On May 25th Ryan Garton got the call that he’d waited his whole life to get. The Tampa Bay Rays needed his help. The 26-year-old reliever had started the season with Triple-A Durham, pitching in 15 games before The Call. The responsibility of finally reaching the majors can weigh heavily on some players, who want so badly not to get sent back down that it becomes a distraction. Demotion is failure, and there is a great challenge to living in the moment.
“Whatever they decide to do, that’s their job,” said Garton. “When my name gets called, I need to get three outs. That’s all I worry about. I keep the same work ethic.”
Taylor Motter had arrived for his own big-league debut just a few days earlier, and the utility-infielder quickly gained popularity with Rays’ fans for his long hair and fun-loving personality. He spent the second half of May, and then all of June, as a big leaguer. But by the end of the month a batting average south of the Mendoza Line had worn out its welcome, and he found himself headed back to the Bulls again. Garton, meanwhile, shuffled from Tampa to Durham, then back up to Tampa a couple days later, before yet another return trip to Carolina barely three weeks later.
Welcome to life on the taxi squad.
The life of a Triple-A player is not stable; at a moment’s notice any player can get The Call to perform his craft in front of tens of thousands, knowing all the while that another moment can just as easily rob him of the big-league lights and send him hurtling back to the purgatory of the high minors. Rosters are a curious mix of veterans playing out the string—some have worn major-league uniforms, others have been so close for so long that it just feels like they never will—alongside the up-and-coming future of the game. It’s a motley crew, really. And the patience of the players is routinely tested.
Though neither Garton nor Motter rank high on any prospect lists—neither received a mention on our pre-season Tampa list—they both have their value. Motter fills a role as a utility guy that can add some power and speed off the bench. Garton provides always-needed bullpen help, with some situational versatility to boot. I asked him if he has a preferred role, to which he emphatically replied that he does not. He wants to do whatever the Rays ask of him. It’s the answer every club wants to hear, and it’s the only answer a guy like Garton can give.
For his part, Motter accepts the challenge of the back-and-forth, gaining a lot from his brief big-league experience.
“I’ve learned how to go about your business, compared to being down there [Triple-A]. How the team jells a lot differently than being there,” said Motter. “In Tampa, we need to win. It’s all about winning. In Durham, it’s not necessarily just about winning. It’s more of an individual-ish game there. And it’s a lot of fun being here.”
When winning is the only goal, it’s tough to avoid the dismal reality that your team isn’t doing enough of it. The Rays’ 2016 season has not gone well. The team entered the All-Star break with the fifth-worst record (34-54) in franchise history at that point. They’ve suffered through a slew of key injuries in every corner of the roster: infielder Steve Pierce, outfielder Mikie Mahtook, key rotation piece Alex Cobb, and closer Brad Boxberger all missing long swaths of time. Maintaining a strong sense of self and purpose can be challenging during the long slog of a losing season.
“It’s tough,” Motter said quietly. “It’s tough for everybody. You just have to realize that you’re in [the big leagues] for a reason. We’re good enough to be here and win ballgames.”
Garton takes a different approach, choosing to try and ignore the more difficult realities altogether. No matter how tough the situation gets, he’s determined to remain ready to show he can contribute.
“I try to block all that,” he told me. “Essentially, I’m free-spirited, free-minded until my name gets called, and then I try and lock in.”
Garton and Motter each grew up within a couple hours of Tropicana Field. Both men are 26 now, and they still draw on their local roots. Garton, a Clearwater native, was drafted in the 34th round in 2012 out of Florida Atlantic University. He grew up surrounded by people who encouraged his passion for the game – his older brother and father front and center among them – and the year-round culture of the game helped shape him.
He learned by playing Little League, sure, but he learned just as much by watching his brother and the older boys he played with. One kid in particular who caught Garton’s eye was Tyler Clippard. Garton was drawn to Clippard’s approach to the game, and sought to emulate the way he played.
“I decided I wanted to do what Tyler’s doing,” said Garton. “He wasn’t an overpowering guy. He’s low to mid 90’s, but he’s got a quirkiness and some really good pitchability.”
