BASEBALL: Rough start in football leads Garner to mound
Pitcher's raw talent helps him transition to college baseball
Perci Garner stood on the mound in the Field Sports Building, nerves racking his body. He rocked back and fired the horsehide, lighting up the radar gun.
After just the first pitch, his first off a mound in 1 1/2 years, one observer was blown away by the raw talent.
"Welcome to the team," he said.
Garner doesn't remember which of his new teammates spoke up, but he was right. The redshirt freshman was a two-sport star at Dover High School in Ohio, but spent two seasons as a backup quarterback for Ball State University. As his football career floundered, Garner made a phone call to baseball coach Greg Beals to see if there was a chance for him to get back on the mound.
"To be honest, my success at football wasn't very good," Garner said. "The transition to college was different than I expected."
Garner said the speed of the game astounded him, and it seemed like the right time to give baseball another shot, like he had planned to do after high school.
"He was a very good pitcher in high school," Beals said. "He came to Ball State with the hope to play baseball as well. [Former football coach Brady] Hoke was not in favor of it his freshman year."
With Stan Parrish now at the helm of the football program, Garner and Beals approached the idea again during Winter Break.
"I encouraged him to give it a shot," Parrish said. "I told him he could always jump back in here if it didn't work out."
With Parrish's blessing, Garner devoted himself to baseball, the sport he knew he was better at. His initial tryout was a surprise to everyone. Garner said he had the opportunity to throw when he was at home with friends playing baseball in college, but never took the chance fearing he would mess up his football throwing motion.
"I was tempted, but I never took the opportunity," Garner said. "I wish I had now."
The 6-foot-1, 222-pounder expected to spend the season building up his arm strength and not see any game action. That would change during the first weekend of the season, when Beals called on his new reliever in the sixth inning against Furman University.
"I wanted him to get his feet wet as soon as possible," Beals said. "I wanted him to see that we intended to use him."
Garner pitched to four batters, striking one out and inducing a pop fly, in addition to a walk and hitting a player. He said he didn't feel nervous in his first outing.
"Maybe it was because I didn't know that much about college baseball," Garner said. "I hadn't heard of Furman before. I thought they must not be very good."
The success Garner found in South Carolina has continued throughout the season. He has appeared in nine games this year, earning one save in 9 1/3 innings. He has an ERA of 3.86 and 14 strikeouts. Beals said his success can be attributed to his natural ability.
"He's got a strong arm, and he's a good athlete," Beals said. "It's not just his velocity but his command, the quality of his changeup and slider as well."
Garner said his command was something he had to work on before it reached its current level. Pitching coach Mike Stafford made a minor change in Garner's follow through that has increased his control.
"At first I was around the plate," Garner said. "But now I feel that's the reason any time I throw a ball."
The small change is a reminder of how unpolished a pitcher Garner is. He did not work with a pitching coach in high school and still has a high ceiling. Beals said Garner is "nowhere close to his potential."
Garner describes himself as a raw pitcher, who throws hard and isn't very mechanical. He is one of two pitchers on the team to consistently reach 90 mph, often hitting 93 with his fastball. The other hard-throwing pitcher is sophomore Kolbrin Vitek, who likely will be drafted next June. It is harder to gauge Garner's draft status because he took a year off, but scouts could be interested by anyone throwing that hard with control.
"I've thought about that a lot," Garner said. "I need to talk to coach about that because I don't really know how it works. I hope that I would get drafted."
The prospect of a professional baseball career helped draw Garner back to the diamond, but he admitted football wasn't as much fun as it used to be. Between Ball State's depth at quarterback and a personality clash with coaches, football had lost some of its appeal. Garner describes himself as a goofball, something that wasn't always appreciated on the football team.
"What we don't want is distractions," Parrish said. "He has a unique happy-go-lucky personality. It's all about timing."
That personality was on full display after the final game of the Kent State University series was rained out. Garner stripped off his uniform and cleats and turned the infield tarp into an ice-cold Slip 'n Slide.
His attitude has helped Garner blend with his new teammates, despite missing all of the fall practice season.
"It's not like I'm a shy guy," Garner said. "It's easy to make friends with these guys. Coach recruited good character guys."
It was one of Garner's old friends that helped him return to baseball. Cardinals wide receiver Daniel Ifft, also from Dover, wanted him to try it.
"He encouraged me to play baseball," Garner said. "Everyone back home told me to."
Whether Garner returns to Scheumann Stadium with Ifft this fall remains unknown. Garner will finish the baseball season and then reevaluate his options. He will pitch for the Stark County (Ohio) Terriers in summer ball and said he's leaning to sticking with baseball. If he does, Beals plans to try and increase Garner's stamina so he can fulfill Garner's wish to become a starting pitcher.
"We'll try and develop his role in the fall," Beals said. "We'll increase his pitch count and see if he's able to carry his velocity."
Parrish said neither he or Beals can make the decision for Garner.
"I'll support him either way," Parrish said. "A lot of your future is where your heart is."