RIP to Damaso Garcia, an All-Star second baseman who played for 11 seasons in the major leagues. He died on April 15 at the age of 63 in the Dominican Republic. No cause of death was given; however, Garcia had a malignant brain tumor removed 29 years ago, and the surgery had affected his mobility and speech. Garcia played for the New York Yankees (1978-79), Toronto Blue Jays (1980-86), Atlanta Braves (1988) and Montreal Expos (1989).
Jesse Barfield, one of his Blue Jays teammates, posted on Twitter that he was able to visit Garcia a last time while visiting the Dominican Republic for Tony Fernandez‘s funeral. “He recognized us although he wasn’t able to speak, his eyes did the talking for him. RIP my friend, we love you!” he wrote.
Damaso Garcia was born in Moca, Dominican Republic, on February 7, 1957. Growing up, his parents and three siblings were supported by his father, who earned 25 pesos a week for cleaning the Corazon de Jesus Catholic Church. Baseball was not Garcia’s first sport. He was actually a soccer star in his home country before he was known for baseball. He was good enough to earn a scholarship to college, and he represented his country in the 1975 Pan-Am Games. When the New York Yankees signed him to play baseball in the United States, he had played a grand total of nine baseball games.
“I played baseball when I was seven years old, but I was afraid of the ball” he said in a 1976 interview with the Fort Lauderdale News. “We played a baseball game on a Saturday, and I used to fear the ball because I know that if I got hit, then I could not play soccer on Sunday. Everybody expected me to play soccer. Then my coach told me that I would have to give up baseball and just play soccer.”
He picked up baseball again when he was 18 years old and played a few games at shortstop. Yankees scout Epy Guerrero signed Garcia as an amateur free agent after he’d had about 30 at-bats. He started his pro ball career with the Oneonta Yankees of the low-A New York-Penn League in 1975. He was part of an influx of Dominican players on the team, including future big-leaguers Juan Espino and Domingo Ramos. Garcia batted .268 in his first season. His fielding was a weak spot — he had 11 errors in his first 16 games, according to manager Mike Ferraro. After being benched for a few games, Garcia came to his manager and said he wanted to learn everything.
“So we went to work,” Ferraro said. “Every time he made an error, I would say to him, ‘No more baseball for you, back to soccer.’ He would get mad at me and would try harder. I think he made four errors the rest of the year and turned out to be a pretty good fielder and hitter.”
The hardest adjustment he had to make after figuring out fielding? Getting used to American food. “American food doesn’t have flavor,” he complained. “They serve rice with nothing on it.”
Garcia hit consistently in the .260s during his time in the Yankees’ minors. He got a chance in the major leagues on June 24, 1978, with Catfish Hunter going on the DL and starting second baseman Willie Randolph resting an aching knee. He made his major-league debut on the 24th as a defensive replacement at second base, and he started his first game the very next day. He singled off the Tigers’ Steve Baker for his first MLB hit and ended the day with a a 2-for-4 performance, with 3 runs scored.
Garcia hit .195 with the Yankees in 18 games in 1978, and he batted .263 in 11 games the following season. However, he was effectively blocked at second base by Randolph. On November 1, 1979, the Yankees traded Garcia, first baseman Chris Chambliss and pitcher Paul Mirabella to Toronto for catcher Rick Cerone, pitcher Tom Underwood and minor-leaguer Ted Wilborn.
The Blue Jays made Garcia their starting second baseman, and he responded by putting together one of the best rookie campaigns in baseball in 1980. He hit .278 with 30 doubles, and he took part in 112 double plays at second base; the team as a whole tied an AL record with 206 double plays. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year race in the American League behind Joe Charboneau of the Indians.
More importantly, Garcia was able to send his family $150 on the first and 15th of each month. “I signed to play beisbol for one reason — to help my mother and father,” he said in 1980. “I was poor. My family was poor. Now, I’ve got a chance to help them.”
Garcia’s production tailed off in the strike-shortened of 1981, but he picked up in 1982 in a big way. He slashed .310/.338/.399, all of which were career highs. He was 4th in the AL with 145 singles, 2nd in stolen bases with 54, and 10th in the AL in batting average. He didn’t take many walks, but he was hard to strike out, and he hit for a high average — he was essentially a modern-day Glenn Beckert. Garcia was the Blue Jays’ MVP and picked up a few votes for the AL MVP. He even won a Silver Slugger Award at second base — an interesting choice, considering he hit 5 home runs.
Garcia’s 1983 season was almost a duplicate of his ’82 campaign, and he established himself as one of the AL’s best second basemen in 1984 when he was named to the All-Star Team. He was joined at the Midseason Classic by his double-play partner, shortstop Alfredo Griffin. Griffin was hitting just .241 at the time, but the Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell had to pull out of the game with an injured arm. Griffin was already in San Francisco as Garcia’s guest, so he was chosen as the replacement.
“Both of our wives went to the Dominican Republic for a few weeks,” Garcia said. “Since I had an extra ticket, I told him, ‘Hey, compadre, why don’t you keep me company?'”
