsored the Area Code Games and gave hundreds of dollars worth of free gear to each player, including three types of sneakers, a gear bag and multiple practice outfits.
Perhaps most surprising are the requests for autographs that have come Garrett’s way. At the Area Code Games, a couple he met in an elevator heard why he was in town and asked him to sign a card. They wanted to be able to say they met him before he was famous, the man explained.
Garrett shrugs off the attention. His mom finds it a little tougher.
“It’s a little unsettling because he’s just my kid,” she said. “To have these professional people coming at you and telling you, ‘Your kid is good; your kid is made of this,’ it’s a little unsettling.”
For Garrett, with his childhood dream of becoming a professional baseball player apparently within reach, the only thing to do is to keep working.
“It doesn’t come easy,” he said.