Leading the Uprising

TheBootleg.com's Dallas-based Special Correspondent Steve Hunt checks in with former Stanford All-American catcher Ryan Garko, now in his fourth season as major-leaguer with the Cleveland Indians.

Former Stanford baseball standout Ryan Garko is now in his third season with the Cleveland Indians. Last year saw the ex-Cardinal break out, when he hit .289 with 21 HR and 61 RBI in his first full season in "the show". Like most of the rest of the Tribe, Garko was off to a slow start to start the year but at press time, was hitting .265 with 4 HR and 27 RBI. 

TheBootleg.com recently caught up with him during a recent road trip to Texas and here's what he had to say. Garko's four years in Palo Alto were impressive to say the least. As a sophomore, he hit .368 with 7 HR and 43 RBI, earning honorable mention all-Pac 10 Conference honors but was on the All-College World Series after his stellar play on college baseball's biggest stage. Then, as a junior, he hit .314 with 14 HR and 55 RBI, earning first-team All-Pac 10 honors and a spot in the NCAA's All-Regional Team. But Garko clearly saved the best for last. He won the 2003 Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top collegiate catcher after hitting .402 with 18 HR and a school-record 94 RBI. He was also named Co-Pac 10 Player of the Year, NCAA Regional MVP, a first-team All-America and earned All-CWS for the second time. 

Clearly, those are days he looks back on with much fondness. "Obviously, it was great," Garko said. "It's the best school in the country academically and the best experience you're going to get playing for a great baseball program and getting an Ivy League-caliber education. It was great being in Coach (Mark) Marquess' program and playing for him." "Just the friends I made, the people I met and the things I learned while I was there, made it an easy choice for me," he said. "It was exactly what I thought I was getting into before I went there. Once he (Marquess) called the house, my decision was made. I didn't even look anywhere else because you can't really find better athletics, academics or be surrounded by better people than at Stanford." 

Even though he was born in Pittsburgh, Garko moved to California when he was young and that was when playing for the Cardinal became a strong possibility. "I did look at UCLA and a few other schools, but I didn't want to go somewhere that it was cold," he admitted. "It was one of those things that when they call, you have to be an idiot to say no to Stanford. Who knows how baseball is going to go but that degree is going to take you a long way. He (Marquess) has got an easy job recruiting there because the name of the school speaks for itself." 

Besides his two trips to Omaha, another highlight for Garko were the rivalry games with Cal. "It's starting to get back there (to being a great rivalry in baseball) because Cal is getting a lot better," he said. "SC and Arizona State were our biggest rivals while I was there." "SC was probably the biggest because so many good players went there and also because they won all those national titles in the past," Garko said. "Any time, you have Cal and Stanford on the same field in any sport, it's a big deal. Those (SC and Cal) were our top two (rivals) but for different reasons. It was SC because of the competition and Cal because we're natural rivals." 

But squaring off against the Golden Bears couldn't compare to how he felt upon learning that Cleveland had taken him in the third round of the June 2003 amateur draft. "I was happy to get drafted because I didn't get drafted my junior year and went back my senior year and did a lot of work," he said. "I didn't know what to expect and whether I would go high or low," Garko stated. "I thought I would get drafted my junior year because my numbers were good. I knew that there were a couple of teams interested in me, about three or four American League teams looking at taking me anywhere between the third and fifth round. It was just a relief. I was glad that I didn't have to wait for 50 rounds to find out that I hadn't been drafted. I was just happy to get a chance to play." 

Garko's professional career began with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers of the Short Season Single-A New York Penn League, where he hit .273 with 4 HR and 16 RBI in 46 games. Right away, he noticed a pretty big difference between playing in the Pac 10 compared to hitting the diamond in the minors. "Playing every day and the bus trips were the biggest thing (that I had to adjust to)," he recalled. "At Stanford, we were almost like a Triple-A team because we flew, stayed in nice hotels and everything was really first class. Getting adjusted to playing every day and making those bus trips wasn't that bad but is something that everyone has to get used to." 

He spent just two more seasons in the minors before the Indians promoted him in September 2005 and he made his debut as a pinch hitter in a September 18 game against Kansas City, striking out in his first at-bat. "I had gotten called into pinch hit late," Garko recalled. "I just remember my heart beating so fast and when the guy announced my name, I tried to soak it all in. It happened so quickly that I struck out on four or five pitches. I was so excited that I couldn't even feel the bat in my hands. It was just one at-bat but means a lot to you personally because there aren't too many guys who can say they got to play in the majors." 

After splitting 2006 between Triple-A Buffalo and the Tribe, Garko spent all of '07 in Cleveland and produced by hitting .289 with 21 HR and 61 RBI. "It was good," he said. "I had done well the year before in a short spurt but knew that the real test was how you did after you came through the league and teams could adjust to you. As the summer went along, I learned how important it was to make adjustments because the advance scouts were going to have a book on you and would make adjustments." "I was really happy with how I did in the middle of the lineup in the pennant race and even in the playoffs," Garko said. "I felt like I had a pretty good playoff series against the eventual World Series champs. I felt like I had really swung the bat well against them and I'm really proud of that." 

When asked about why he had started the 2008 season off so slowly, Garko was somewhat at a loss. "I don't know," he said. "Cold weather was part of it because it's tough to hit in Cleveland right now. I just have to get back to being me. Every hitter goes through this and I'm not the first guy to do this after 100 at-bats." "I've got four months left and hopefully, I have gotten this out of my system," he said. "It definitely isn't due to a lack of work or effort. The results are just not there. I will keep working at it. I really haven't changed anything but just try to get better every day. I work on different things but I tried to do a little bit too much this year, which got me into troubles. I need to hit for average and just let the home runs come."

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