Phillies' Luis Garcia's unusual path back to baseball
CLEARWATER, Fla. Luis Garcia had enough. Baseball was not working. It was time for the pitcher to find a normal job and live a normal life, he thought.
Luis Garcia had enough. Baseball was not working. It was time for the pitcher to find a normal job and live a normal life, he thought.
Garcia cut hair for two months at a barber shop in Morristown, N.J. The shop was called Major League Barbers, a fitting name for someone who left the Dominican Republic in 2007 with dreams of being a major-league pitcher. Garcia later worked for a moving company, traveling in a truck with five men all over North Jersey.
Life without baseball, Garcia said, felt empty.
"With everything I did, I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do," said Garcia, who is expected to play a vital role in the Phillies bullpen this season. "I knew something was missing. This could not be it."
Garcia, 28, did not throw a baseball for an entire year. Luis Ferreras, a friend with whom he had played in the minor leagues, called Garcia. He had a dream that Garcia returned to baseball. Ferreras asked Garcia to give it a chance. The righthander was not interested. Baseball was in the past, Garcia said.
His friend was at Garcia's house each day when Garcia finished work at the moving company. Ferreras pleaded with him to just have a catch. Garcia finally gave in. They started playing catch, but winter was moving in. Garcia needed to find an indoor facility. He had little money and could not afford one.
Another friend called. This time it was Luis Santana, who he had not talked to in two years. Santana asked Garcia what he was doing. Garcia told him he was giving baseball another shot but needed a place to play. Santana worked at Frozen Rope, an indoor baseball facility in Pine Brook, N.J.
"He said, 'Come over, throw a bullpen or whatever,' " Garcia said. "I went there, threw a bullpen and the owner asked me, 'Hey you want to work here?' "
Garcia worked as a Frozen Ropes instructor. He loved helping kids. The money was better than he made on the moving van and he no longer had to wake up at 4 a.m. Santana altered his mechanics. He told Garcia to pitch with his hips and use his back leg.
The pitcher tried latching on with a few major-league teams but did not get an offer. He tried out for the independent Newark Bears. They were not hard to impress. Garcia threw a bullpen session and the Bears said they wanted him.
"I wasn't ready," Garcia said. "I hadn't been throwing with a catcher. I hadn't faced a batter in like two years."
Garcia struggled through nine games in 2012 with Newark. He returned back to Frozen Rope, worked as an instructor and practiced with Santana.
Santana had a friend who worked with the New York Yankees. He got Garcia a tryout. Santana said Garcia hit 98 m.p.h., but the Yankees passed. The Phillies inquired and flew Garcia down to Clearwater toward the end of March 2013. They signed him and Garcia reported to extended spring training.
He started the season in single A and quickly ascended through the minor leagues. The Phillies called him up in July of that year and he spent the rest of his rookie season in the big leagues.
"It's crazy. It was meant to be," Garcia said. "I wasn't thinking about coming back and playing baseball anymore. And in one year, I played in the big leagues. That was my dream when I was a kid."
Garcia spent most of last season at triple-A Lehigh Valley. He finished the season with a 0.96 ERA in 462/3 innings. He relied on a slider that Santana helped him craft in the offseason at Frozen Rope. The Phillies named him their minor-league pitcher of the year.
"Even me, I know his ability but how fast he moved through baseball shocked me," Santana said.
Garcia played this winter in the the Dominican Republic and continued to work on his slider. He wanted to keep last season's success going. Garcia has allowed just one run in 11 innings this spring.
"He's been a bright spot," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He's been real consistent this spring with what he's been doing. He's moved up as far as what he can do in the bullpen and what his role can be. He's come a long way."
Garcia received a text message one morning this week. It was Ferreras, who is playing in Japan. Ferreras asked him how he was doing. Garcia was sitting in a major-league clubhouse, a few days away from leaving for Philadelphia for his first opening day.
Life no longer feels empty. Garcia is living Ferreras' dream.
Phillies' 'little bull' Herrera embraces nickname
If you're looking to give Odubel Herrera a nickname, he already has one: El Torito.
"My dad gave it to me when I was a little kid in Venezuela and it stuck," Herrera said through an interpreter.
The nickname is Spanish for "the little bull." Herrera, who looks set to be the Phillies' opening-day centerfielder, was strong and powerful when he was a kid.
"I was a little bull," Herrera said.
Herrera's nickname has been used in Venezuelan news accounts about his performance this spring. He would put his hands near his helmet after key hits this winter in Venezuela to mimic a bull's horns.
Herrera, 23, has 19 hits in 58 spring at-bats (.328). His six stolen bases lead the Phillies and are second in the majors. If he starts on opening day, Herrera will be the second Phillies player since 1970 to make his major-league debut in the opening-day lineup. The other was Freddy Galvis in 2012.
For Phillies' Phelps, walking on is the norm
Cord Phelps was a late bloomer in high school. Colleges did not start recruiting him until the end of his senior season. He chose to go to Stanford - the school he always dreamed of attending - and walk on to the Cardinal baseball team.
"They knew I was coming, I was an invited walk-on," Phelps said. "Just like anywhere, they're going to give the scholarship guys the first shot. But if you can play, they're open to having you earn a spot and contribute."
Phelps earned his way onto the team and helped power the Cardinal to the semifinals of the College World Series as a junior.
In a way, it is a similar situation for Phelps this spring as he tries to earn a spot with the Phillies. He came to camp as a non-roster invitee. Phelps, 28, has played his way into contention for one of the team's final roster spots. The infielder has 12 hits and six RBIs in 41 at-bats. He's versatile and played every position last season but center field and catcher.
"I'm kind of comfortable being the underdog and having to prove myself," Phelps said. "It feels like that's how it's always been my whole career. So it's not an unfamiliar position to be in."