In his final years at the ballpark, working special assignments for the Cubs into his late 80s, Dave Garcia’s vision had narrowed to a spyglass so he could only focus on a middle infielder, but not the corners. He saw the pitch but not what a hitter did with it. Decades as a player, coach, and manager had meant “he had seen — what? — an infinite number of innings?” his son said, so as Garcia’s sight eroded, another sense took over.
As if he had perfect pitch, he scouted by ear.
In late June 2015, Dave Garcia’s son, Dave, visited his father and handed over an iPad with a highlight queued. There was something he had to watch — had to view, not hear. In the eighth inning of a home game against the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals trailed by a run and turned to a rookie to lead off as a pinch-hitter. It was Greg Garcia’s 20th game in the majors and, as the iPad’s screen came alive, he turned on a 3-1 pitch for a game-tying home run. The eldest Garcia’s eyes widened almost as rapidly as his grin. His grandson had just hit his first homer in the big leagues — and it came for the Cardinals, Dave’s boyhood team, the team that brought him baseball.
He couldn’t see the replay enough.
“I must have played it 20 times after that,” the younger Dave Garcia, Greg’s father, said. He added: “My dad is from East St. Louis. Greg reaches the majors in St. Louis. It’s no coincidence. It completes the circle — or starts to complete the circle.”
The youngest of the third generation of Garcia ballplayers became the first to reach the majors when he debuted in 2014, and since Greg has established himself as the Cardinals’ backup infielder and steady pinch-hitter. Baseball is in the bloodline. His grandfather, Dave, who Greg calls “Pop,” devoted his life to the game. His father left the game abruptly when his “joy for it” was stolen from him. And Greg and his two brothers, Aaron and Drew, were raised in both worlds – learning the game, loving the game and living to never have that taken.
On the plane, when he feels far from family, Garcia touches a weathered gold cross pendant he wears around his neck to and from the ballpark and on every trip. It belonged to his grandmother, Dave’s wife, Carmen, and it was a gift from his dad. In the past month, Greg has lost his grandfather “Pop,” who died at 97, and become a first-time father just days before Father’s Day. He’s found himself thinking of family often, holding the cross close.
Greg takes something of his family anywhere because it’s his family that he believes got him here. And when he watches his son, Dave Garcia sees his dad, “Pop,” everywhere. “Greg with his socks up, that’s for my dad,” Dave said this past week from San Diego, the family’s home. “Going hard through first base, not stopping, and making the right fielder make the throw — that’s my dad. … The first goal in the Garcia family is to be a good person. Pick something, have a passion for it, and be a good person. That’s my dad. I can see my dad’s face when the boys do something.”
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On the road and at his dad’s office, Dave Garcia, not yet a teenager, would be treated like the 26th man on a 25-man roster, right down to the meal money he had to spend.
To steal time with his father as a boy, Dave would join “Pop” Garcia at his job, whether that was managing in Fresno, Calif., or La Guaira, Venezuela. The two would share a hotel room, spend hours together at the ballpark and swap so many Louis L’Amour westerns that young Dave gained a cowboy nickname: “Hoppy,” as in Hopalong Cassidy. “Hop” would shag fly balls during batting practice, watch games from the dugout and sometimes fetch hot dogs for the bullpen. And when “Hop” with “Pop” left the ballpark, that day’s game filled their conversations.
“I grew up quickly, and my baseball acumen really grew up fast,” Dave said. “I had a front-row seat for hundreds of games because I’d be watching my dad. It was like getting a master’s degree in baseball before I was 13.”
Dave “Pop” Garcia was born in East St. Louis on Sept. 15, 1920, the son of immigrants from Spain. He spied baseball with the Knothole Gang at Sportsman’s Park, and after his father died he helped the family by selling newspapers on a corner. The biceps he would later flex to the great delight of his grandsons were built by hefting beef at Swift Meat Packing Plant. He was so fit that when he served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, he was a physical education instructor in France. Baseball was a love that became a pursuit and then his profession.
The St. Louis Browns signed the local kid in 1938, the year after Joe Medwick won the Triple Crown for the Cardinals and a year before the Browns lost 111 games. During a minor-league career littered with injuries, Dave traveled a lot — from Lake Charles, La., to Oshkosh, Wis. — but rarely up. He never reached the majors as a player, last appearing in a game as a player/manager in 1957. The next year his son, Dave, was born. His father had died when he was 11, so “Pop” Garcia had no model for fathering. “He just did it from the heart,” Dave said.
