The first time Garrett Stubbs returned to Petco Park as a major league player, he phoned his parents as they were crossing a pedestrian skybridge that connects the stadium with the Omni San Diego Hotel.
“Stay right there,” he said.
A few minutes later, Stubbs appeared on the concourse, waved his arms, and yelled hello from about 300 feet away. He couldn’t get closer. It was the summer of 2020, the pandemic was raging, and ballparks were void of fans, even ones with children on the team.
“That was kind of bittersweet,” Stubbs recalled.
This week will be different. Stubbs is back in his hometown, this time as the Phillies’ backup catcher, and will have a rooting section. Key word: Section. Upwards of “a couple hundred people,” according to his father, T. Pat Stubbs, will attend each game. There may be a larger crowd Sunday, given the likelihood that Stubbs will make a rare start in the series finale.
Stubbs, 29, visited last year with the Houston Astros and started one game against the Padres. But this appearance, seven months after being traded to the Phillies for minor league outfielder Logan Cerny, comes after he hit his first major league home run (May 22 against the Los Angeles Dodgers) and a walk-off homer (June 15 against the Miami Marlins). He’s batting .317 and slugging .659 with a .404 on-base percentage in 48 plate appearances behind ironman catcher J.T. Realmuto.
Like the backup quarterback who makes the most of scant playing time, Stubbs is becoming a fan favorite for more than his slight stature and underdog backstory. This weekend, his family and friends are hoping for another chapter.
“We’ll be wearing our powder blue and our red pinstripes,” T. Pat Stubbs said by phone this week. “This whole Phillies experience has been fantastic and really a dream come true the way it has worked out.”
Stubbs’ roots are in San Diego. He grew up in Del Mar, a beach town 20 miles north of downtown. Padres season tickets have been in the family from almost the team’s first season in 1969. His grandmother, Maxine, is a diehard, rarely missing a game.
They went to games at old Qualcomm Stadium. When Stubbs and his brother C.J., now a catcher in the Astros’ farm system, were 5 and 2, respectively, their mother took them to the Padres’ 1998 National League championship parade. T. Pat remembers Stubbs trying to get Rickey Henderson’s attention from their seats in 2001. Stubbs’ favorite player: Trevor Hoffman.
“He was always coming in when we were winning,” Stubbs said. “He came into ‘Hell’s Bells.’ It was like, yeah, that’s the guy.”
It wasn’t enough to keep score. Stubbs charted where the players were positioned on the field and paid attention to the pitches that were being called.
Once Garrett and C.J. began playing competitively, the Stubbses would still pack up the car after games and drive to see the Padres, a ritual that T. Pat described as “a family thing.” Before Petco Park opened in 2004, T. Pat brought his sons to the construction site and took a picture at the spot where home plate would be.
“It was just a fun photo,” he said. “I just wanted my kids to play Little League, never anticipating the fact that they’d continue to play as they have.”
Stubbs’ earliest and most formative baseball influences were in San Diego. He learned to catch from Ed “Hoggy” Herrmann, a San Diegan and 11-year major league catcher mostly with the Chicago White Sox. He met late Padres general manager Kevin Towers and then-manager Bruce Bochy.
Oh, and then there were hitting lessons from Tony Gwynn. Really. The Hall of Famer saw Stubbs play at age 12 or 13 and offered his help.
“He was very gracious with his time, and it was meaningful time,” T. Pat recalled. “He would sit there and talk hitting and say that you didn’t have to put the ball out of the park to have an impact for the team. You could slap a ball through the 5-6 hole [on the left side of the infield] and get two RBIs for it.”
Stubbs’ biggest takeaway from Gwynn?
“I was young, so it’s a little foggy now,” Stubbs said. “I pretty much didn’t speak the whole time. Really nervous. But he was such a happy, easy-going guy. He was always smiling and just loved being on a baseball field.”
Stubbs made the varsity at Torrey Pines High School as a freshman despite being 5-foot-3 and 105 pounds. (Even now, he’s listed at 5-10 and 173, and routinely gets mistaken for the bat boy.) As a senior, he batted .391 and went on to play at USC.
“He’s been underestimated his whole life,” said Matt Chess, Stubbs’ high school coach. “He’s been looked over and looked past. But he understood, ‘Look, I know I’m undersized, so I better know this game.’ He’s got a crazy baseball IQ. He’s a kid that wanted to learn how to bunt properly. He wanted to learn to hit to all fields. He used to steal 25 bases for us as catcher. He threw out something like 40 out of 46 kids his junior year.”
The whole thing still amazes T. Pat, who gets choked up when discussing his sons’ careers and joked that he annoys his friends with how often he marvels at how far Garrett and C.J. have gotten in baseball. Before each game, he texts his sons the same message: “Have fun today.” As he said, “That’s what it’s all about. They are playing a game.”
Life as Realmuto’s understudy means less playing time than almost every backup catcher in baseball. So, when Stubbs hit his walk-off homer last week, T. Pat’s phone exploded with at least 300 text messages and 50-something voicemails.
Unlike two years ago, there will be plenty of opportunity for Stubbs to see family and friends this weekend. He will bring a gift, too. He recently said he plans to give his first home run ball to his parents, another symbol of how far he’s come from those days in the stands.
“Looking up at where my family and I sat since I was a kid and now being down on the field,” Stubbs said, “it’s kind of like, I don’t know if nostalgic is the right word, but one of those moments you dream of as a little kid studying and watching the big league players and wanting to be like them and now finally getting to that place where you’re looking up at the seats that you used to look down at. It’s pretty cool.”