High school teammates Garko, Francisco look to future

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bud ShawPlain Dealer Columnist

Winter Haven, Fla. — The long odds of two high school teammates making the major leagues and playing for the same team got stretched even more in Toronto last summer.

That’s when Blue Jays reliever Brian Wolfe retired Ryan Garko and Ben Francisco in a game against the Indians.

All three were seniors at Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif., in 1999. But that’s nothing compared to the odds a team with three future major-leaguers would lead a high school title game, 10-0 and somehow find a way to lose.

“Ask Ben about it,” Garko said in a conspiratorial tone. “He’s still bitter.”

Francisco and Garko dress four lockers apart in the Indians’ spring-training clubhouse. So it’s not too far a stroll to find the embittered Francisco.

“We were two outs from winning by the mercy rule,” Francisco said Monday. “Two outs. The fans had left. Our pitcher [Wolfe] got hit for some home runs. A grand slam. We lost, 18-17.”

A lot of guys relive their high school days because nothing of athletic note happens after graduation. Bruce Springsteen wrote “Glory Days” for that reason.

Garko and Francisco are exceptions. They’ve made Servite’s list of notable alumni, along with former NFL quarterbacks Steve Beuerlein and Turk Schonert, former NFL lineman Blaine Nye and Carolina Panther lineman Ryan Kalil, and pitcher Mike Witt, who threw a perfect game for the Angels against Texas in 1984.

Garko and Francisco grew up a distance apart that Garko calculates as “Beachwood to Westlake.” They didn’t know each other before their freshman year.

“I saw this big guy hitting the ball 500 feet,” Francisco said.

“Ben weighed like 80 pounds,” Garko said.

Garko would hit third in the lineup and catch. Francisco filled out as a senior, hit fourth and played center field. Wolfe, a sixth-round pick of Minnesota, was considered the sure thing.

“Nobody would be surprised he made the big leagues,” Francisco said of Wolfe. “A lot of people wouldn’t be surprised Ryan made it either. Me? I was a shrimp.”

Francisco made his major league and Indians debut last season, batting .274 in 25 games with three home runs and 12 RBI. He was selected the International League’s “most exciting player.”

His chances of making the Indians’ 25-man roster out of spring training are diminished in a crowded outfield (Jason Michaels, David Dellucci, Grady Sizemore and Franklin Gutierrez) and by the fact that he still has options. The Indians will keep four outfielders.

“Ben was impressive last year,” manager Eric Wedge said. “He obviously impacted us at home plate and on the field. He still needs to continue to improve in the outfield.”

“No way you should win a Triple-A batting title and not be in the big leagues,” Garko said. “But the majors are a tough level to break into.”

Garko knows. This time last year, he was a catcher trying to make the transition to first base for a team whose infield defense the year before was your basic butcher shop.

Every day, every ground ball brought scrutiny. Garko handled it well. He finished in the middle of the league defensively among first basemen while hitting .290 with 21 home runs and 61 RBI.

The corners are where teams traditionally find their power numbers. Wedge makes the case a double is as good as a home run if it comes at the right time. Garko had 29 of those.

Garko’s theory is that where home runs are concerned, 30 is the new 40.

“It’s one of the great things about steroid testing,” Garko said. “Every first baseman isn’t hitting 40 home runs every year now. The premium is on being able to handle the bat and driving in runs.

“I’d love to get that 61 RBI up close to 100. Increasing home runs wouldn’t make me as happy as that would.”

Garko’s spot in the lineup is assured. He wishes the same could be said for Francisco.

The outfield is even more crowded when you consider Shin-Soo Choo, who is recovering from injury but also is out of options.

“I saw Ryan go through something like this last spring,” Francisco said. “So he’s a good person to talk to about it.”

To reach Bud Shaw:

bshaw@plaind.com, 216-999-5639

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