By ERICK WALKER
Pens and pads in their hands, a host of dads sit on wooden benches outside the batting cages and hang intently on the teacher’s every word, jotting down notes feverishly.
“Dude, keep your weight back,” the 28-year-old teacher with the 24-hour, 5 o’clock shadow tells the 9-year old boy. “Stay balanced. You need to have a good, athletic base. Nobody hits the ball well while off balance and falling out of the box.”
The 9-year-old, like most his age, knows everything about hitting.
“What about Ichiro?” the boy coyly responds, referring to the Seattle Mariner star with the unorthodox batting approach.
The teacher, now assisting a separate youngster in an adjacent cage, doesn’t miss a beat.
“Ichiro? Ichiro?” the teacher responds with a chuckle. “I will not teach you how to hit like Ichiro.”
For the better part of 28 years, Jay Garthwaite was the one chasing major league dreams. He came within an eyelash of realizing those dreams, advancing to the game’s second-highest level professionally, playing for Triple-A Louisville (an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds) before misfortune and a series of injuries set in.
Garthwaite’s not the type. Never has been and never will be.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder can still mash the ball like nobody else locally. In fact, when Garthwaite, a former Kent-Meridian High and University of Washington star, steps into the cage, the ball still makes a distinctly different sound coming off his bat than it does off anyone else’s.
Which helps explain Garthwaite’s current role as the hitting instructor at Diamond Sports Training Center, a brand-new 20,000-square foot, all-baseball indoor facility located just a stone’s throw from Auburn off Highway 167.
The complex, which is home to the Kent Bulldogs and has been around in different forms and in various locations since 1999, is quickly becoming a local mecca for young ballplayers, thanks to an array of amenities, including a full-sized turf infield, standard 90-foot basepaths, six batting cages and five pitching mounds.
Most noteworthy – outside of the top-notch instruction given by Garthwaite and defensive coordinator Tim Bartlett – might be the lighting. Unlike some indoor baseball facilities, which tend to have the feel of taking batting practice in a dungeon, Diamond Sports, which is backed financially by Garthwaite’s parents, Nevin and Colleen, comes adorned with 10 rows of lights that stretch the entire width of the steel building, adding up to being the indoor spring training locale of the Northwest.
But, Jay Garthwaite stressed, it’s not all about baseball.
“We want to teach them how to be good kids also,” said Garthwaite, who was drafted as an outfielder, but plays all over the diamond. “One of the things you see from other places is that you’re just a number. Kind of like how a player is treated in the minor leagues – you have a number on your back and that’s who you are.
“Here, the kids aren’t numbers. They’re family. I have 3,000 little brothers.”
For better or worse and like so many other minor league ballplayers, number crunching has been embedded in Garthwaite’s makeup since graduating from Kent-Meridian in 1999.
Drafted by Oakland in the 12th round out of high school, Garthwaite instead opted for the University of Washington. He promptly set a freshmen school record his first year with the Huskies, launching 12 home runs.
Of course, going deep was nothing new to the big-swinging right-hander. In fact, even though he graduated 10 years ago, Garthwaite still owns the South Puget Sound League record for home runs in a season, belting 11 in just 14 games (44 at-bats overall) in 1998.
“Jay was one of those guys that, when he got up to bat, you always moved the left side of your infield back because he hit the ball so hard,” former Kentwood baseball coach Ken Sroka said. “He was just scary out there.”
In the late 90s, there wasn’t a better hitter in the Valley than Garthwaite, who remains the SPSL’s leader in slugging percentage (1.312) and is among the top 10 in RBIs for a season.
To say he was the most feared hitter in the SPSL is understating things.
“We’d intentionally walk him every time he came to the plate,” said Kentridge coach John Flanigan, who was an assistant with the Chargers during Garthwaite’s era. “Since I’ve been around, he’s easily in the top five players I’ve seen. He could flat swing it – and with tremendous power. We didn’t want any part of that.”
After several years of tearing up the Pacific-10, Garthwaite’s name was called again, this time by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 14th round of the 2002 draft.
It took a year of adjusting. But by 2003 with High-A Lancaster – when, at age 22, he hit .297 with 22 homers and 87 RBIs – Garthwaite proved he was on the fast track.
