Bailey Gaither has always been able to count on his quickness.
On the football field, the baseball diamond or just in a race to the bus stop, Gaither showed the ability to distance himself from the rest of the pack at a young age.
“A lot of it comes naturally,” he said. “You can’t teach speed.”
But to get to where he wants to go — Division I athletics and beyond — he knows he’s going to need more than his legs to get him there.
So after a sophomore season on the 2013 Paso Robles High baseball team in which he batted .312 with 30 stolen bases in a disappointing six-win season, the 6-foot-1 shortstop wasn’t about to hit cruise control.
He brought the rest of his game up to speed as a junior, and his teammates joined him for a ride from worst to first in the PAC 7 standings.
Gaither is The Tribune County Player of the Year after boasting eye-popping numbers across the board and leading the Bearcats to an astounding turnaround. His batting average ended the year at exactly .500, and he recorded 40 runs, 32 stolen bases, 21 RBI, 10 doubles, five triples and three home runs — all team highs.
As Arroyo Grande coach Brad Lachemann put it: “Those are Xbox numbers.”
And those gaudy individual statistics paved the way for the Bearcats to go from a 20-loss team in 2013 to 20 wins, a CIF-Southern Section Division 2 playoff victory and a PAC 7 title in 2014.
“He put some lofty goals on himself this year, but he did it within a team concept,” Paso Robles coach Derek Stroud said. “It’s nice when your best player is able to do some individual things but within the team. That was one of the key reasons why this group was successful.”
Stroud’s small-ball offense took advantage of Gaither and a group of Bearcats who could motor to manufacture runs. Combined with PAC 7 Pitcher of the Year Paul Andersen, who finished with a 9-0 record despite a 3.18 ERA, Paso Robles hacked, scraped, bunted, stole and sacrificed its way to 11 more league wins than in 2013.
“The way they played was like watching an old school tennis match with wooden rackets,” Atascadero coach Paul Teixeira said. “They would just rally until you made a mistake. They had four or five guys with above average speed that, when you made an error, they would use their speed to capitalize.
“They swept us this year and after every game, I’d just think, ‘How did they beat us?’ ”
Fundamentals at the plate and in the field played a central role, and Gaither was the catalyst. Batting second in the order, Gaither posted a .550 on-base percentage and drew seven walks. He struck out just six times all season.
“There were only one or two games where he didn’t get a hit or didn’t at least get on base,” Stroud said. “Game in and game out, it was just so impressive how consistent he was.”
Gaither has always been at his most dangerous when he’s able to wreak havoc on the basepaths. Just ask Righetti, which couldn’t stop him from swiping seven bags in one mid-April game alone.
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and athletically, he’s right up there with some of the best I’ve ever seen,” Nipomo coach Rich Leavens said. “People talk about his speed — and that’s what jumps out at you — but he can hit, he can play defense.”
His burst of acceleration will be the first thing people turn to when describing what makes Gaither such a dangerous player, but to call him a one-trick pony discredits the work he put in over the offseason to become a more well-rounded player.
He noticed most of his struggles at the plate came on offspeed pitches, so rather than fall behind in a count and get fooled by a slider, Gaither came out swinging whenever he saw a first-pitch fastball.
He collected 49 hits in 98 at-bats and all three of his homers were over-the-fence shots. He led the PAC 7 in batting average, runs, stolen bases and triples by sizeable margins.
An outfielder his entire travel career and as a freshman, Gaither was asked to fill the void at shortstop last season.
“It was a little tough my sophomore year, but I felt a lot better this year,” he said of the transition. “I still made a few errors, but I just felt a lot more comfortable there this year.”
He made a team-high 13 errors, but it comes as no surprise his ability to cover a lot of ground in the outfield translated well in the swath of dirt between second and third.
In what would be a season-ending 9-4 home loss to top-seeded Great Oak in the second round of the Division 2 playoffs, Gaither’s closing speed was on full display when he tracked a hard grounder straight up the middle in the second inning and gunned the runner out at first in stride.
The play was not lost on scouts from Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara, who were in attendance with stopwatches to time his sprint from the batter’s box to first base.
Two more witnesses to a player that can do more than just run a 40-yard dash, which he happens to do in 4.49 seconds — a figure that would have placed him 18th out of the wide receivers at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine.
“He’s the fastest guy I’ve ever coached or seen at the high school level by far,” Stroud said.
“That’s a big asset for Bailey, and I think when you look at the other parts of his game, he has a high ceiling.”
The ceiling continues to rise on the gridiron, too, where Gaither is a standout receiver for the Paso Robles football team.
FOOTBALL STANDOUT, TOO
He caught 57 passes for 1,017 yards and 13 scores last fall, and has drawn scholarship offers from five schools — Cal Poly, Wyoming, Sacramento State, Montana State and New Hampshire.
Gaither said he has yet to get an offer for baseball, but is receiving interest from Cal Poly, UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State.
No matter what school he attends, Gaither said he’s determined to play both sports at the next level.
