Canham, Garko Begin Managerial Careers
2012 was a special year for the Long Island Ducks. It began with a focus on overcoming the previous season’s heartbreaking ending in the Atlantic League Championship Series to the York Revolution. It continued with a dominant first half performance that was better than everyone in the Liberty Division, guaranteeing a return trip to the postseason. That was followed up by a difficult second half which led many outside the organization to question whether Long Island’s championship drought, which was still ongoing since 2004, would gain another year. Ultimately, the group came together at the right time to oust Southern Maryland and Lancaster in the playoffs and earn the franchise’s second league title.
Two of the key contributors to that squad were Mitch Canham and Ryan Garko. Although one started the year with an affiliated organization and the other ended the season there, both were important pieces to the championship puzzle. Now, over three seasons removed from that magical campaign, both are beginning the next chapter of their lives as managers in professional baseball. In mid-December, Canham was named the skipper of the Clinton Lumberkings, a Single-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Later that month, Garko was chosen as the new manager of the Double-A Tulsa Drillers of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
“Once you finish with pro baseball, at least for me, you start feeling like you’re working on the next chapter,” said Canham. “I saw myself wearing a Mariners uniform and helping professional athletes build their character and influence their communities back home. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Garko added, “I’ve heard such great things about Tulsa and am really excited to go to a place that supports their team with a great community like that and a pretty new ballpark. There are some great young players in the Dodgers organization that I’m going to have a chance to work with this year.”
Canham had played five seasons of professional baseball before signing with the Ducks after his release from the Oakland Athletics organization. Before ever donning a Ducks uniform, the St. Louis Cardinals signed him out Spring Training on Long Island. However, after just 18 games with Triple-A Memphis, Canham returned to the Flock in the middle of June and remained throughout the rest of the season.
“Having an organization that was willing to bring me in and give me a chance to play meant a lot,” noted Canham. “If used the right away, an opportunity like that can help you learn a lot.”
Although he started out slowly, the Washington native heated up in July and August, earning himself the starting spot come playoff time. Canham played in nine of Long Island’s 10 postseason games and proved as valuable as anyone, posting a .478 batting average with three RBI, three runs scored and six walks. Arguably his biggest contribution was his hustle in Game Five of the Atlantic League Championship Series when he beat out a potential double play ball in the bottom of the ninth inning to keep the inning alive. Dan Lyons followed with the series-winning bunt, and the drought was over.
Canham emphasized, “Going to the Ducks and getting a chance to go out there, compete and win a championship helped tremendously with me getting back into affiliated ball next year and the year after that.”
Garko, a Pittsburgh native, who moved to Southern California at the age of three and grew up there, joined the Flock with six years of Major League experience. After playing in Korea during the 2011 season, the Ducks gave him the forum to reignite his career and return to a Major League organization.
“The Ducks gave me that opportunity when I couldn’t find a place to play and was coming off of an injury after going overseas,” Garko recalled. “They offered me this opportunity to come out and play, and I met some great people inside the organization and on the island.”
The then-31-year-old was a catalyst to the Ducks’ lineup in their 39-31 first half of the season. In 16 games between the start of the season and May 13, he compiled a .450 batting average, four home runs, 16 RBI and nine runs. He also struck out just nine times in 71 plate appearances. On May 14, having homered in back-to-back games at Sugar Land and having hit safely in 15 consecutive games, Garko was signed by the Tampa Bay Rays organization and assigned to Double-A Montgomery.
“I say all the time that going to Long Island and playing with the Ducks was one of my favorite experiences in my professional career,” he exclaimed. “The whole league, and especially the Ducks, was just a fun atmosphere. Whenever I speak to somebody about the opportunity to continue their career, whether it’s with the Ducks or any team in the league, I just say you have to do it before you stop playing because you’ll love that experience.”
Following the 2012 season, Canham continued his playing career. The Kansas City Royals signed him prior to the 2013 season, and he went on to win a Triple-A Championship with the Omaha Storm Chasers that year. He would spend 2014 with Double-A Harrisburg in the Washington Nationals organization and this past season with the Lincoln Salt Dogs in the American Association. However, once the season ended, his focus began shifting primarily towards his business. He’s the founder and CEO of BASE by Pros, LLC, an organization devoted to instructing and mentoring young athletes across the US. Then, this past fall, some good friends in the Mariners organization came calling.
“Their Director of Player Development, Andy McKay, was my coach in summer collegiate ball 13 years ago when I played in the Alaska League,” Canham said. “Jeff Kingston, the Vice President and Assistant General Manager, was with the Padres organization when I was playing there. I got the call as soon as Andy got the new job, and he just asked me if I had any interest in getting involved in professional baseball on the coaching side of things. I said, ‘Of course! I’m always open to seeing what’s out there.’ I was very surprised at first. I didn’t think that I’d be jumping into the coaching realm.”
