By, Tom Schreier
The players were told to meet with me at 11:45 a.m. for this interview outside of Stephen Schott Stadium, the ballpark they have called home for the last four years.
Wearing an Under Armor Santa Clara University t-shirt and a silver necklace with the number nine hanging from his neck, Nate Garcia arrived at the park early. Congenial and unassuming, the Broncos' Friday night starter for the past three seasons began talking about the recent series against No. 9 Cal State Fullerton.
Despite being swept by the Titans - who are expected to contend for the national championship in Omaha - Garcia maintained that his Santa Clara team is just as talented, they just did not execute as well.
Donning an Auburn University shirt and New York Yankees cap, Tommy Medica arrived next. As a Minnesota-native I initially refused to interview a Californian who was supporting the New York club that is a perennial thorn in the Twins' side. Medica laughed at my jocular proposition, stating that he had a Yankee fleece in his car.
Clever in his remarks and proficient with a bat, Medica's All-America credentials are matched by the steady self-confidence he carries with him wherever he goes. His baseball resume already includes a West Coast Conference batting title, all-star status in the prestigious Cape Cod summer league and a stint representing the country on the USA National Team.
Geoff Klein showed up shortly after Medica. Having covered the team all season, Klein recognized me, offered a handshake and apology for his class running a bit late.
Medica and Garcia have been baseball teammates since age 10. As adolescents playing traveling ball they threw water balloons at opposing players outside their hotel rooms. In high school they traveled to Vacaville in order to buy SoBes that would quench Garcia's never-satisfied thirst for the illusive soft drink. As freshmen they roomed together in Santa Clara University's Bellarmine Hall.
During that year they adopted Klein as a third brother. Able to match their play on the field and personality in the locker room, Klein easily fit in. The three have been inseparable since. All three will graduate with a degree in a few weeks and are projected to be MLB draft picks in June.
Klein, who sat in the middle of the three players, was the most talkative. When Medica was forced to sit out the 2009 season with injury, Klein stepped in and won a WCC batting title of his own, hitting .379 with 21 doubles. With an incredible knowledge of the game he was able to skillfully articulate their shared goal of one day making it to `The Show.'
Unlike his fiery demeanor on the mound, which has helped him rack up over 300 career strikeouts, Garcia was the quietest of the three, tranquilly emanating a passion for playing the game he loves as he offered his insight. Medica never waivered, insisting he was ready for professional baseball, where players in the minors are required to fight for their professional lives.
Edited for length and clarity, the following is a transcript of a conversation with three of the most talented players ever to wear a Bronco uniform. Intended to be an adieu to a trio of athletes who have not only made a major impact on the University's baseball program, but will make an incredible impression on the people they meet as they pursue their big league dreams.
There are thousands of good players each year that are drafted. What do you each have individually that makes you stand out above the rest?
Klein: I think I can say this for the three of us: Our experience of being here for four years we've seen a lot more than any `showcase pony' high school kid with all kinds of tools that has never really played the game besides just hitting batting practice home runs, taking ground balls, (et cetera).
All three of us I think have played in 100-plus, 130 games at a high level, at the (Division I) level. (We've) faced guys like Stephen Strasburg. We're not going to be surprised by the things we see at the next level whereas you might have some kids that are coming up and have all the talent in the world but they haven't seen what we've seen. The three of us, as far as knowing the game, from the experience, see a lot of things that guys never see.
Medica: The jump from college baseball to... minor league baseball would be a lot less, at least for us. You've got summer ball every year, you play with wood bats, you play 50-something games this year along with going to school like this.
Garcia: I agree with Geoff and Tommy, the experience and everything. I feel also that all three of us are competitors: all three of us refuse to lose and hate to lose and aren't satisfied unless we're winning. I think that's definitely one of the things that we have.
Mark Reynolds (16th round, 2004), Albert Pujols (13th round, 1999), and Nick Blackburn (29th round, 2001) were drafted late and are now making an impact in MLB. Have you looked at a player like that and seen their path and said `I'm willing to do this. I can do what they did'?
Klein: There's guys like Mark DeRosa (7th round, 1996) who was a senior at Penn, Ivy League school, he got his degree from Penn, and Mike Napoli (17th round, 2000) who was drafted in the 20th round. It's all about what you do once you're there. You could be the biggest, highest rated prospect and be God's gift to baseball and wash out in three years. I can't tell you how many guys have went 6th round, got paid half a (million) and are out of baseball now when I was a senior.
Medica: I think the biggest thing--the only difference between a higher draft pick and a lower round draft pick is that they're going to pay you a little more money. If they're going to invest a little more money and you're not getting it done for the first couple years they might keep you around for a third year.
Klein: Get a little longer leash.
Medica: Besides that you still have to put up the numbers, you still have to do everything Geoff said. They don't look at you as a 30th rounder. When a guy is pitching on the mound their going `This guy is on this team and he deserves to be here because that's why he's here. Let's see what he's got.' That's about it.