“There’s going to be one day where I have to hang up one cleat or the other,” he said, “but if I can play both at the next level, I’d love to do that.”
He’s balancing both this offseason as he competes at college football showcase camps, plays on the Bearcats’ summer baseball team and prepares for his final varsity football campaign on a team primed to contend for a league title.
During a recent trip to the University of Washington for a football camp, Gaither got invited to a Milwaukee Brewers Area Code baseball tryout. Players have to be recommended by a scout to earn a tryout, Stroud said, and if chosen, Gaither will play on a team with other top prep players in the country in August in Long Beach.
“I’m pretty packed,” he said of his summer, but added the schedule is “not tough. You’ve got to work hard, but it’s fun. Time flies when you’re doing it.”
The day might come when Gaither has to choose one path over the other, but at the moment, he’s going to take each opportunity he’s presented and do what he does best: Run with it.
“The ultimate goal,” he said, “is to go to the bigs. … But a goal is just a wish if you don’t work for it.”
THE TRIBUNE ALL-COUNTY BASEBALL TEAM
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Bailey Gaither, Paso Robles, SS, Junior
Paul Andersen, Paso Robles, P, Senior
Garrett Ball, Arroyo Grande, SS, Senior
Colton Blume, Nipomo, C, Sophomore
Noah Garcia, Morro Bay, C, Junior
Spencer Howard, Templeton, SS/P, Senior
Jeremy Jess, San Luis Obispo, 3B, Sophomore
Joe Johnson, Atascadero, OF, Senior
Mac Lardner, Templeton, P, Sophomore
Grant Magnuson, Coast Union, P/3B, Senior
Sam Neely, Atascadero, OF, Senior
Mikey Ross, Arroyo Grande, C, Senior
Austin Alarcon, Templeton, 2B, Junior
Dan Beavers, Morro Bay, P, Senior
Kai Bedell, Paso Robles, C, Senior
Trevor Fernandez, Mission Prep, OF, Senior
Gehrig Kniffen, Coast Union, OF, Junior
Thomas Orradre, San Luis Obispo, OF, Senior
Quinten Raethke, Coast Union, P, Senior
Robbie Silva, Arroyo Grande, DH, Senior
Ryan Teixeira, Arroyo Grande, 3B, Junior
Jacob Valencia, Nipomo, P, Senior
Jacob Walsh, Templeton, OF, Junior
Arroyo Grande — Nash Ackerman, 2B, Sophomore; Mikey Gutierrez, P, Senior.
Atascadero — Dylan White, 3B, Senior.
Coast Union — Emmany Godinez, SS, Senior.
Coastal Christian — Brandon Spiller, C, Senior.
Mission Prep — Ian Stake, 1B, Senior.
Nipomo — Jose Ojeda, 1B, Junior.
Paso Robles — Jonathan Baldwin, DH/P, Junior; Christian Erickson, 3B, Freshman; Taylor Holden, 2B, Senior.
Templeton — Justin Altamirano, 3B, Junior.
THE TRIBUNE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
1981 Greg Mueller Atascadero Sr.
1982 Donny Peters Atascadero Sr.
1983 Billy Simons Atascadero Sr.
1984 Scott Neill San Luis Obispo Sr.
1985 Tom Keffury Atascadero Sr.
1986 Reuben Granados San Luis Obispo Jr.
1987 Chris Gardner Paso Robles Sr.
1988 Phil James Templeton Sr.
1989 Scott McClain Atascadero Jr.
1990 Scott McClain Atascadero Sr.
Tim Kubinski San Luis Obispo Sr.
1991 Shannon Stephens Arroyo Grande Sr.
Bryan Husband Atascadero Sr.
1992 Robert Berns Arroyo Grande Sr.
1993 Troy Silva Atascadero Sr.
1994 Andrew McCrory Atascadero Jr.
1995 Dustin Barnes San Luis Obispo Sr.
1996 Scott Goodman San Luis Obispo Sr.
1997 Ben Carey San Luis Obispo Sr.
1998 Jason Botts Paso Robles Sr.
1999 Joe Diefenderfer San Luis Obispo Sr.
2000 Chalon Tietje San Luis Obispo Sr.
2001 Trevor Caughey San Luis Obispo Sr.
2002 Steve Guerra Paso Robles Sr.
2003 Gilbert Buenrostro Arroyo Grande Jr.
2004 Erik Morrison Arroyo Grande Sr.
2005 Scott Blue Morro Bay Sr.
2006 Matt Drummond Paso Robles Sr.
2007 Austin Cunningham Atascadero Sr.
2008 John Brehm Paso Robles Sr.
2009 Bryce Cherry Atascadero Jr.
2010 Thomas Bernal Paso Robles Sr.
2011 Nathan Raubinger Arroyo Grande Sr.
2012 Marco Murillo San Luis Obispo Sr.
2013 Kyle Brown Arroyo Grande Sr.
2014 Bailey Gaither Paso Robles Jr.