STANFORD, Calif. — When Ryan Garko played at Stanford, he hung on every word Barry Bonds offered about hitting as the eventual home run king trained and took his swings on campus alongside the college kids and a few other pros.
Now it is Garko sharing some of those very tips, and also his own, with the Cardinal players. The former Cleveland Indians first baseman is back at his alma mater as a first-year assistant under longtime Stanford baseball coach Mark Marquess.
Garko hopes to stick around for the long haul.
“I do offer a pretty unique perspective for our current players,” he said. “I just spent 10 years with the best people in the world, coaches, players, front-office personnel. While I was playing, I envisioned I would stay in the game.”
There are some big differences these days. He has daily equipment duties, such as preparing the field at Sunken Diamond and pulling out protective screens and other gear well before any players have made their way outside to practice.
He’s loving every minute of it.
For years, Garko would call Marquess and former associate coach Dean Stotz inquiring about a future position. Last year, Stotz decided to retire after 37 years and made one of his first calls to Garko.
He and his wife, Christie, didn’t need much convincing to make the move. They have a 1½-year-old daughter, Olivia, and a baby boy on the way.
“I always kept in touch and asked them about it and they’d kind of laugh,” recalled Garko, who was with the Indians from 2005-09. “It was just one of those things it was a perfect time for our family, Coach Stotz was ready and there’s nobody I respect more or want to work for more than Coach Marquess. To be back at Stanford at this point in our lives when we’re starting a new chapter, we’re so thankful, so humbled.”
Garko fondly remembers observing Bonds, and hopes he can have a similar impact on the young men playing for him. Marquess had coached Bonds on the U.S. baseball team.
“Thinking about this is incredible. We’d be practicing, running in the mornings and it would be Terrell Owens, Eddie George and Barry Bonds up on the turf field working out, doing ladder drills, and sometimes Gary Sheffield,” Garko said. “They’d hit in the cages and we’d watch it, this is when (Bonds) was hitting 70 (homers). He’d talk about his top hand, the stuff he talked about was so simple but it had such big impact. I took it with me the whole rest of my career.”
A third-round pick by the Indians in 2003, Garko played parts of six seasons with Cleveland, the San Francisco Giants and Texas, then a stint in South Korea. In 408 games with the Indians, he hit .283 with 53 homers and 235 RBIs.
Along the way, he paid close attention to each one of his hitting coaches, and to this day Garko tells his players he would rather them take 50 quality swings in the cage than spend all day in there.
Garko also credits his former hitting coach with the Indians, Derek Shelton, who’s now with Tampa Bay.
“So far I’ve already learned a ton about hitting just from him. The level of experience that he has, he’s got so much to help us with. I look forward to keep learning,” Stanford infielder Danny Diekroeger said of Garko. “He’s great to have.”
The 33-year-old Garko was a career .275 hitter with 55 home runs and 250 RBIs. Garko was with the Colorado Rockies to start spring training in 2013 before getting hurt.
“I was ready, my body told me it was time to be finished — my knees, my back, my arm, I was cheating to hit pitches I used to be able to turn on like nothing,” he said. “I got hurt at spring training and the Rockies scouting director called me in. It was a very easy conversation, there wasn’t a spot, I knew I was ready. When I went home, my wife and I celebrated more we were so thankful for the career I had.”
Then Stanford called him. Garko was ready to put down some roots for his growing family.
“Ryan is a great addition,” Marquess said. “He’s done a great job. It’s tough to replace Coach Stotz, we’re pleased to have him.”
As Stanford is enjoying NCAA Tournament success in men’s and women’s basketball this month, and the football team was Rose Bowl runner-up, Marquess just reached his own milestone: 1,500 wins. He became the sixth baseball coach in NCAA history with 1,500 victories in a win at Cal earlier this month.
“The thing a lot of people have forgotten is when he took over in the late ’70s, everybody said you could never win here, in any sport,” Garko said. “What those two guys did at a school like this is just incredible. They laid the blueprint out for a lot of other sports.”