This article was written by Rory Costello
Early in the 1979 season, Kiko Garcia became Baltimore’s primary shortstop. He supplanted eight-time Gold Glover Mark Belanger, whom manager Earl Weaver described as “the best friend the pitchers on this ball club have ever had.”1 Yet even at the best of times, Belanger was a light hitter, and he endured the worst struggle of his career at the plate in 1979. Garcia started 102 games at short for the ’79 pennant winners, plus three of four in the AL Championship Series and five of seven in the World Series. He was one of the pleasant surprises in the Fall Classic, going 8-for-20 (.400) with six RBIs.
That year was by the far the most active at the major-league level for Kiko, who was plagued by a bad back. He fell below the Mendoza Line in 1980. Just before the start of the 1981 season, the Orioles traded him to Houston. He was a backup with the Astros for two years; then before the 1983 season he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies – who lost to Baltimore in the World Series that October. Garcia’s major-league career ended in May 1985.
Alfonso Rafael Garcia was born on October 14, 1953, in Martinez, California. This small city was also the birthplace of Joe and Vince DiMaggio, as well as Tug McGraw. It is the seat of Contra Costa County, in the San Francisco Bay area. Both sides of Garcia’s family were of Mexican descent. His father, also named Alfonso, was a draftsman. The senior Garcia was the son of immigrants; his wife, Christina Flores Garcia, was a second-generation American. English, not Spanish, was the household language.
“Kiko” is a fairly common nickname in the Hispanic world. In this case, Garcia got it from his grandmother when he was a small boy. “It has no special meaning,” he said in 1979. “You know how grandmothers are.”2 He was the oldest of five children in the family, which also included two brothers (John and Joe) and two sisters (Sue and Chris).
In 2011, Garcia recalled, “My father did not play baseball, but my grandfather did.” In the 1920s, Raymond Flores caught for his friend, future Yankees pitching star Lefty Gomez, and played against the DiMaggio brothers in local Bay Area games. Growing up, Kiko played Little League, Babe Ruth, and Connie Mack ball. “I was totally a Giants fan until I was a teenager. Then I became an A’s fan. Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Joe Rudi, and those guys – they were getting good. Willie Mays and the Giants were getting old.”
At Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, California, Garcia “was known more for his football ability than baseball. He was the quarterback and wide receiver.”3 Nonetheless, he was good enough to attract the attention of Edmund “Babe” Atkinson, a local baseball fixture and bird dog scout, who tipped Baltimore off about the prospect.4 The Orioles selected Garcia in the third round of the June 1971 amateur draft, which wasn’t a productive crop of prospects for them. In fact, only two other picks eventually made it to the majors at all, and neither with Baltimore.5
Garcia began his pro career with Bluefield (West Virginia) in the Appalachian League, which was Baltimore’s rookie-ball affiliate from 1958 through 2010. He made it up to Stockton in the California League (high Class A) for four games, and then spent 1972 with Miami in the Florida State League. He returned to the California League in 1973 with Lodi. During his first three seasons, the line-drive hitter homered just occasionally while batting consistently in the .250s. Yet he was impressive enough all around to climb to Double-A Asheville in 1974. His hitting improved (.274-7-53 in 135 games) and he was named to the Southern League All-Star team. In September, Kiko joined Baltimore’s top farm club, Rochester, for the International League playoffs.
Garcia returned to Rochester in 1975 (.244-3-32 in 122 games). The notable change that year was a switch to second base because the organization also had Bob Bailor at short. Kiko spent one more season with the Red Wings, returning to shortstop. Bailor made the big club to start 1976 but missed much action with a sore shoulder, which left him with DH duties after coming back to Rochester in early June. In addition, Rich Dauer was ready to play second.
Garcia hit well in 1976 (.276-3-44 in 130 games). He led the International League in triples with 10. His apprenticeship was complete, as the Orioles called him up when rosters expanded that September. He made his debut in a doubleheader at Milwaukee’s County Stadium on September 11, getting his first big-league hit in the second game. On September 22, he connected for his first home run in the majors – a solo shot off the left-field foul pole against Grant Jackson that capped a 5-2 victory at Yankee Stadium.
