Gartrell wasn’t talking about baseball. Although the six-foot-three-inch, 230-pound outfielder carved out a lengthy career with the White Sox and Atlanta Braves, his true calling is working with troubled youth in the San Francisco Bay area.
I met Gartrell 11 years ago in a Howard Johnson motel in Bristol, Virginia. Both of us had arrived at our assigned minor league club after being drafted by the White Sox in 2006. After a sleepless night, Gartrell and the rest the rookie contingent sauntered into a stale continental breakfast and quickly scarfed down a brittle bagel washed down with warm orange juice.
Shortly after the cue-ball cropped trainer skipped into the lobby, all of us remembered we were supposed to fast for the blood tests and physicals we were supposed to undergo as the recently-acquired property of the South Siders.
There isn’t much time for mistakes in the minors. You only get one shot at making a first impression and in most cases, the early opinions are the ones that keep you around or bury you. While the rest of us adjusted to life in rookie ball, Gartrell blasted through the threshold and lit the league on fire. It wasn’t all that surprising given his imposing stature.
When Stefan decided to swing, it seemed like the barrel had a hard time keeping up with the handle. Gartrell swung a long and heavy bat but he could generate so much torque that he turned the bat into the flimsy shaft of a golf club. It was undeniable – Gartrell was different from the rest of us.
Although Rookie-ball is the lowest rung of the minor-league ladder in many respects, it is the most difficult level to produce quality numbers. All sorts of prospects from first-round picks to free agents are tossed into this melting pot of talent and create a dichotomy of production. Meanwhile, the umpires are rookies as well. The fabled “Nose-to-Toes” strike zone must have been coined in the Appalachian League, making hitting all but impossible.
Yet, Gartrell thrived. In Bristol, he slashed .308/.438/.449 with four home runs and 33 runs batted in. He was a force in the middle of our lineup while the rest of us struggled to keep pace. At the end of a disappointing season, Gartrell was sent to Double-A to close out Birmingham’s season and then report directly to the fall instructional league.
As expected, Gartrell didn’t have quite as much success in Birmingham as he did in Bristol, but it was clear that the White Sox valued the outfielder.
I was released at the following Spring Training in 2007 and Gartrell, along with Josh Morgan, were the last faces I saw in the lobby as my taxi pulled away from the hotel. As my career ended, Stefan’s continued gaining momentum.
Gartrell played for the A-level Kannapolis Intimidators in 2007, continuing to dominate opponents with a .301/.374/.484 line. He earned a late season promotion to High-A Winston-Salem, hitting .288 over 20 games and ended the season with 14 home runs and 63 runs batted in between both levels.
By 2008, Gartrell had established himself as an elite prospect despite being drafted in the 31st round. The hierarchy of prospects in the minor leagues isn’t as straightforward as finding the players with the best statistics and plugging them into a ranking system. It’s also easy to assume that first and second-round draft picks are given more opportunities to develop based on the investment and publicity those players attract.
It is no trivial triumph that Gartrell claimed the No. 14 prospect spot in 2009 and illustrates just how impressive he was from a typically ignored draft slot. Yet, the 2008 season was a seminal moment in Gatrell’s career.
“Rosters are usually set before Spring Training,” Gartrell suggested in our conversation. “Players typically compete at Spring Training one level above where they will eventually play the rest of the season.” For example, Gartrell entered the 2008 campaign on the Double-A roster and expected to drop down to High-A once cuts were made from big-league camp.
But that day never arrived. As players were sifted through big-league camp Gartrell maintained his spot at Double-A and eventually started the season in Birmingham.
After starting the season 4 for his first 22, he was called into Carlos Subero’s office – the manager at Birmingham – who promptly doled out an encouraging tongue lashing. In no uncertain terms, Gartrell learned that the organization had never planned for him to be in Double-A in 2008. He had played himself onto a roster and Subero had vehemently advocated on his behalf. That Gartrell tanked in the first seven games of the season was not only depressing for himself, but Subero’s reputation was tied to his success.
But Gartrell continued to spiral out of control. Stefan ended April 15-for-66 with one home run. Most players drafted in the late rounds, even if they had shown promise, would have been released or demoted by the end of April. And in the beginning of May, Gartrell was bone dry at the plate with only three hits in his first 21 at-bats.
But on May 12 things changed. Gartrell went on a six-game hitting streak and finished May on a high note. Stefan continued to battle through the dog-days of summer and finished the season with a .254/.334/.421 slash line. Still, he demonstrated quality power numbers with 14 home runs and 52 runs batted in despite a sluggish start to the season.
His first full season in Double-A was the low point of Gartrell’s narrative arc.
After a quality performance in the Arizona Fall League hitting .269 in 32 at-bats, Gartrell unlocked the enormous power hidden in his swing. In his second stint in Double-A in 2009, Gartrell hit 19 round-trippers while driving in 70 runs before driving in another 19 runs after his promotion to Triple-A. Gartrell ended the season with 23 home runs and 89 runs batted in over 132 games.
This was just the beginning. Gatrell followed up 2009 with a full season in Triple-A hitting .255 with 27 long balls and 80 runs batted in. In the offseason, the White Sox added Gartrell to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.
By this time, Gartrell was well known among scouts and league officials as someone making the case to audition for a big-league roster spot. At 26 years old, Gartrell needed to break into the majors or risk becoming the modern-day Crash Davis.
There was limited trade chatter leading into the 2011 season and after seven games in Charlotte, Gartrell was sent to the Gwinnett Braves – Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.
Stefan went to work. In 2011, Gartrell hit 26 home runs while driving in 94 and maintaining a .262 batting average. He was named Gwinnett’s player of the year and looked ready to break into the big leagues. Gartrell’s isolated power in 2011 clocked in at somewhere north of .255 – the highest of his career. His wRC+ between Charlotte and Gwinnett was better than 140 and over his career, Gartrell only had one 5-game sample where his wRC+ fell below average.
