Heads of the class
Who'd have thought prep teammates would reunite in Majors?
Everybody at Servite High School, near Anaheim, Calif., knew Ryan Garko would make it as a professional ballplayer."He was the superstar from the start," says Matt Gogan, Garko's high school teammate. "He started on varsity and was breaking school records as a freshman." Ben Francisco, meanwhile, was a project, but he was hungry. Literally. "Benny weighed about 90 pounds freshman year," Garko says with a laugh. As their high school careers evolved, Garko racked up the hits, Francisco packed on the pounds, and their baseball skills opened the door to opportunities at Stanford and UCLA, respectively. That's where this story is supposed to end, really. For when Garko and Francisco graduated from Servite High in 1999, they never imagined they'd be teammates again, let alone at the big league level. But here they are, nine years later, both with the Tribe. The Indians and Elias Sports Bureau could not find data on the last time teammates from the same high school class played together in the bigs, but suffice to say it's rare. Losses were rare for Garko and Francisco when they were playing for the Friars in high school. During their senior year, Servite was ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 5 in the country and had just one loss all season heading into the playoffs. But their season ended with an 18-17 loss in a sectionals game. Mention that game to Francisco, and he still gets fired up. "Our pitching just couldn't get it done that day," he says with a tinge of bitterness. The game got so out of control that Garko, the catcher, had to come in at pitch in relief. "The guy who was supposed to pitch got hit in the elbow by a baseball, so I got ambushed," Garko says. "I came in with a runner on first and second with no outs. I think I gave up a sac fly and got out of it. I did better than I thought I would. I didn't get hurt and embarrass myself." Nor did Garko embarrass himself during an accomplished career at Stanford. He batted .402 in his senior season to help lead the Cardinal to the finals of the College World Series. Francisco, after a year at Cypress Junior College, transferred to and played two seasons for UCLA, earning All-Pac 10 honors as a sophomore and leading the conference in steals (20) in 2002. In June of '02, the Indians took Francisco with their fifth-round pick in the First-Year Player Draft. A year later, they took Garko with their third-round selection. "It was cool to see him drafted by the Indians," Francisco says. "I don't know if I showed him the ropes, though. He had it figured out pretty good by then." Garko remembers his first Spring Training with the Tribe. In the downtime that came with the dog days of camp, he and his old high school buddy used to play "NBA Live 2004" for hours on end. That game is outdated now. It depicts Vince Carter on its cover, wearing a Raptors jersey he hasn't donned in real life in four years. But Garko and Francisco don't mind. When they recently found a used copy of the game in a store on the road earlier this year, they jumped all over it. "We were just laughing," Garko says. "We used to play that game at the hotel in Spring Training when we were in A ball. Now, we're in the big leagues playing the exact same game. But instead of it being the Holiday Inn in Winter Haven, we're in the Ritz Carlton in Kansas City." Garko's path to the Ritz was a little bit quicker. He made his Tribe debut in 2005, broke into the regular lineup in the last two months of '06 and was an Opening Day starter in '07. Francisco, meanwhile, was in his second full season at Triple-A Buffalo when he first got the call to the Majors last summer, and he was in his third year with the Bisons when the Indians finally gave him a more permanent promotion in May. "It's just fun playing with someone you grew up with," Garko says. "The odds are pretty astronomical, when you think of all the people who play Major League Baseball. But it's a credit to the program at Servite for putting us on the right path and the coaches and everything. We definitely had a pretty good foundation there." Not all the credit goes to the program, of course. Garko and Francisco had to work for everything they've got. Francisco's teammates used to try to rile him up by telling him he'd have to become a professional soccer player, because he was too small for baseball. "He was the smallest kid in school," Gogan says. "To see him grow up, this guy has really busted his butt to get to the point were he's at. That's a tribute to him and his family and the work ethic he possesses." Garko always had the size and athletic ability to make it big, but he never let his talents get to his head. "Ryan has always been the most humble kid I know," Gogan says. "I couldn't imagine being in his shoes. Everybody has looked up to him since he was a young kid and winning the World Series for his Little League team. You could sit in a room with him and never know he was a baseball player." That Garko and Francisco are still playing ball together still amazes them at times. "Seeing a familiar face in the big leagues and sharing some special moments has been pretty cool," Francisco says.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.