Freddy Garcia: Faith, Family and Four Pitches
Freddy Garcia leaned against a dividing partition in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, watching the Haitian kids and their escorts approach the Altar of the Sacred Heart, to the right of the Main Sanctuary. It was late July 2011, evening, and the light around the altar was a muted rose color. The kids were displaced survivors of the powerful earthquake that had devastated their Caribbean nation eighteen months before. The adults with them were a clergyman, nuns, teachers and relatives from a Catholic school serving a large Haitian neighborhood in Queens. The New York Yankees had brought the group here in a tour bus during an annual community outreach effort.
The votives glowed softly in front of a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas. Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan had led the group over to them, and then waited as the kids were helped to light the candles and encouraged to pray for their families, their friends, their beleaguered homeland.
Garcia’s fellow pitcher, CC Sabathia, had accompanied the group to the altar. Unnoticed for the moment, Garcia moved off to wait behind them, leaning slightly back against the partition, facing the shrine.
After a moment, he reached into a pocket of his jeans, extracted his wallet, and slid out a large handful of bills. Then he quietly caught Sabathia’s attention and pushed the money into the other man’s hand, motioning to the donations box.
The Yankees ace looked at the bills, looked at Garcia. There were a lot of bills in his hand. Garcia nodded insistently toward the box with a thrust of the strong, prominent chin that, along with his powerful 6’ 4” frame, stoic demeanor and long black hair, had once reminded a fellow ballplayer of Chief Bromden, a Native American character from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This was back in Seattle, when Garcia had come up to the Majors with the Mariners. His teammates there had started calling him The Chief and he’d liked the nickname enough to hang onto it over the years.
In the great New York cathedral, Sabathia turned from Garcia, deposited his offering into the box, and again glanced back over his shoulder at him. Okay? Still inconspicuously in the background, Garcia nodded and gave him a small, satisfied grin. Okay.
Garcia was no stranger to people in need. He’d grown up in a Caracas barrio, the modest concrete-slab home his father, Freddy Sr., built for his family perched on the steepest of mountain slopes—a forty-five degree incline the elder Garcia once said might have shot right up to blessed heaven. There had been a time when thirty relatives had lived under the same roof. When the earth shook in Caracas, or the rushing floodwaters inundated the mountainsides, many of the fragile homes and shanties were simply washed away into the valley. In the barrio, you took care of your family and neighbors. It was no reason to pat yourself on the back, but simply the way things were done.
Blessed with talent, resourcefulness, and a good arm, Freddy Garcia had come far from those Venezuelan mountains. Physically, financially. As the Haitian kids and adults finished their prayers at the altar now, he rejoined them and moved on to a reception at the Archbishop’s rectory. Although other members of the team—Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, and Sabathia—would draw the majority of news photographers and cameramen, Garcia appeared fine remaining out of the spotlight. In fact, it seemed his preference.
He was not a man to seek attention for the things he did, on or off the baseball diamond.
It was mid-August, 2012. The home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. Now in his second season with the team, Garcia pulled a tee shirt down over the stylized crucifix tattoo on his back, dressing at his locker after a regular workout session in the bullpen. Two days before, he’d led the Yanks to an impressive 3-2 victory over the Texas Rangers, pitching almost seven innings against their heavy-hitting rival for the best record in the American League.
The win had been Garcia’s third in a row since he’d rejoined the rotation following an injury to Andy Pettitte. Although Garcia would insist challenges were nothing new in his career, almost bristling at the suggestion that the current season had been different than others in that respect, the way it started would have tested the most toughened veteran’s resilience and determination.
Early the previous offseason, the Yankees had re-signed Garcia for a one-year deal after he’d gone 12-8 in 2011 with a 3.62 ERA in 25 starts. That first year, he’d been come to Spring Training in Tampa as a nonroster invitee and competed for a spot in the rotation, only signing a contract on the day the team broke camp.
After a Major League career that began in 1999 with the Mariners, and then continued with the White Sox and Phillies for several years, injuries had made Garcia a question mark for prospective teams. He’d been known for a blowaway fastball that reached the mid-nineties in mph. Wildness could sometimes undermine him, but he was considered a durable, proven winner until 2007, when his labrum and rotator cuff succumbed to wear and required surgery by Dr. James Andrews. Then in 2010 during his second run with the Chicago White Sox—with whom he’d earned a Championship ring in 2005, winning all three of his postseason starts and shutting out the Houston Astros in the World Series—Garcia’s power had diminished and his ERA inflated. And he was 33-years old, nobody calling him a young flamethrower anymore.
Somewhere en route to the Yankees, Garcia had evolved as a pitcher, learned to get batters out with finesse where speed had failed him. There is something almost Darwinian about being able to make the transition, and not a great many hard throwers have done it with success. But he’d always had that capability. Even before he was picked up by the Houston Astros as an undrafted free agent, he had arrived for an open tryout at their Venezuelan baseball academy with four pitches in his hip pocket. The fastball was his favorite; for a pitcher speed is power, and power a fiery intoxicant. Freddy also had a slider, splitter and sinker, though. He’d never considered himself a mere thrower. In his mind, even in his youth, he was always a pitcher.
“Bad attitude, good pitcher … sometimes, you know?” he would recall.