Garcia: I agree. The later you go in the rounds, the less opportunities you have and it's what you do with those opportunities. You have to go out there and compete, you have to perform because you only get a few chances and you have to take what you get.
You all said that you'll miss the camaraderie here. Is it harder to form in the minor leagues?
Medica: I think the biggest thing is in college baseball everyone is in it to win, that's the goal. There's a little bit of me in it, but you want to win the game. When you go up to the next level it's me, me, me.
I was talking to Evan LeBlanc, Justin Kuehn, and Justin Kuehn for sure on the pitching side would say there would be ground balls a couple steps away from a fielder and that they let go because they don't want to mess up their fielding percentage. If they (miss) the ball so what? It's a different game. You hope your shortstop in college lays out for the ball or gives a decent effort at it. That's a big change. You've got to pick the people you hang out carefully I guess.
Klein: I don't think it's ever going to be the same as it has been here. The three of us have been here for four years together and we came in not knowing what to expect and kind of grew up together. There might be one or two guys that you may or may not be able to do that with in minor league ball, but everything that I've heard is that it's much more individual-oriented and a lot less focused on the team which can be frustrating at times but it's just part of it. That's the beauty of college baseball. You go to school with these guys. You go to practice every day with these guys. A lot of times we're roommates, you live with them. That's the difference. It's a business at the next level. It's your living, your livelihood. It's a little different but baseball is baseball.
Garcia: I was talking to Matt Long last year after he came back and (the) first thing he said was it's nothing like college baseball (Medica and Klein agree). There's no camaraderie, everyone is in it for themselves, just really, really selfish. That's another obstacle that we're going to have to face. It's going to be tough and we're just going to have to work through it.
Can you talk about someone who has influenced your life outside of baseball and how they can help you when you are struggling in the minor leagues?
Garcia: For me it was always my brother. He's seven years older than me and so I was always the little kid that was trying to keep up with him and he'd always just punk me (laughs). He's who made me good for sure because I would always try and play with him, he being seven years older than me, I'd try to keep up with him. He's the one who has made me tough and shown me everything I know so far.
Klein: For me it definitely would have to be my dad. He played baseball in (junior college) for a year or two and didn't get that opportunity to play college ball. He was less about the talent and more about the work ethic and he's the one who really instilled that `Hey, if you're struggling, you've got to work harder.'
Medica: I'd have to say my dad. He's coached me ever since I was probably seven years old. Me and Nate played on a traveling team from 13 to high school baseball and a little through high school baseball. We would always play. When we were 13 we would roll 13-under teams. We'd have to play 16-under tournaments and I was teeny, Nate was much bigger than me and we would play against guys with full beards and beat them and they would be like `How old are these guys?'
That was the biggest thing, we never really intimidated anyone. We played about 55 games a summer, which is a lot for when you are young. I have to say it was my dad. I had a cage in my back yard since I was six years old.
Klein: Same with me.
Medica: He would throw BP to me, always working with me, never say no or anything like that, he always wanted me to do more than what I was doing.
Do you think that Mike Leake doesn't get enough press?
Klein: You played with him, right (points to Tommy)?
Medica: I played with Mike Leake after my sophomore year. He just knows how to pitch. That's the difference. Yeah Strasburg has something you can't teach with a 98-100 MPH fastball, plain and simple, but Leake knows he throws 88-90 MPH and he knows he's not going to try to blow anything by anyone and just pitches, a Greg Maddux kind of pitcher, and that's why he's in the big leagues already.
Klein: I definitely think he's underrated because he beat Strasburg to the majors and he's what? 5-foot-10, six feet?
Medica: About 180 pounds.
Klein: He's throwing 88-90 with unbelievable command. That's almost more impressive than you've got this big, pretty prospect that everyone loves with a cannon for an arm and stuff. Then you've got this short little dude that's just carving everyone up (Garcia laughs). I think that's way more impressive.
Do you look at what he does, or what a player like Dallas Braden does, and try to emulate their game?
Garcia: Yeah. I look at guys like that, Matt Cain type or a Leake or (Tim) Lincecum, smaller guys. I'm not a big prospect. I definitely look at them: see what they do, see what they throw, different counts, how they set up guys.
You had a 21-game hitting streak going. I thought you would be upset when Pepperdine took it away from you and you put it in perspective saying `It's college ball, I'm thinking about much bigger things in the future.' Do you feel you will be able to put things in perspective when you're doing very well and when you're doing very poorly at the next level?
Medica: Yeah. That's one of the biggest things. When we go to professional baseball no one really cares about you. The coaches will be there to help you a little bit but they don't take a personal interest in you and it's basically on you to deal with how you deal with when you're bad, (hitting) a buck-fifty (.150) for the last week and a half, two weeks. It's how you deal with how you go to the field. Do you go to the field saying `Oh we've got another game today, hopefully I don't go 0-5 again?' or `Let's see what I can do to get better, hey coach what do you got for me?' Simple things like that.