Garcia batted .284 on the year and matched his career best with 32 doubles. In 1985, he hit .282 and had career highs with 8 home runs and 65 RBIs. He made the All-Star Team again as a reserve and singled off Jeff Reardon. He also stole a base but was called out trying to make it to third.
The Blue Jays made it to the AL Championship Series in 1985. Garcia, who had injured his knee late in the season, wasn’t a big contributor in the 7-game loss to the eventual world champion Royals. Though he hit just .233, 4 of his 7 hits were doubles.
Garcia collected his 1,000th base hit, one of four hits on the day, on July 10, 1986. As a whole, though, it was a bad season for Garcia. Injuries limited him to 122 games, and new Jays manager Jimy Williams moved him out of his familiar leadoff spot. He also had harsh words for teammate Cliff Johnson after the two players got into a pre-game fight in August. Garcia later said that Johnson was taking too long taking batting practice and called him arrogant.
In October, the Jays were mired in last place, Garcia was mired in a slump, and in frustration he burned his uniform. Williams, in response, chewed him out in front of his teammates, and that pretty much ended any chance of Garcia staying in Toronto for another season.
“So I burned my uniform,” He told The Ottawa Citizen after the season. “It’s like I’m probably going to the Hall of Fame, they made such a big deal of it.” He also ripped Williams managerial abilities and said that he was disrespected by being given a public dressing-down by the manager.
It probably came as no surprise that the Blue Jays traded Garcia and pitcher Luis Leal to Atlanta in February of 1987 for pitcher Craig McMurtry. The Braves hoped that he would help make a better player out of shortstop Andres Thomas like he did with Griffin and Tony Fernandez. The two worked together in spring training, but they never got the chance in the regular season. Garcia was removed from an exhibition game on March 23 with knee soreness. On March 31, he had frayed cartilage removed from his knee. He was supposed to miss a month or so, but the return date was moved back to May when he complained of further knee pain. He had fluid drained from his knee on June 1 and underwent a second knee surgery on July 10 after an aborted rehabilitation assignment. He was activated in September but never appeared in a game.
Garcia had been branded as a “troublemaker” by Toronto after they traded him, and now the Braves were questioning his reliability after he missed the 1987 season. He came to spring training in 1988 as a man on a mission.
“Coming into spring training without a job and having to fight for it is a challenge I will take any time against anybody,” he said in March of 1988. “I just wish Dale Murphy played second base so I could fight for a job with him. That would make me a better player.”
Garcia was in competition with Ron Gant, who at the time was an infielder. He returned to the majors, but his knee still didn’t feel right, and he was ineffective when he played. He batted .117 in 21 games with Atlanta. The Braves released him in May, and he appeared briefly in the Dodgers’ minor leagues before he was released after re-injuring his knee.
The Montreal Expos took a chance on Garcia by signing him to a contract in 1989. He proved he still had more to offer baseball on Opening Day against Pittsburgh. He singled home a run in the 8th inning and came up again in the 9th inning with the Expos trailing 5-4 and the bases loaded. Facing split-finger fastballer Jeff Robinson, Garcia fouled off a couple pitches before lining a shot into left field, tying the ballgame. The Expos won a batter later when Tim Raines drew a bases-loaded walk. Garcia was mobbed by teammates as he walked off the field.
“I haven’t had that feeling in a long time,” he said.
Garcia appeared in just 80 games, but he was a valuable role-player. He hit .271 with 3 home runs, including a 2-run blast that led the Expos to a 6-5 win over Cincinnati on July 22. Aside from a three-week stay on the DL, he stayed healthy. The Expos released him in September, more out of a need to try their young players than anything that Garcia had done.
“I proved something I wanted to, that I could come back and play in the majors,” Garcia said. “Now I’m going to go home and work hard and try to catch on with another team.”
Garcia signed a contract with the Yankees over the offseason but was released at the end of spring training in 1990. That ended his playing career, and he knew that his reputation, justified or not, would prevent him from working in baseball again. “B.J. Birdy, or whatever the hell that mascot’s name was, has a better chance of being named manager or a coach than I do,” he said. “Because I have a big mouth. Or at least, people in baseball think I have a big mouth.”
In 11 seasons in the majors, Garcia slashed .283/.309/.371, with 1,108 hits that included 183 doubles, 27 triples and 36 home runs. He stole 203 bases and scored 490 runs. He was the first Blue Jay to reach the 1,000 hit mark in his career.
Just a year after officially retiring from baseball, 36-year-old Garcia was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The surgery successfully removed the tumor, but as noted, it left him with some speech difficulties. He returned to Toronto in 1992 to throw out the first pitch of a ballgame during the AL Championship Series between the Jays and A’s. Even though he was weak from the recently completed chemotherapy treatments, he was honored to be asked. His old double-play partner, Griffin, was the catcher.
“Baseball was harder, this was nothing,” he said, pointing to his head.
Garcia returned to the Dominican Republic, where he served as the president of the country’s players association for a time.