The bad attitude came with knowing he could blow the ball past bats, get swings and misses with the charge in his right arm, send hitters marching back into the dugout after watching them flail helplessly at the air. It made him confident, but it also made him lose his temper when he missed location and got hit. And when he lost his temper, when his emotions got the better of him, he’d stop using his head and lose control. And losing control made him walk batters, or get hit some more.
“Bad attitude, you know?” he reiterated. “But I got a good mentor.”
The mentor was Jamie Moyer, the senior member of the Mariners’ pitching staff, a lefty who had never been gifted with a power arm, who had relied on guile and deception his whole career. Moyer, Garcia recalled, would notice his frustration and give him tips on improving his pitch selection—but often not without first having to scold him.
“What are you doing?” Moyer would say. “Why’d you get –ed off at that?”
“What do you mean?”
“I said why the – did you get –ed off at that? You have the stuff. Get your – right. You have to get the –ing hitter, okay? Think about it when you throw that –ing pitch!”
Garcia remembered assuring Moyer he would try to take his suggestion.
“No.” Moyer would insist. “Don’t try. Do it.”
And Freddy, the headstrong but ultimately receptive pupil, would give in and do it. Moyer taught him exercises that helped him hone and focus his attention, read batters’ tendencies, divide the strike zone into sectors.
“Mental stuff,” Garcia said at his Yankees locker, holding his hands up to either side of his head like visors, moving his eyes to demonstrate the visual drills. Then his expression grew reflective.
“He helped me a lot,” he added softly.
In his prime with the White Sox from 2005-2006, Garcia incorporated Moyer’s artful technique with his own intelligence and power to compile a winning record and pitch almost 450 regular season innings. He had become a dominant ace. But after being traded to the Phillies in 2007, the labrum and rotator cuff surgery leached some of the speed from his arm.
Garcia had faith that he was still good enough to pitch in the big leagues. However, that faith would need to translate into a mature, concrete acceptance of “real life”. After his recovery, his arm didn’t give him any real pain, but small issues would crop up with his body. His back might tighten up … different things. Although he could still throw hard—two or three miles harder than his peak radar gun readings—it would come at the sacrifice of command and control. And he wasn’t paid to throw hard. He was paid to get people out.
Garcia credits his basic honesty with helping him adjust to his new physical limitations after his return to baseball. There was also a work ethic he will agree he probably learned from Freddy Sr. As the father had taken care of his extended family in Venezuela, so does the son assume that responsibility. In his mind, his inspiration and equation for longevity were the same.
“I love my family, I play baseball, I get money to take care of my family,” he said. “I’m a married man. I got two kids. But it’s not like I got two kids. I got twenty-five kids, because I got a lot of family. So that pulls me every day, you know? I like to have all my family here. When I’m pitching, they support me, I know they believe, root for me. It gets you going, every day. Every day.”
In 2012, Garcia’s faith and unsparing honesty would again become factors in a career resurgence. Early season struggles with the Yankees ballooned his April ERA to 12.51 and relegated him to an uncertain bullpen role. His fastball had lost pop, hampering his ability to gain deception from the breaking pitches that required a greater speed differential, and stealing movement from his heavily relied on splitter Larry Rothschild, his pitching coach, came to believe that he left Spring Training with his arm at less than full strength and tried to hurl through it.
|“Bad attitude, you know? But I got a good mentor. Mental stuff. He helped me a lot.”|
|— Freddy Garcia on Jamie Moyer|
Garcia didn’t talk much about it. Pitching was a job, and he wasn’t doing it well, and had lost his starting position for no other reason. He knew where he stood with the team, and told himself he would have to keep a positive mentality, do what he could to get right. Only then might he get another shot.
That shot came at the end of June, when Pettitte took a low line drive to his left leg, slightly above the ankle, and limped off the mound with a broken fibula and projected two-month healing time. Pettitte had been pitching masterfully after his abandoned yearlong retirement. In the war of attrition that is a baseball season, his injury required an immediate replacement—and Garcia was available and performing well again out of the pen. His visible success—and uptick in velocity—in occasional mop up duty had led to appearances at more critical spots in games. As a reliever in June, he was pitching to a 1.13 ERA with eight innings under his belt and had snatched a couple of wins. He’d put his struggles behind him with a characteristic, uncomplicated perspective. “You have to come back,” he said. “Forget about it.”
On July 2, Freddy Garcia returned to the Yankees rotation. In nine outings since, he’s gone 5-3 with a 3.69 ERA. If his five wins were subtracted from the team’s game log, they would enter the third week of August tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for first place in the American League East. Instead, the Yankees hold a five game lead.
Rothschild will talk about his competitiveness, his mixing fastballs and breaking balls, and his managing a lineup “the way he needs to.”
For his part, Garcia doesn’t say much. He isn’t thinking too far ahead into the future, isn’t worrying about where he’ll fit in after Pettitte’s return. “They need me in the bullpen, I’ll be in the bullpen,” he mused. “They need me to start, I’ll start.”
Sometimes on the mound he still feels the urge to blow a fastball past opposing batters. But then he reminds himself of what he knew as a kid in Venezuela.
“I’m a pitcher, I got all four pitches,” he will say. “When you’re right, you make it happen.”
A dozen years into a big-league career, through ups and downs, Freddy Garcia sticks to that simple mantra. Staying positive, doing his job, making it happen one game, one pitch at a time.
With thanks to Joe Auriemma and Freddy “The Chief” Garcia.
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