As “Pop” Garcia worked his way through the minors, so too did Dave find his footing as a standout switch-hitting infielder. The Yankees drafted him 11th overall in the January 1978 secondary draft — the winter after his father became a major-league manager. Their two careers dovetailed for awhile as “Pop” managed the Angels in ’77 and ’78, and Dave made his pro debut in ’78 for Oneonta, N.Y. “Pop” went on to manage Cleveland from 1979 to 1982, and by then Dave had left baseball behind. By choice. He would tell his son decades later that too often he felt teams believed he was there because of who his father was, not who he was, and that he chose not to push ahead — or push back — when he should have. He played his last game at Class A in 1979. He was 21, with a .398 on-base percentage that summer.
“That name, Dave Garcia, carried a lot of weight — not pressure — but weight to do the right thing,” Dave said. “Having that joy of the game taken from me — I allowed that to happen. It was my mistake. So, I told the boys, ‘Don’t let someone do it to you.’”
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It could be the pines out by the bullpen, the thin air all around, or maybe the pretzel-like “Tornadoughs” baking in the Coors Field concourse. Whatever the smell, as soon as it hits Greg Garcia, the memories come back and he feels his grandpa’s arm across his chest like a seatbelt.
As his father did as a boy and his brothers would, too, Greg joined “Pop” at work during the summer. “Pop” happened to be the Rockies’ bench coach in the early 2000s. Greg took batting practice against Goose Gossage. He shagged flies, sporting sweatbands and shades and hot-dogging so much that former reliever Mike Myers suggested he “put some relish on.” Greg was 10. And when the Rockies cleared the dugout for a skirmish, “Pop” put his arm across Greg so he didn’t join the fray.
“There is no doubt in my mind that being his grandson opened doors,” Greg said. He recalled his grandfather’s view of his play: “‘You know what, Greg, I think you can play in the major leagues.’ It was never fluff from Pop. He was going to tell you straight. He would always preface this by saying, ‘Now, I might be looking at this through a pair of grandfather goggles.’ He told me I was a good little player. I could hit. I could play. I had to play hard.
“And I had to be a good person,” Greg concluded. “I try to be that good person in their name. In my grandfather’s name. In my dad’s name.”
Drew, the middle son, was the first drafted and blazed the trail Greg followed. Greg started at shortstop for the University of Hawaii, and caught scout’s eyes during summer ball — and some longer looks because of his lineage, he believes. The Cardinals selected him in the seventh round of the 2010 draft. At each level he struggled, at each level he had a batting average at some point that made him wonder, and once he wrote a letter to himself that asked, “Can I play this game anymore? Or did I get passed by?” He ripped it up. Because each time he curled his toes over that precipice of doubt, he heard his dad.
That bond “Pop” forged with Dave at ballparks, Greg found with Dave during long drives in the Ford Expedition for ballgames. History repeating.
“He gets how my mind works,” Greg said. “He always said, ‘Prove the people wrong who said you couldn’t do it, and then make the one guy that said Greg Garcia is going to be a big-leaguer, make that guy that smartest guy in the room.’”
Greg, 28, seized a role with the Cardinals in 2016, and he has been a fixture since, spelling middle infielders and pinch-hitting for a .395 on-base percentage.
“Pop” watched highlights he could on the iPad. When his eyesight faded further, other senses took over. He’d listen to the audio of highlights. “Pop” died May 21 at an assisted care facility near San Diego. Two weeks later, Greg took paternity leave for the birth of his daughter, Olivia June Garcia. He and his wife, Hannah, wanted to start a family now so Greg could share his job at the ballpark with his daughter, like his dad did, and his dad before that. It’s not just the game that’s passed on in those moments, it’s the warmth Greg gets when he touches his grandmother’s necklace or thinks of hanging off his grandfather’s biceps.
A week or so ago, Greg called his dad to ask about what Olivia should call him. Greg had an idea he wanted to run by Dave.
“I never had ‘Dave Garcia’ to myself,” he said, laughing. “I went from Dave Garcia, son of Dave Garcia, to Dave Garcia, father of Greg Garcia.”
Olivia will just call him “Pop.”