By Dennis Manoloff
September 01, 2006
Indians rookie Ryan Garko’s teammates call him Fred Flintstone. Asked why, veteran Aaron Boone said: “Have you seen him run and move around?
“Looks like him, too.”
Garko can only chuckle at being linked to a cartoon character who prefers Brontosaurus burgers and whose feet double as gas pedals and brakes.
“I can’t do anything about it, so it’s OK, I guess,” he said.
Garko takes solace in knowing that Boone does not hesitate to address backup catcher Kelly Shoppach as Barney Rubble.
“My sidekick,” Garko said.
Given that nicknames are a sign of respect in a clubhouse, Garko will not squawk. Heck, Boone could offer up Bamm-Bamm and it likely would not faze Garko as long as he continues to produce.
The 6-2, 225-pound first baseman enters a weekend series in Texas batting .324 with a .581 slugging percentage and .402 on-base percentage in 22 games for the Tribe. An 0-for-5 Wednesday against Toronto snapped his hit streak at nine. He has four homers, seven doubles and 19 RBI.
Garko’s defense, while far from fluid, has shown incremental improvement. He is, after all, a converted catcher relatively new to the position.
The overall success in Garko’s first extended major-league time follows a less than stellar season in Class AAA. He batted .248 with 15 homers and 59 RBI in 102 games for the Buffalo Bisons.
In 285 previous minor-league games dating to 2003, Garko batted .309. He batted .303 in 127 games for Buffalo last year.
Staleness had set in at Class AAA.
“I was trying so hard to get out of there, I started doing things I shouldn’t,” he said. “I was trying to go 4-for-4 every night. I lost the ability to relax and play the way I can.”
Garko, a Stanford product, also admits to being outfoxed by the replacement umpires summoned when the regulars went on strike. (The regulars returned in June.) For a player such as Garko, who prides himself on knowing every square inch of the strike zone, it was especially frustrating.
“Not to make excuses, but the replacement umpires killed my first 200 at-bats or so,” he said. “It was a mess. Two or three at-bats a night wound up being taken from you because [a pitch] 6 inches off the plate was a strike, and a good Class AAA pitcher is going to hit that spot four out of five times. You’re 0-2 a lot.”
Even when the regular umps returned, Garko struggled to get reacclimated to the correct zone. All the while, he periodically wondered what the future – immediate and long-term – held for him in the Indians organization. It made for anxious days.
“Class AAA is interesting because you are very close, yet very far away,” he said. “I knew if one or two things happened, I could be in Cleveland. But I also knew that I might not get a chance, no matter how well I played in Buffalo.”
Garko’s break came when the Indians fell out of contention. Part of the fallout was the dismantling of the first-base platoon of Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard, both of whom ended up in Seattle. Garko further benefited from Casey Blake’s sprained right ankle, which gave him his first legitimate shot to be a regular.
It has been a largely fruitful run since.
“I’ve always believed I can hit,” he said.
Since his recall Aug. 8, Garko has a more consistent approach than he had in his previous stint with Cleveland this season (June 30 to July 4). He is not collapsing his backside as much, thereby allowing his swing plane to create more backspin on the ball. It has happened under the tutelage of Indians hitting coach Derek Shelton.
“I’m standing taller than I had been, and that’s allowed me to stay on the backside better and create more leverage,” Garko said.
Shelton said: “He’s just getting back to what worked so well for him the past couple of years.”
Beyond Shelton, Garko has leaned on Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner, an MVP candidate with a locker next to his.
“I talk a lot with Travis about hitting,” Garko said. “If something comes up, he’ll pull me aside and break down an at-bat, whether it’s one of mine or one of his. He has a great understanding of what pitchers are trying to do. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him already.”
Hafner is happy to assist.
“He has a real interest in hitting,” Hafner said. “He likes picking the minds of the veterans, trying to get better and learn as much as he can. I remember as a rookie how nice it was to have guys around who could show you the ropes and make you feel comfortable.
“Based on what I’ve seen, he has a chance to be a really good hitter.”
By any name.