Back when Ryan Garko was a catcher in his senior year at Stanford University, he
shared the Pac-10 Baseball Player of the Year award with former MLB Most Valuable
Player Dustin Pedroia.
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
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
“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-
“I think I got caught up in some of those peaks and valleys as a younger player,”
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
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
For the Long Island Ducks, Garko hit .450 with four home runs and 16 RBI in 16
“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,”
The Tampa Bay Rays were watching and signed him to a minor league deal on
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
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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