In the winter of 1976-77, Garcia played in Puerto Rico with the Caguas Criollos. “That was the only time I played winter ball,” he remembered in 2011. “I met José Cruz Sr., who also became my teammate in Houston.”
The shortstop got into 65 games for the Orioles in 1977 (.221-2-10 in 131 at-bats) and 79 in 1978 (.263-0-13 in 186 at-bats). In October 1979, Phil Elderkin of the Christian Science Monitor wrote a feature about Kiko, calling him “one of those human interest stories that always seems to emerge in baseball.” Garcia himself said, “Until my second year with the Orioles I was always so tense at the plate that even when I got my pitch I couldn’t hit it. It wasn’t until I started to relax that I began to make good contact.”6 In 2011, he also credited the influence of player-coach Elrod Hendricks, who returned to Baltimore after the 1977 season. “I was just a shy kid, and he really helped me adjust. He was so gregarious and outgoing.”
In the spring of 1979, Garcia was still in Mark Belanger’s shadow, and trade rumors circulated. That June, Kiko said, “As far as I was concerned, a trade would have been great. I know I can play. But then, the more I thought about it, I didn’t really want to leave. This is a good team, a winner.”7 While Doug DeCinces missed the month of May, Kiko filled in some at second as Rich Dauer shifted to the hot corner. But even before Belanger broke a finger in June, Garcia was getting more starts in the veteran’s place. Phil Elderkin’s story also quoted Earl Weaver extensively on the emergence of the team’s new regular shortstop.
“We felt he [Garcia] had the kind of talent that would improve every year, and we were right. On another team, without Belanger in front of him, he probably would have started sooner.
“Ordinarily any team in baseball can afford to carry a player with Belanger’s unusual talents in the field, no matter what he hits. So he hits only .220 or .230. So what? You figure you still got a gem because of what he does with his glove. Well, back in April we were a little slow getting started as a team and Belanger is like 90 points under .230 with the bat. He’s trying so hard at the plate that you know you’ve got to get him out of there for a while. But it’s no problem because we’ve got this kid Kiko Garcia on the bench.
“What happened is that we started to win, Kiko played well in the field, and he also got some important hits for us. Now when a manager lucks into a situation like that he doesn’t change. Naturally if Garcia stops fielding or stops hitting, he comes out. But that’s the only way.
“Listen, don’t think I didn’t feel for Belanger…for years he’s made me look good as a manager. But I also think Mark saw the situation for what it was right away and that he knew I wouldn’t forget him. Even though Garcia played well and continued to start, I didn’t want to go too long without giving Belanger some work. So whenever we had a lead in the late innings I’d rest Kiko and bring in Mark to play shortstop. Anyway, both of them ended up appearing in more than 100 games apiece for me.”8
Garcia showed some sock in 1979, with five homers and a club-high nine triples (Billy Smith was runner-up with just four). However, he did commit 21 errors at short (.955 fielding percentage), while Belanger made just three (.990). Kiko also made six more errors in the 25 games he played at second base. Weaver commented, “Although Garcia has good natural instincts in the field, he’s had to work to get it all together.” Kiko added that ever since he had come to the Orioles, people told him to watch Belanger in the field to see how it’s done. He said, “They are right, because Belanger is the best. I learned many things from him about playing shortstop.”9
Reminiscing in 2011 about Earl, Garcia said, “I understand him so much better now that I’m a coach. At the time, I didn’t understand why he couldn’t just play me. But he told us then, he didn’t care if we liked him – his job was to win. He was one of the most fiery, intense people I’ve ever been around, just a tremendous manager. I love him now, I really appreciate him, I have for years. He was always right.”
A family issue distracted Garcia during the AL Championship Series against California. Before Game One, his brother John was arrested for allegedly trying to scalp a playoff ticket, and as police searched the young man, they found a small quantity of hashish. Kiko had to post bail.10 He did not appear in that game, though he would have come in for Belanger if the game hadn’t ended on John Lowenstein’s dramatic three-run pinch homer. Garcia went 3-for-11 with two RBIs as he started Games Two through Four.