You haven't caught a lot this season. How big of a concern is that?
Medica: Not too much. Everyone I've talked to, they're not going to rush me to get behind the plate. Baumer (Santa Clara Assistant Coach Chad Baum) obviously helped me here a lot and I'm sure there are coaches in the minor leagues that will help as well -- a lot of managers are ex-catchers and that's a big thing. No one's going to rush me to get back there so if I have to DH a couple games, catch every once and a while, it won't take me long to get the transition back behind the plate.
Against Nevada a guy came towards home plate and barreled into you. Is there a way you can make your presence known and be a menace behind the plate?
Klein: That's the first time I actually got squared up and got my bell rung (Medica and Garcia laugh). I never saw the guy. All of a sudden I was on my back. I guess it was good preparation for the next level because I can't just stand in front of the plate like I normally do (Medica begins laughing heartily).
I don't know. I bounced back from that pretty well. Obviously I was kind of out of it for a second but I didn't miss any time, got right back behind the plate. Being that's part of the game, part of that is just getting back on the horse and maintaining--I don't know what you want to call it: swagger, confidence--and I let that speak for `Don't (mess) with me,' kind of thing. I don't need that stuff to fire me up. I just stay within myself and stay confident at all times.
Like you were talking about with Tommy: sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. You take a call, you strike out, you've got to go back to the dugout and say `I'm still the man' because if you get down in the dumps that's when stuff starts to spiral on you a little bit.
There is some concern over people stealing second on you. Are you for sure a catcher or would you be willing to place elsewhere in the field?
Klein: I have thought about it. Obviously--
Garcia: Our pitches don't help him out (laughs).
Klein: That's part of it. Like Tommy said you can only control what you can control, so I'm only one factor as it is going and getting a guy out and stealing at second. I can only control what I can control. I have confidence in my arm being strong enough and I have confidence in my feet being quick enough, it's just a matter of consistency for me. I just need to develop that consistency of releasing it the same way every single time.
I'm not worried about throwing guys out. That's just kind of the result. A guy could get a great jump, the pitcher could be slowing down, the second basemen could be late getting to the bag, I could make a bad throw. There are so many details that go into that that I can only worry about myself and let the results come as they will. I don't think it's a problem with--I don't have a weak arm, I don't think my feet are tremendously slow, obviously I could quicken them up. For me it's a matter of consistency, of getting it down there the same way every single time.
Same series. The game before (on Friday). You give up a home run in the fourth inning. You came back, you had a high pitch count--it seems like you always have a high pitch count (Garcia laughs)--at the time, but you punch the next three out. How do you bring your intangibles with you to the next level when everyone is a good hitter?
Garcia: Every time I toe the rubber I just think I'm the best guy out there and nobody is going to beat me, that I can't be hit. I go up on the mound with swagger and hold myself with my chest up high and my head up. That's what I'm going to have to bring to the next level also. If I give up a home run it's going to happen. I can't worry about that pitch and carry it over to the next bat. I can't give up a home run and then still be thinking about that and serve another cookie up and give up another home run. I just learned early from my freshman year: you give up a home run, you give up a home run, you just got to get back on the rubber and forget about it.
Finally, it sounds like you guys will be on an island. You probably won't be playing with each other. The coaches aren't interested in you unless they think you're going to make it to the next level. How do you remain connected and help each other out when you hit a tough time?
Klein: I think we'll all keep in touch with each other, just like we did with the guys who left last year and previous years. Maybe I call Tommy and say `What have you got for me?' when he's going well and I'm struggling or vice versa. Or `Hey Nate, what do you got? How are you setting guys up? What are you looking for? What are pitching coaches telling you?' That line of communication is important as in you've got a buddy and they can help you out and we'll all do what we can. Sometimes you just need to a guy like `I'm just getting rung up on that backdoor slider every time,' and they're just like `Maybe you just sit on a different pitch and hit it before you get to that pitch.' It's just that kind of stuff that you would talk about here in the dugout and I think that will help too.
Garcia: Definitely. I text guys, Facebook guys in the minors and stuff and some of my buddies, they don't even want to talk about baseball. They just want to know `How are you doing? How's California?' They just want to get away from it also. That's something that will help out also: not always being engulfed in baseball, you're able to talk to someone about everything.
Medica: Yeah. Pretty much when you're playing summer ball and I stayed at a lot of hotels, I wasn't with a lot of host families for the first couple years. You're in the hotel, you're with one of the other players, maybe he's out or something, you're just sitting there and like `Wow I haven't talked to this guy for a while let's call him up and see how he's doing, what's going on?' I'll have a 25-30 minute conversation like this and its good stuff. If you need to talk to talk about baseball then talk about baseball, if not there's plenty of other things going through your mind at that point. It's always good to get away.