When he was in the Cleveland Indians minor league system a year later, USA Today dubbed Garko the team's Minor League Player of the Year.
Baseball America lauded the 6-feet-2, 225-pound sensation as the organization's "best prospect who can hit for average."
He went on to fulfill the predictions of the prospect publications when he led the Indians in RBI.
All that was during 2003-08, when Garko also won the Johnny Bench award at Stanford, became an International League All-Star and made the most of his playing time in Cleveland after injuries to designated hitter Travis Hafner and catcher Victor Martinez.
Now — 463 games with three big-league clubs, a .275 career average, a failed spring training tryout with the Seattle Mariners, a year with the Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization and a stint with the Atlantic League's Long Island Ducks later — the 31-year-old with an improved burly figure is attempting one last comeback in the minor leagues for the Tampa Bay Rays.
"I felt like my bat speed was back to what it was when I was playing for the Indians," Garko says. "I think more than anything I still felt like I could help a team offensively. Part of it, too, was just having an opportunity to walk away from the game knowing that you gave it your all and gave it this one last shot."
The team the former big-leaguer plays for now is the Montgomery Biscuits, the Double-A affiliate of the Rays. Prior to 2012, Garko had not played a minor league game at the Double-A level since 2004, when he hit .331 with six home runs and 38 RBI in 43 games for the Akron Aeros.
Garko, however, could not be more grateful for the opportunity after failing to receive any considerable notice from a big-league camp this spring.
"I didn't go to spring training; I sat home and thought it might be over," he says. "I think I kind of saw the end and now I'm getting this second chance. I'm even more excited to come to the yard every day."
So far with the Biscuits, Garko owns a .302 average and has two home runs and eight RBI in 43 at-bats.
To attempt to work his way back to the big leagues, Garko first had to falter, lose his way with the team that drafted him and struggle to find a balance between baseball's unforgiving peaks and valleys.
After he was merited as an Arizona Fall League Rising Star and an International League All-Star, Garko was called up on June 30, 2006. Drafted 78th overall as a catcher three years prior, the Indians thought — because of what they needed at the time and how they viewed his defense — that a position change to first base was necessary. Garko finished the season with a .292 batting average, 12 doubles, seven home runs and 45 RBI in 50 games at the major league level.
In 2007, Garko batted .289 with 29 doubles, 21 home runs and 61 RBI in 138 games.
Then 2008 came.
"I struggled that first half of 2008," Garko says. "It was a little bit of that sophomore slump and the league adjusting to me. I started hitting higher in the lineup than I had been before and I felt like I just I had to put up power numbers."
At the end of the 2008 season, Garko hit .273 with 21 doubles, 14 home runs and 90 RBIs in 141 games. Of concern, however, were his .241 average in the first half and his .259 average against right-handed pitching.
In July 2009, Garko was traded to the San Francisco Giants. He batted .235 with three doubles, two home runs and 12 RBI in 40 games. His statistical line with the team foreshadowed what his wife, Christie, says was one of the lowest points in Garko's professional career.
"When he was non-tendered by the Giants," Christie says. "We were on our honeymoon when we found that out and that was a really low point because he had a great first half of the year with Cleveland and then he went to the Giants and he didn't do as well as they wanted him to do, obviously."
Garko then failed to break camp with the Seattle Mariners in 2010. He later signed with the Texas Rangers but only played 15 games and was 3-for-33 with no extra- base hits.
"I think I got caught up in some of those peaks and valleys as a younger player," he says.
In an effort to showcase his talents and find everyday playing time — something that eluded the first baseman in his big-league career — Garko signed a one-year deal in December 2010 that was reportedly worth $250,000 plus a $50,000 signing bonus with the Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization.
"I got a great offer that I couldn't say no to," Garko says.
His season in Korea was cut short because of hampering injuries that allowed him to only hit .243 in 58 games with 28 RBI.
Despite his struggles, the thought of watching his buddies on television play the game he loves at the big league level while he sat at home motivated Garko to try one more time.
He hired a personal trainer, shed weight and worked on his swing the whole winter but once spring arrived the offers never made their way around.
"He invested a lot of time and money to training; he didn't take a day off the entire off-season. That part was so hard when he didn't sign," Christie says.
Said Garko: "I couldn't get into a camp so it was hard. I worked out all off-season and felt healthy and thought I would find somewhere to play but it just didn't happen."
The Stanford graduate had thoughts of walking away from the game and trying his luck with either business or law school.
Christie, who met Ryan in 2004 when he played in the Arizona Fall League, says it was a stressful and disappointing time but she had faith.
"I just knew he wasn't done," she says. "I don't doubt anything he would want to do. I could just tell that he wasn't ready to write it off just yet."
Garko said that he worked too hard during the off-season not to give this last shot all he had so decided that his next stop would be the Atlantic League.
"I had a conversation with my agent and he was very blunt. He said you can't just go over there and do OK, you need to go there and play extremely well," the former big- leaguer says. "I told my wife this would be my last try. I felt like in my heart I could still play."
For the Long Island Ducks, Garko hit .450 with four home runs and 16 RBI in 16 games.
"He pretty much hit right away. Everything he hit was hard — even his outs," says Ducks manager Kevin Baez.
To garner even more notice, Garko went back to his roots and suited up as catcher for the Ducks and, according to Baez, did fairly well defensively.
"When you're playing in that league all you want is an opportunity to get out," Garko says.
The Tampa Bay Rays were watching and signed him to a minor league deal on May 14.
For the MLB veteran, who has spent so much time, energy and emotion toward getting back to the caliber of a player he was five years ago, the minor league contract presents an accomplishment in itself.
Often criticized for his defense at first base while with the Indians, Garko can be seen working with the Rays minor league infield coordinators hours before games. To make himself more of an attractive player, he has already caught one game with the Biscuits.
At 31, Garko says he has taken all of his prior experiences toward making this opportunity one without regrets. He sees himself at times in the younger players on the Montgomery team who sometimes lose themselves after a bad at-bat or a poor decision on the field.
"There are things that when you're 23 or 24 that you just don't understand yet," Garko says. "I talk to these guys all the time about their numbers and worrying about one at-bat or one bad call. You could just see it; it affects them a lot. It's not about your batting average or always about your numbers. It's about coming to the park, doing your work and showing your manager that they can trust you and vouch for you about moving up to the next level."
Though he is 10 years older than a fair number of his Biscuits teammates, Garko is not at the Double-A level to solely play mentor. With the recent signing and promotion of MLB slugger Hideki Matsui, and the myriad of injuries the organization has suffered this season, the Rays present Garko with a second chance at a big-league dream.
"You realize how precious your career is and how fast things can happen," Garko says. "There's not going to be a day that goes by that I'll waste a minute of my time working and trying to help this team win games."
Will Sammon is the Montgomery Biscuits beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @WillSammon.
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