Belanger also started Games One and Two of the World Series, in which Garcia got just one at-bat. But Kiko burst out in Game Three as the leadoff hitter, going 4-for-4 with four RBIs. He also walked and scored ahead of Benny Ayala’s third-inning homer – but his big blow was a bases-loaded triple in the fourth inning, chasing John Candelaria from the game and giving the Orioles a lead they did not relinquish. He also went 2-for-5 in Game Four, igniting the game-winning rally in the eighth inning with a leadoff single.
Two veteran Pittsburgh scouts – Howie Haak and Lenny Yochim – praised Garcia’s performance. Haak said, “Kiko Garcia has surprised me as an offensive player. I’d say that’s the biggest surprise the Orioles have shown in the series.” Yochim added, “Garcia has impressed a lot of people, but every World Series has a relatively unknown player who suddenly shines.”11
Kiko said, “I was glad to see the regular season end so that I could start another season. I was disappointed in my performance this year. I just wanted to show that I could play and I could hit. It doesn’t bother me that not too many people know who I am. You have to start somewhere, and the World Series is as good a place as any.”12
He added, “I had back trouble most of the year. X rays show that the lower discs in my back are closed together. I’ve had back trouble before, but I still don’t feel like I used to. For two months in the middle of the season, it really slowed me up and I couldn’t get in the groove. I know I can field, hit and run better.”13
Earl Weaver underscored his faith in the shortstop, as did superscout Jim Russo. Weaver said, “Kiko is a fine player. He’s a good contact hitter and he’s a good shortstop with a lot of range and a strong arm.” Russo added, “Kiko’s hitting hasn’t surprised me that much. I knew one thing about him. No matter what kind of pressure was on him it wouldn’t bother him a bit.”14
In 1980, though, Garcia got off to an icy start at the plate. His bad back bothered him again in spring training; surgery (which would have sidelined him for three months) was a possibility.15 He underwent a myelogram, and treatment was prescribed instead of an operation, but the back problems hampered him for much of the season.16 He did not get above .200 until June 11, and though he perked up to the .230s in July, he tailed off again and finished the year at .199, with one homer and 24 RBIs. Mark Belanger wound up playing more innings in the field.
In 1981, Lenn Sakata was ready for more playing time at short. On April 1, the Orioles traded Garcia to the Houston Astros for outfielder Chris Bourjos and cash. He got into 48 games with Houston during that strike-interrupted season, going .272-0-15 in 136 at-bats. He also appeared in two games during the divisional series against Los Angeles. Kiko’s playing time fell off markedly in 1982. He came to the plate just 80 times in 34 games (.211-1-5), and he went on the DL again with another back injury. That fall, after the Astros did not retain free-agent negotiating rights to Garcia, general manager Al Rosen said, “We wish Kiko well, but we have considerable strength at shortstop.”17
In March 1983, Garcia signed a one-year minor-league deal with Philadelphia. He played 35 games at Portland, the Phillies’ Triple-A farm club, where he hit .345. He was called up in mid-May after infielder-catcher Dave Roberts was released. Kiko got into 84 big-league games that year (.288-2-9), becoming a significant role player for the NL pennant winners. He mainly backed up Joe Morgan at second base, especially after Larry Milbourne was sold to the Yankees.
Although he was on the postseason roster, Garcia did not appear in either the playoffs against the Dodgers or in the World Series – when the Phillies faced the Orioles. “I just looked across there,” he recalled in 2011, “and I said, ‘That’s the same team, almost to a man, except they’ve added Cal [Ripken Jr.].’ I just knew they were going to beat us, we had an older team and they were just so strong. It was kind of bittersweet.”