After getting offered the job with Clinton, Canham saw it as a dream come true. He grew up in Washington, where it is all about the Mariners. He was constantly immersed as a fan of the team and vividly remembers watching games as a child. Even though he was never able to play for the team, he now gets to be an integral part of the organization.
“The one thing that was always consistent when I was growing up and bouncing around from house to house was watching the Mariners,” he reminisced. “Having never played for the organization but always wanting to, getting a chance now to help the organization grow is special.”
He went on to say, “I know how the Mariners and the Seahawks affect the Northwest. If they’re doing well and have something to be proud of here, it turns everyone’s work week around. At first, I didn’t see that picture when I thought about coaching in professional baseball, but after sitting down and talking with the Mariners about the direction they want to go, it was all about developing people and that’s something that I know I need to be a part of. I want to help change the atmosphere for the organization, for the Northwest, and also across the country.”
The new gig is a dream of sorts for Garko as well. He grew up in the Los Angeles area, though closer to Anaheim, but frequently watched the Los Angeles Dodgers either on TV or at Dodger Stadium. Like Canham, he too never had the opportunity to play for the organization he is now managing. However, his familiarity with the team from a young age and all of its history has made him even more excited for this new role.
“It’s kind of icing on the cake,” Garko noted. “I grew up watching Mike Piazza, Eric Karros and that group of guys play in Dodger Stadium. It’s very cool to be a part of that. They’re a special organization, and I’m very aware of the history of the club and its importance to the city being from there. It’s very exciting.”
Unfortunately, his playing career came to a close shortly after departing the Ducks. Back injuries suffered while with the Tampa Bay Rays organization and then in 2013 Spring Training with the Colorado Rockies forced Garko to look towards life after baseball. He took a year off in 2013 before joining the coaching staff of his alma mater, Stanford University, in 2014. His first coaching experience provided some great experiences, but it ultimately wasn’t for him.
“I just wasn’t really quite ready to recruit full-time,” he remembered. “It’s such a big part of college baseball. It just wasn’t a fit with the young kids to be on the road that much, but I knew baseball was in my heart.”
That feeling became even more entrenched in his mind after he tried working for a pharmaceutical company. Baseball kept calling to him, and he chose to pursue coaching opportunities following that experience.
Garko said, “I started calling some teams and contacts I had in the game. Baseball is just a part of me; it’s what I want to do the rest of my life. People are what I like the most in any business that I’m in. When you work with young players as a manager, it’s a chance to really manage their personalities. They’re still young guys in the minor leagues, so it’s about helping them transition from boys to men and hopefully play in the Major Leagues one day and have a nice career of their own.”
As they both embark on their new roles, both have ideas of what type of person they want to be as a manager. To get to that point, they thought back on the skippers and coaches they played for during their playing career. One man who both admire greatly and plan to take a lot from was Ducks manager Kevin Baez.
“KB was very calm, and he could sit down to have a one-on-one conversation with you and be honest with you,” Canham recalled. “I respected that a lot and liked the fact that his door was always open. You could go in and have a conversation with him, and he was going to treat you like a human being. I look at that as something that I definitely want to take into my career in just making sure that I’m building relationships with the players.”
Garko built upon that thought by saying, “KB was so great to work with. Talk about managing personalities! He had all kinds of guys coming into his clubhouse between younger guys and older guys like myself that had very long big league careers. I loved Kevin because he never got emotional. There are obviously all kinds of challenges…and he handled it all with such class. Those are the qualities of a great manager. We fought hard for him every day just because he respected us and we all respected him.”
This April, Mitch and Ryan will begin their quests to add another championship ring to their long careers in baseball. This time, they will literally be leading the team and instilling their wisdom upon the potential future of Major League Baseball. No matter how it plays out though, they will still always remember that magical 2012 season and how it eventually got them to this point.
“Any time you win a championship, it’s a great moment,” Canham stated. “I still have a lot of video and pictures on my phone from that season and from that championship. I didn’t have my family around all the time which was very difficult. However, there were a lot of guys on that team, whether it was the Lansford brothers, Connor Graham, Eric Niesen, Josh Johnson, Bob Zimmermann or Jeremy Hill, that really made you feel like it was worthwhile and brought you in as a true friend.”
Garko went on to say, “No matter what, if you’re a part of a club at any point of the year and they go on to win a title, you feel like you’re a part of it in some way. A lot of those guys made it through the whole year. It was great to see. I still follow the Ducks to this day when the season starts up.”
And perhaps one day, we will be following them as managers in the Major Leagues.
Posted on January 8, 2016, in Feature Articles and tagged 2012, 2016, Atlantic League, BASE by Pros, Clinton Lumberkings, Long Island Ducks, Los Angeles Dodgers, Mitch Canham, Ryan Garko, Seattle Mariners, Tulsa Drillers. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.