There’s just something about this place.
Chuck Taylor played on Stanford football’s 1941 national championship team and later coached the Cardinal to a Rose Bowl berth in 1952, becoming the first person to participate in “The Granddaddy of Them All” as both a player and a coach. Howie Dallmar led the 1942 Cardinal basketball team to a national title and later returned to coach the team for 21 seasons. And Mark Marquess was a first-team All-American first baseman in 1967 and is returning this year for his 38th season as the head coach of Stanford’s baseball program.
The man making his journey back to The Farm this year — eleven years removed from his senior season — is Ryan Garko ‘03. After getting a call about the job from departing associate head coach Dean Stotz, who retired in September after 37 seasons at Stanford, and speaking to Marquess, Garko had an easy decision to make.
“When Stanford calls and asks you to be a part of it in any capacity, I don’t think you say no,” he said.
Garko’s name litters Stanford baseball’s record book, and he certainly knows how to win, having made the College World Series (CWS) in each of his four years with the Cardinal. Over 218 career games, he is tied for ninth in program history with a .350 career batting average and also tallied 39 HR and 191 RBI on The Farm. Not to mention his absurd senior season in which he hit .402 — becoming just the sixth player in school history to reach that plateau in a single season — with 18 HR and 92 RBI, tied for the most in a single season.
“He was one of the best hitters we’ve ever had here. He’s just unbelievable. He hit over .400 and had more home runs (18) than strikeouts (17) [in his senior season],” said Marquess, who coached Garko from 2000-2003. “And I joked, ‘He had no speed, so he wouldn’t get any leg hits.’”
Still, Garko’s Stanford pride and humility were both on display as he reminisced on the Sunken Diamond bleachers last week. What made him smile the most wasn’t remembering his .583 career average in the College World Series, which earned him a spot on the CWS Legends Team in 2010. He only slightly smirked upon recalling his clutch 2001 postseason performances: a go-ahead RBI single in the eighth inning of the Cardinal’s second elimination game of the day against Texas in the regional, a go-ahead RBI single to cap off a 13-11 comeback in the team’s first CWS game against Tulane and his late-inning solo homers against Cal State-Fullerton in the two proceeding CWS games.
What so clearly indicated Garko’s identity as a true Stanford man was his ear-to-ear grin and chuckle when he said, “We owned California all four years. We always wanted to win the state.”
Returning to Stanford, this time as an assistant coach, won’t change the student-mentor relationship between Garko and Marquess, who was the strongest influence on Garko during his time as an athlete on The Farm. Garko cited that relationship and its significance to him as one of the primary reasons he chose to return to his alma mater as a coach.
“The opportunity to come back and work for Coach Marquess, who has already played such a huge role in my life as a young man — now to learn from him, to come back to the college game. If there’s someone to work for, who better? The guy is a legend.”
“He pushes you right to the edge. Sometimes, he drives you crazy as a player here. I was undrafted as a junior and ended up turning myself into a good player, and he had everything to do with it because he pushed me. I want him to do the same thing now and teach me how to help him win again.”
After Garko went undrafted despite being named a Johnny Bench Award semifinalist and to the All-Pac-10 team, he said that he didn’t think he would play professionally. But buying into Marquess’s values his senior year by selling out for his team led to a historic senior season.
In June 2003, the Cleveland Indians selected Garko with the 11th pick in the third round of the MLB Draft. That was the beginning of a professional career that he didn’t believe would happen: one that included the nation’s best collegiate catcher transitioning to a first baseman and 463 regular-season major league games in which he hit .275 with 55 HR and 250 RBI.
Fast forward a few years, and Garko is back where he made a name for himself in baseball. After just four months on the job, Garko has already taken to the recruiting trail, which will undoubtedly improve the Cardinal’s recruiting classes in the years to come. His passion and belief in Marquess’s program — absolutely evident after asking him to reiterate his recruiting spiel to play baseball at Stanford — makes him the perfect person to sell this school.
And what he emphasized the most — almost to the point of obsession — was the number of professional baseball players who played for the Cardinal and have still earned a Stanford degree. (After Astros All-Star catcher Jason Castro completed his degree this past winter, Garko tweeted: “Of the 57 MLB players to play for Coach Mark Marquess, [Castro] is the 49th to earn his Stanford degree.”).
More importantly, having gone through the experience of being a student-athlete at Stanford will allow him to relate to his players on a greater personal level. Garko said that Marquess tells him that he “still [has] a lot of player in [him].”
After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 and just the fifth time since 1981, another influence in the locker room who knows what it’s like to win in the postseason will definitely have a positive impact on current student-athletes.
“I’m going to try to never forget how hard it is to play this game,” he said. “You remember what it’s like to stand on that field, and it looks easier being on this side of it now.”
“He brings a lot, not only on the coaching side, but also on the mental side: helping us navigate the day-to-day,” said junior third baseman Alex Blandino. “He keeps us focused every day and pushes us in the right direction, plays a little good cop, bad cop. He’s good at giving us some love when we need it, and a firm fist when we deserve a kick in the rear end.”
While only time will tell whether Garko will stay at Stanford for as long as Marquess has, he seems committed to being involved with the program.
“I have a one-year-old daughter, and part of the reason I took this job was for her to just grow up around this place,” he said. “I would do anything for her to go to school here.”
“You’re around the smartest, the hardest-working, the most successful people in the world. This place makes you a better person. It changes your life. This is the stuff I tell recruits every day. I was a living example of it.”
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.