Garcia spent all of 1984 in Philadelphia as a seldom-used backup (64 plate appearances in 57 games). That November, he was dropped from the 40-man roster, though he was invited to spring training in 1985. Late that March, he was “quietly told that he does not fit in the club’s plans.”18 On April 3, the Phillies released the 31-year-old vet – but gave him a reprieve a few days later, re-signing him to fill the last roster spot after trading Iván de Jesús to St. Louis. Team president Bill Giles said, “We didn’t feel that Iván would be happy in a reserve role and Kiko Garcia is a veteran player and has done a fine job for us in that role.”19
That said, Kiko appeared in just four games in late April and early May, going hitless in three at-bats. The Phillies released him on May 16 as they signed another veteran utility infielder, Derrel Thomas. Garcia finished his big-league career with 12 homers, 112 RBIs, and a .239 average in 619 games.
When the Senior Professional Baseball Association (SPBA) started play in the late fall of 1989, Garcia joined the West Palm Beach Tropics. Before the season started, though, the Tropics sold his rights to the Orlando Juice. “When I was getting in shape to go,” said Garcia in 2011, “I found I had a bone chip in my left knee. I couldn’t get full extension. I got down there, and they told me to get it looked at.”
“The back of my patella had been hurt back when I was playing high school football. There wasn’t just one chip, there were about a hundred fragments. A little operation turned out to be two hours. I wasn’t going to be like Mike Schmidt, an operation on Tuesday and out on the field on Friday. I was only there for about a month’s worth of games, and then I ripped my hamstring. I was just glad to come home!”
In the late 1980s Garcia had started a batting cage business in Pleasanton, California, on the grounds of the Alameda County Fairgrounds. He also turned to coaching in 1990, becoming an assistant with the Livermore High varsity team and later working with various youth teams, in softball as well as baseball.
From 1996 through 1998, Garcia was head coach of Ygnacio Valley High’s varsity baseball team (he shut down the batting cage around the time he started). Since then he has coached an array of youth softball teams – with a focus on young women. “My wife told me I should work with our daughters.” Rebecca and Jessica Garcia are now in their twenties; Kiko and Sylvia Ann Garcia (née Acosta) marked their 30th wedding anniversary in February 2012.
In 2010, Garcia formed the KG Hitters Travel Ball Organization. “I’ve got a little academy. I’m the hitting coach; I used to coach fielding too, but now my knees are shot. I just love it. We work with young ladies and try to help them get college scholarships. We’re in Northern California, and softball is strong in Southern California, so we travel there a lot.”
Looking back at his time as a pro in 2011, Kiko Garcia said, “It was my dream to become a major-league player. I totally loved it. I had my injuries and that curtailed my career. But I would do it over again, even though it tears up the body. They were some of the best times of my life.”
Grateful acknowledgment to Kiko Garcia for his memories (telephone interviews, November 14 and November 15, 2011).
Kiko Garcia resume (http://www.hometeamsonline.com/photos/softball/KGHITTERS/KIKO_GARCIA_Resume.pdf)
1 Phil Elderkin. “Kiko Garcia — from sub to pennant-drive stalwart.” Christian Science Monitor, October 11, 1979: Sports-10. Reprinted in Baseball Digest, March 1980.
2 Mark Cardon. “Kiko Garcia Getting Used To Limelight.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 13, 1979: 4-C.
4 “Local Baseball Community Helps Babe Atkinson Celebrate His 90th.” Amador Ledger Dispatch (Jackson, California), February 1, 1998: B10.
5 First-rounder Randy Stein pitched 65 games with Milwaukee, Seattle, and the Cubs from 1979 through 1982. The #7 choice, first baseman Hank Small, did not sign but later made it into one game with the Braves in 1978.
6 Elderkin, op. cit.
7 Ken Nigro. “Kiko Feathers Oriole Nest With Super Shortstop Play.” The Sporting News, June 30, 1978: 20.
10 Cardon, op. cit. “Kiko Garcia sets record despite personal problem.” Associated Press, October 5, 1979.
13 “Four hits and RBIs ease pain in Garcia’s back.” Associated Press, October 13, 1979.
15 “Kiko’s back may put him on sidelines.” Baltimore Sun, March 15, 1980: B5.
16 “Orioles Deal Garcia To Astros.” Associated Press, April 2, 1981.