Mark Marquess, the Clarke and Elizabeth Nelson Director of Baseball at Stanford, had Ryan Garko at hello.
“It’s hard to say no to Coach Marquess,” said Garko, a newly-named assistant coach to his mentor.
The groundwork was laid by Dean Stotz, who recently announced his retirement after 37 years on The Farm. He phoned Garko to gauge his interest and the conversation lasted two hours.
“It was an honor just to be called,” said Garko, who graduated from Stanford in ’03 with a degree in American Studies. “My wife (Christie) and I were just blown away by the opportunity to come in and talk to coach Marquess about it.”
A three-year starter for the Cardinal, Garko played professionally for 10 years, including five in the big leagues. He retired last spring and was working for Major League Baseball in Phoenix, helping out with the Arizona Fall League, while weighing other opportunities in private business.
“First of all, it’s working with Coach Marquess,” he said, when asked why he returned. “Everything he’s done on the field – the wins (1,463), the national titles (2), the College World Series appearances (14) – those are in the record books and no one can take them away.
“I was really lucky as a senior to come back and I got to know him really well. He made an imprint on me as a person and a young man, just when you talk about character and integrity. He does everything the right way. You’re not cutting corners when you play for him. So now to come back and work for him and be around him – I’ve only been here a month – but to see the way he handles things in the office, how he handles people, how he treats our players, it’s pretty amazing to be around a guy like that who has been doing it for so long.”
Marquess is now in his 38th year at the helm. And from what Garko has seen, he hasn’t lost a step.
“Some things in the college game have changed, but in terms of energy level and the way he can run a practice, it’s the most efficient and energetic practice that I’ve ever been around in all my years in pro ball or traveling around,” he said. “There’s a lot of thought that goes into it. It doesn’t just happen. And he’s doing 90 percent of it.”
As a senior, Garko won the Johnny Bench Award presented to the nation’s best collegiate catcher. Twice, he led the Cardinal in hitting, batting .398 as a sophomore and .402 as a senior.
Garko played in 218 games while on The Farm and had a career average of .350 with 60 doubles, 39 home runs and 191 RBIs. He knows what it takes to win. During his four years, the team compiled a 199-69 record and qualified for the College World Series four times, earning three second-place finishes.
“I was blessed,” said Garko. “For any college baseball player, the chance to go to Omaha once would be a dream come true.”
Garko said success was contagious.
“It was an era in the program where we were expecting to win every weekend, every series,” he said. “We played great against the good programs – USC, Cal and ASU. All the wins were fun.”
A third-round draft choice of the Cleveland Indians, Garko is proud of his pro career, highlighted by a playoff series win against the New York Yankees in 2007, then taking the Boston Red Sox to Game 7 in ACLS. In 2008, he started at first base and drove in a career-high 90 runs. In 2009, he played 40 games with the Giants.
“I got more out of it than the talent I had,” said the Walnut, Calif., native. “No scout ever wrote me as a first-round pick, but I squeaked out a pretty nice career. I had one tool: I could swing the bat. I didn’t run well, and I didn’t really have a position. I’m on the other side now and have to evaluate a guy.”
Garko will spend a lot of time in the batting cage working with Stanford hitters, help the infielders and catchers, and assist with recruiting.
“Where coach asks me to go, I’ll go,” he said.
Garko understands the Stanford culture and knows players must balance academics and athletics.
“I think there are two sides to it,” said Garko. “There’s the campus side, the life experience. I will always remind our players they came to Stanford to be student-athletes, and the student part is important. Not only that, but I’ll tell our guys to use your creativity and just be a well-rounded person and network. Work on communicating, look people in the eye and shake their hand when they come and see us at the field. Just the little things you learn as you get older.
“On the field side, especially hitting, there were things I didn’t learn until I got to Triple-A. I wish I knew at the beginning of my career what I know now and I think I would have played a lot longer. The mental side is the true separator. And that’s what I’m trying to impress on the guys right now. What they think is hard work, what they think is focus – you focus on every single pitch of every at bat. That’s what guys in the major leagues do. They don’t miss a pitch. You should never give away an at-bat. Doesn’t mean you’re going to get a hit every time. But you have to work on it.”
If Garko had his way, every top high school baseball player would attend college.
“Now, they don’t have to go here; go somewhere, because pro baseball is a job and a business,” said Garko. “The reason our guys came here is they don’t want that right now. I do understand that they should enjoy campus life and their school work. Sometimes it’s challenging, but you’re gaining knowledge.”
Something he plans to remind his players often.
“Stanford is an amazing place,” he said. “You’re not just trying to get grades; you’re enriching yourself as a person and growing. I never felt like I was in class just trying to make sure I got an A or B. Classes are small. If you want to put in time with your professor or something that interests you, that should be a connection for life.”
Garko just returned from a recruiting trip, and he and his wife are still unpacking boxes after their move from Phoenix. She attended the University of Arizona and they met when he was playing in the Arizona Fall League in 2004.
Admittedly, life is hectic at the moment. But Garko is thrilled to be back.
“I’m excited to put the uniform on and represent this university again,” said Garko. “And most importantly, to work with the players. If I can help them grow, just like Coach Marquess did with me, that’s the most important thing. They’re going to do great things on and off the field. I just want to help them reach their potential.”