Motter’s love of baseball was honed through a similar immersion in the culture early on. The Rays’17th-round pick in 2011 out of Coastal Carolina, he grew up in Palm Beach with the knowledge of what he wanted to do with his life from a very early age. The area is a hotbed of baseball, and he had the opportunity to play with and against many sons of professional players. He saw how those players talked to their kids, observed their conduct around the field. He saw up close what kind of approach he’d need to take if he was ever going to make it.
“When all the kids were working on their jump shots or their coverage in football, I was in the backyard or at a cage hitting or taking ground balls. I was one hundred percent focusing on one thing.” Okay, he played a little basketball, along the way, but “It was mostly baseball, baseball, baseball. “
Garton and Motter each point to their time in Double-A as a turning point in gaining prospective on and off the field. The level has always been considered among the most developmentally important in a young player’s career, and that rang true for both players.
Motter points to his time in Montgomery in 2015 as the step in his journey where he learned to focus on what he could contribute, instead of worrying about how those contributions stacked up against his, or anyone else’s, expectations. The mindset influenced him as he progressed.
“Just play your game and not be overly aggressive in trying to be something you’re not,” Motter said. “Try and do your part. Because if you try and do your part and everyone else’s—the game’s already hard enough, so just relax and kind of settle into your shoes and be your own guy.”
For Garton, that step wasn’t just about learning how to be a better pitcher in the mechanical sense. It was the struggle against high-minors hitters that, he says, helped him develop his mindset.
“The big thing would be confidence. Confidence plays a big role in baseball. I think I proved to myself then and to other coaches and the front office, I’m able to play the next level, or even the next level. Having a good year and knowing I could do that, I used that confidence in Triple-A. I think I’ve taken that confidence into here [with the Rays],” he said.
That confidence is keeping Garton grounded during the team’s – and his own – recent struggles. He’s focused on not changing too much, not getting too reactive, staying consistent with what he knows he can do. It’s as tempting as ever to give in and press against the uncertainties, but he’s not panicing.
“I’m trying to do the same thing that I’ve been doing the last couple of years. I don’t want to change too much, because what I’ve done has gotten me here. I just keep my head in what I need to do.”
Motter concurs. “Once you start changing things, that’s when the wheels on the wagon fall off even more.”
Garton leans heavily on a meditative approach when he’s on the mound, which is a frequent element of the “Rays Way.” Top pitching prospect Taylor Guerrieri (currently in Double-A) has talked about breathing exercises and spiritual practices that have helped him during tough starts.
“I pick certain things on the mound to focus, and take my deep breaths,” said Garton. “I focus on that, not the outcome. I do what I can do with my full potential. I take a deep breath every time I throw a pitch on the mound. I try to block out the score, whatever it is. All my thought is in executing.”
Garton also talks to Clippard about once a month; they talk about the game, and Garton still values any guidance Clippard offers. One early piece of advice remains central to his approach today.
“I was in college, and he was with the Nationals, and I went to see him,” said Garton. “And I remember he told me, ‘You don’t need to throw super hard. If you’ve got four pitches, three pitches that you can throw for strikes, that’s all you need.’ It’s all about combinations and being able to throw anything at any given time and having the confidence to do so. And once he told me that, I went back to college to try and develop a fourth pitch. I did and brought that into pro ball later on. Seeing how Tyler lives now…” he trailed off, and then continued with a wistful smile, “I want to do that.”
As he embraces the instability of 2016, Motter still draws on the early inspiration of playing with and against guys that he wanted to be like – and wanted to beat. His memories echoed his earlier confident proclamation that the Rays can succeed. Whatever doubts there are, whatever he’s up against, he still has that drive, and he draws on it frequently.
“It was about wanting to be that, wanting to have that, wanting to be better than that,” Motter said.
Garton recently hit the disabled list back at Durham, adding another complicating wrinkle to his up-and-down season. One thing is for sure: once he’s healthy again, there’ll be a taxi waiting for him.