By all uses of advanced metrics and statistical evaluations, Stefan Gartrell earned an appearance on the south side of Chicago. Yet, the signing of players like Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo blocked the slugger from the cup of coffee he deserved.
Gartrell played two more seasons in Triple-A, bouncing back and forth with Atlanta and Chicago. In 2012, he hit another 20 home runs and drove in 55 runs but the Braves let him walk at the end of the season. Gartrell re-signed with the White Sox for the 2013 season and after a solid Spring Training, he broke camp with the big-league club.
The closest Stefan ever got to a major-league game was sitting in the dugout of the final exhibition game in Milwaukee before he was cut the day before Opening Day of 2013.
“It was heartbreaking,” Gartrell said. “I thought I finally made it and then I was released.” The White Sox offered Gartrell a job as the Kannapolis hitting coach but he decided to play out the season latching on with Campeche of the Mexican league.
After one month, the Braves called on Gartrell to provide bench depth in Gwinnett and released him after the season.
Dismayed, Gartrell turned down low-ball offers from several clubs to play Double-A baseball in 2014 and took a corporate sales job with Staples. With a wife and growing family, the decision to retire wasn’t that difficult for Gartrell. I couldn’t sense a glimmer of regret in his voice as we talked late into the night.
Yet, his reemergence in professional baseball in 2015 illustrates a contradiction. I asked Stefan, “Had you been working out since leaving baseball?”
(Gartrell chuckles) “Nop.”
“Were you hitting regularly or even picked up a glove in a year?”
As you can imagine, it is extremely difficult to leave a game that demands a high level of esoteric skill and return with immediate success – but that’s what Gartrell did.
The Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks of the American Association, an independent league in the mid-west, made the slugger an offer he couldn’t refuse. Independent leagues are notorious for paying meager salaries and dispensing with loyalties.
But when I asked, “Why did you leave a career to play one season of baseball?” Gartrell answered, “They offered me more money than Staples was paying me. It was an easy decision.”
So, Gartrell left for Fargo and struggled early in the season.
“It was difficult at first. I was frustrated because the pitching wasn’t very good compared to what I’d seen in Triple-A, but I was getting beat by 88 mile-per-hour fastballs.” This was a coy statement from someone I knew would follow with, “But I figured it out.”
He sure did. After being traded to Amarillo, Gartrell blasted 17 home runs and drove in 60 runs on his way to hitting .287. By the end of the season – at 31 years old – Gartrell hit 18 homers, drove in 71, slugged 25 doubles and three triples over 99 games. Of course, it wasn’t the same competition in affiliated baseball but it’s still impressive.
Over our four-hour conversation, it was clear that Gartrell maintained the youthful disposition so evident to everyone who knows him. Gartrell and I began our baseball careers separated by only five rounds but our lives and careers bounced off each other. I went one way and Gartrell went the other. I’ve struggled with accepting life after baseball while Gartrell has gleefully embraced his new direction.
Lately, Gartrell has delved headlong into his true passion; mentoring the youth of his hometown community.
With the help of a few donors, Stefan Gartrell founded Ripple Effect 22, a non-profit mentorship program in the Bay area. RE22 is a faith-based program that strives to reach the disaffected youth of San Francisco, Oakland and eventually San Mateo, California.
Gartrell believes that “Everyone creates a ripple, but the larger idea is to help the Bay area youth force their ripple in a specific direction for good.” And some of RE22’s mentees have sunk their teeth into projects that are altogether impressive.
Through a network that includes the University of San Francisco, the YMCA (Buchanan) and Our Lady of the Visitacion School, RE22 has been able to connect youngsters with mentors eager to help.
Ripple Effect 22 has also partnered with Block to Block, an organization that uses faith-driven Hollywood films in correctional facilities to break the school to prison pipeline while instilling the foundation of Christianity. But the bread and butter of RE22 are the mentors that share their time to enrich their community.
Mentors are trained in RE22’s philosophy of inspiring and educating youngsters by finding their “God-given” talents to help improve their station. Contrary to most youth mentorship programs, RE22 is not an open door to disaffected youth. Children and young adults age 11-19 are welcome to join the program but they must maintain a high level of academic achievement and dedicate themselves to a regular schedule with their mentor.
RE22 begins its second year of work in 2017 and the program is growing so fast that raising funds for a full-time staff has become necessary. Fortunately, the first A.M.E Zion Church of San Francisco donated office space for RE22 knocking a huge chunk out of the budget, but as the organization continues to grow more space will be needed.
“Last year we survived on a $32,000 budget. We’ve already acquired a donation in kind from a defunct tech-business that we have yet to liquidate, but we anticipate this generous donation will boost us past last year’s budget. However, our fund-raising goal for 2017 is $500,000.”
Gartrell is under no illusion of how difficult this goal is, but he has faith in the generosity of people to support good causes. Last year, Gartrell raised a significant amount of money through two hefty donations, grassroots fundraising and nominal donations as well as a baseball camp at USF. Gartrell plans to maintain these revenue streams in 2017 while adding new events to enlarge RE22’s footprint in the Bay area.
On May 20th, Stefan and RE22 will host The Power Behind the Effect, celebrating people who use their platform to benefit others. This is a new event that Gartrell hopes will draw significant attendance.
Stefan Gartrell has always been talented. Had the ball bounced a certain way, Gartrell may have cemented himself in a big-league lineup and had a storied career. In fact, that’s how he planned it all along. “This is something I’ve wanted to do since high school. I just thought I’d be financing it through my big-league career.”