A year later, however, while at Double-A El Paso, the harsh reality of minor league life – something Garthwaite refers to as “cut throat” – took its toll.
And ultimately broke a piece of his heart.
“I was 1 for 12 to start the season, got called into the (manager’s) office and they said, ‘Your approach isn’t very good, we need to sit you out a few games and let you work on it,’” Garthwaite recalled. “You can’t be (bitter). It’s a business.”
That “business” decision turned into an excursion to extended spring training, a place typically reserved for 18- and 19-year-olds, not 23-year-old sluggers who possess strong college and minor league pedigrees.
A year later, in what was his fourth season of minor league ball, Garthwaite again found himself at High-A Lancaster. Rather than dwell on the situation, K-M’s former power plant let his bat, as always, do the talking.
Garthwaite established a career high with 102 RBIs (which was among the organization’s leaders), launched 21 bombs and proved he also could hit for average, finishing at an even .300. But he also showed versatility, playing in the outfield, first and third base, and even offering to catch.
“I was going to play wherever it helped the team,” Garthwaite said. “And wherever I could get in the game.”
Somebody had to notice.
Maybe so, but it wasn’t the Diamondbacks, who rewarded Garthwaite’s career year with walking papers.
At this stage of his career, Garthwaite ultimately was in no-man’s land. He was approaching 25 and no longer was young enough to be considered a prospect.
Squeezing Garthwaite further out of the big picture with Arizona was the fact that at the end of 2005, few organizations were as loaded in the outfield. The D-backs had just drafted Justin Upton, while Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin had been in the system for years. Upton and Jackson now star for Arizona, while Quentin was shipped to the Chicago White Sox, where he became an American League MVP candidate in his first season.
To put Garthwaite’s situation further into perspective, eight of Arizona’s top 30 prospects at the time were outfielders.
It was all a matter of wrong place, wrong time.
“There was about $8 million of outfielders between Single-A and Double-A while I was there,” Garthwaite recalls.
Less than 24 hours after being released by Arizona, Garthwaite hooked on with Sarasota, the High Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
By this time, it was clear to most everyone, this was more than a High-A player. And Garthwaite showed as much, leading the team in home runs (21) before a late-season call-up to Triple-A Louisville.
That’s as close to the bigs as Garthwaite would get.
Sent to Double-A Chattanooga in 2007, he delivered his usual assortment of tape-measure blasts, but was playing at less than 100 percent mentally and physically. The constant up-and-down grind of minor league life coupled with the low salaries (the average minor league ballplayer makes roughly that of a first-year school teacher) had taken its toll.
It was time, Garthwaite lamented, to come home.
“My last year, I played hurt almost every single day,” he said. “Knee, foot … I had surgery on my foot and I still can’t bend my big toe upright. That was the deciding factor.
“I’m not saying I don’t have the love for it. It’s the drive.”
It doesn’t take long after watching Garthwaite hit a few balls in one of the cages at the Diamond Sports Training Center to realize that he still possesses plenty of tools.
But instead of offering them up to a professional organization – a very real possibility considering he’s far from washed up as a ballplayer – Garthwaite is plenty content passing on his knowledge to wide-eyed youngsters and their parents, who soak up his every word on a daily basis.
Does he miss playing?
Not in the least.
“I have 100 times more fun hanging out here, watching these guys get better and filling out information cards for the colleges,” said Garthwaite, without even the slightest hint that he might believe otherwise. “This is baseball. It’s what I love and what I’ve always loved.
“But teaching – it’s awesome. It’s the most rewarding thing ever.”
HITTING LESSONS, CLINICS AVAILABLE
Diamond Sports Training Center will be offering a series of six different clinics for kids 8-18 beginning in January. The clinics include: Spring training (Jan. 4); advanced hitting, advanced fielding (Jan. 8); advanced infield (Jan. 7); fundamental infield (Jan. 8); catchers camp (Jan. 5) and speed, agility and conditioning (Jan. 5). In addition, hitting instructor Jay Garthwaite and defensive coordinator Tim Bartlett both offer individual lessons. To find out more about Diamond Sports Training Center, call 253-987-5082 or log on to its Web site at www.kentbulldogs.com