Dream comes true for Steve Lerud

Even when he was a 12-year-old playing for Washoe Little League, you could tell Steve Lerud was going to be a special player.

He possessed good size and all-around ability, hit in the cleanup spot and was one of the top pitchers for a Washoe team that came within one game -- a loss to Austin Graham and the Carson Valley all-stars -- of advancing to the Nevada state Little League tournament.

So, it was no surprise when Lerud broke into the starting lineup at Galena High School and earned all-league recognition as a freshman in 2000. It was no surprise when he signed a letter-of-intent with the University of Santa Clara this past November. Or when he was selected in the third round, the 75th pick overall, by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Major League draft earlier this month.

Lerud had no doubts on Sunday when he signed with the Pirates because he was on a plane to Florida within 24 hours. Quite simply, it was a dream come true.

"It's just exciting, that's all I can say. It's nice to be able to play a game you love for a living," Lerud said by telephone from Las Vegas during a stop on his flight late Monday night.

There's no need to change playing colors, either, because Lerud is exchanging Galena's black and color for Pittsburgh's. The decision to pass up baseball and an education at Santa Clara to play pro ball still wasn't an easy one.

"No, it wasn't an easy decision," Lerud said. "But when you got right down to it, this was a chance for me to do what I've always dreamed about. When you look at it that way, it was pretty black and white."

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound catcher's achievements this season were pretty impressive.

Baseball America named Lerud first-team catcher on its All-America high school team and he was honored as Gatorade's Nevada State Player of the Year after a season in which he hit .465 with 21 home runs, 11 doubles, 64 RBIs and a slugging percentage above 1,200.

Lerud also set a state record with 60 career home runs, a tribute to four solid seasons at Galena. He hit .447 with 10 homers as a freshman and came back to hit .425 with 12 homers as a sophomore to help the Grizzlies advance to the 4A state tournament finals.

It would be easy to say the left-handed swinging Lerud hit a lot of home runs because of Galena's hitter-friendly park, with a right field porch that measures no more than 290 down the line.

But anyone who saw Lerud play will tell you his hits were not cheap. Consider the mammoth home run he hit during the Northern 4A Regional Tournament at Ron McNutt Field against Carson, a blast that cleared the fence in right-center and hit the side of the Midas building -- a good 450 feet away from home plate.

Galena won its High Desert League championship, then went on to finish third at both the regional and state tournaments. They were eliminated at the state tournament by eventual champion Green Valley.

Now, Lerud is focused on playing for the Bradenton Pirates in the Gulf Coast Rookie League. He has already played in Florida, having been there as a member of the Carson Capitols summer program, and he expects to see some familiar faces as well.

"I'll know a few of the kids who will be down there," Lerud said. "I've played with and against these kids all around the country."

In addition to playing with the Capitols, Lerud played for the San Francisco Giants Area Code team and was part of the Area Code Goodwill Series Team that traveled to Japan in June, 2002.

"Playing with those guys (Capitols) helped a lot," Lerud said. "Everything helped. It gave me good exposure, the scouts got to see me when I was young and then they were able to follow me all the way through."

Now, Lerud would like nothing more than to follow the Pirates organization all the way through to PNC Park.

"There's a shortage of catchers, it seems, so I'm in a good position," he said. "It won't be easy to move up, but the opportunity is there."

Don't be surprised if he does make it. You always could tell this kid was going places.

Dave Price is a sports writer for the Nevada Appeal

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