Eight years ago, Damaso Garcia was a defender on the Dominican Republic's national soccer team and baseball was just a pastime. Three years ago, Garcia was stuck in the New York Yankee farm system—and the Toronto Blue Jays thought their second baseman of the future was Danny Ainge. This year, though Garcia's presence at second proved they had thought wrong, the Blue Jays felt Garcia had an attitude problem, and three months ago he came very close to jumping the club.
Today Garcia's the best second baseman in the world, according to Garth Iorg, another Blue Jay infielder. "He's been a treat to watch all year," says Iorg. "He made a play on Jim Rice in Boston, where the ball took a bad hop up the middle. Damo was going to backhand it, but instead he bare-handed it and threw to first in one motion. I was playing third, and I looked over at the bench, and all our guys had their hands to their heads. They couldn't believe it."
That speaks only for Garcia's fielding. The Blue Jays' leadoff hitter most of the year, he's batting .321 and leads the majors in hits with 158. He has stolen 42 bases, which makes him the leader among all American Leaguers who aren't Rickey Henderson. He has played a very large part in the Blue Jays' rags-to-lower-middle-class story this season—just last week Toronto came within a half-game of overtaking Cleveland for sixth place in the AL East.
Yet there's hardly a public-address announcer in the league who pronounces his first name correctly. DA-ma-so is the right way. Da-MA-so is the wrong way, although it's preferable to Da-MAS-co, which some broadcasters and players favor. "Damasco?" says Jim Gantner of the Brewers, one of a number of AL second basemen having banner seasons. "He's just having a super year with the bat. And he's as steady in the field as he is at the plate."
Garcia grew up in Moca, a small town in the heart of the Dominican Republic. When he was 17 he was chosen to play for his national soccer team and given a scholarship to Madre y Maestra University. It was in college that Garcia met his future wife, Haydee, whom he had first seen playing volleyball in a national sports festival.
"I did not have much time for baseball," he says. "But one day I was playing shortstop for my home team, and the manager of the other team came up to me after the game and said, 'You have ability. Do you mind if I bring someone to see you play?' The man he brought was Epy Guerrero."
Epy Guerrero was a scout for the Yankees and also the brother of Mario Guerrero, the former Oakland infielder. "I could see he had the tools of the play," says Guerrero, who now works for the Blue Jays. "I made him run 50 yards, and he was very fast. I made him throw. I made him take ground balls." Guerrero followed Garcia around while he practiced for the soccer team, which went on tour in Haiti, Jamaica and, of all places, Toronto. "Sometimes I would skip a practice to work out for Epy," says Garcia.
Guerrero finally talked him into signing a baseball contract in February 1975. "It was the toughest sign I've ever had," Guerrero says. "There was big trouble with the soccer federation. He was the best player on the team, and they were really mad. The president of the federation called me to his office and said, very upset, 'How can you take my best player?' "
Guerrero took Garcia and Domingo Ramos, another infielder who now plays in the Seattle organization, to Oneonta, N.Y., where the Yankees had a Class-A team. "I found out I did not know anything about baseball," says Garcia. "I would try to throw the ball before I could catch it. I made 14 errors my first 13 games, and they put me on the bench and told me to see how the other guys play ball, to see that the ball was faster than the runner." Garcia also had to learn a new culture at the same time. Fortunately, his manager at Oneonta was Mike Ferraro, now the Yankees' first-base coach. "Mike really understood what we Latin American ballplayers had to go through. He taught me a lot of plays. He put me into this business."
Garcia progressed rapidly through the Yankee farm system, and within three years he was called up to New York. But he was injured most of 1979, and with Willie Randolph the incumbent at second, his prospects weren't all that good. Then, on Nov. 1, the Toronto vice-president for baseball operations, Pat Gillick, who had been in charge of the New York farm system when Garcia signed with the Yankees, traded Rick Cerone, Tom Underwood and Ted Wilborn for Garcia, Paul Mirabella and Chris Chambliss.
In his first season with Toronto, Garcia batted .278, stole 13 bases—he was also thrown out 13 times—and finished fourth in the voting for AL Rookie of the Year. Last year he was just finding his stroke when, on Aug. 21, a pitch by Ed Farmer of the White Sox broke his right hand, putting him out for the season. He finished the year at .252, again with 13 stolen bases, although he was caught only three times. Still, there was a nagging notion in the Blue Jays organization that Garcia wasn't living up to his potential.
A contract dispute at the start of this season awakened both parties. Garcia had made $80,000 for 1981. Over the winter, Gillick had gotten Garcia's verbal agreement to a two-year deal for roughly $150,000 per year. But Garcia felt he was on the verge of a big season and balked at committing himself for both '82 and '83. Gillick refused to give him a one-year deal, and Garcia, who had no agent, refused to accept his paychecks, which were coming at an arbitrary $90,000-a-season rate. Garcia is a man of principle, and he wanted to demonstrate that he would rather play on his terms than accept money to play on others'. He also realized he was in over his head. Third Baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, then with the Jays, put him in contact with his agent, Bill Goodstein, in New York.
"He genuinely sounded frantic," says Goodstein. "It was almost like open warfare between him and the Blue Jays. The team was afraid he'd jump the club. In May, we all sat down and talked it out. The club let him know they thought he had an attitude problem. Damo told them he wasn't being treated fairly. He handled it great, and we all left happy."
On May 31 Garcia got what he wanted, a one-year contract for $175,000, retroactive to the start of the season. But Garcia hadn't let the squabble affect his play. He had been moved to the leadoff spot from No. 8, which obviously suited him, and he was standing closer to the plate so he could hit the outside pitch to right. After the contract dispute was settled, he performed that much better. "They said a lot of things about me," says Garcia. "I told myself I have to prove myself. I just wanted to show them the kind of player I was."
Garcia has been so consistent at the plate this year that he has gone two games without a hit only once. At week's end he was working on a 15-game hitting streak, with a 17-game streak already behind him. He is 10 for 10 in steals of third. And he has been playing with a hyperextended left elbow since mid-May.
As for his fielding, Toronto Manager Bobby Cox claims he has the best arm of any second baseman he's ever seen. He hangs very tough in the pivot. Almost every Blue Jay has a favorite Garcia play. Garcia's own personal preference occurred in a game against Oakland. With the Blue Jays leading 3-2 in the ninth, Dan Meyer hit a slow bouncer behind the mound, and Garcia bare-handed it and threw to first in one motion. Since it happened against Billy Martin shortly before the All-Star Game, Toronto fans had hoped it would sway the manager to name Garcia to the team. Martin chose Kansas City's Frank White instead.
"I did not mind," says Garcia. "Dauer...Whitaker...there are a lot of good second basemen in the league. My time will come."