Early fatherhood has given Garza perspective

Early fatherhood has given Garza perspective

ST. PETERSBURG -- Three weeks after graduating from Washington-Union High School in Fresno, Calif., in 2002, Matt Garza and his girlfriend, Serina, turned into adults.

While their peers were working to make a few extra bucks before heading off to college, Matt and Serina turned into parents when their son Matthew was born.

"It was a weird transition, going from high school senior to being a college freshman and a father," Garza said.

The couple struggled, but they never had any doubts about their intentions.

"We were totally against [an abortion]," Garza said. "We were both on board; [we] were more than excited. We wished it could have happened a little later, but it was a blessing in disguise. I don't think I would be here if it weren't for [Matthew]."

Garza attended Fresno State University on a baseball scholarship and studied to become a civil engineer, while Serina worked to finish high school. Fortunately for the couple, both sets of their parents helped.

"We really wouldn't have made it without [our parents]," Garza said. "I wasn't able to work. She got a job as soon as she was able to. And a high school student isn't going to make $30 an hour. She was making minimum wage, working 16 hours a week at a family-owned restaurant. That got us by."

Garza's plan for the future really didn't include baseball. Civil engineering paid well, so the young father had one thing in mind.

"I was like, 'School first, baseball second,'" Garza said. "Then I started having some success and started throwing harder, getting bigger, getting better."

By 2005, Garza had pitched so well at Fresno State that he earned WAC Pitcher of the Year honors as well as First Team All-WAC. Garza's success and talent prompted the Twins to select the right-hander with the 25th pick of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.

"I kind of flipped my situation upside down," Garza said. "All of a sudden, baseball looked like it might be a better way [to support his family]."

Garza might be designing bridges and figuring out design mixes for concrete had he stayed at Fresno State and graduated as a civil engineer. But he's done pretty well in baseball, so there are no regrets about the decision to pursue a career in the sport.

Since coming to the Rays from the Twins in a trade prior to the 2008 season, Garza has been a dominant force at times, like in the American League Championship Series that year, when he shut down the Red Sox and won MVP honors. This season, he threw the first no-hitter in Rays history, and given the electric stuff he brings to any given start it's likely more will follow.

Part of Garza's success in baseball has been his treatment of his job as a game. Based on his life's experiences as a young father, that mentality is understandable.

"Obviously [being a young father] made me mature a lot faster," Garza said. "I consider this a game, so I'm going to have my fun no matter what.

"Being a young father made me put my priorities in order right away. A lot of people have to go through a bad situation for that to happen. I was fortunate. I had it happen after going through a good situation. I just had to put my priorities in order, and priority No. 1 was making sure my son was fed."

The Garzas now have three kids. When asked who has the easier job -- Matt or Serina -- Matt concedes that it's really no contest.

"I do," Garza said. "I come here and mess around. She has to actually be serious."

According to fellow Rays starter James Shields, Garza isn't kidding when he says he gets to "come here and mess around."

"Garza is a 10-year-old in his heart, a 10-year-old in his mind and a 26-year-old as a pitcher," Shields said. "Every day, this guy is cracking me up -- just for his antics. You just never know what you're going to get out of him. One day, he's mad, and the next day, he's as happy as can be.

"For the most part, he just cracks me up with anything he does. Anything that goes through his mind, he almost says it. He doesn't hold anything back. When you get to know him, he's down to earth. He makes everybody laugh. He does stupid stuff. He acts like a little kid sometimes."

Included in Garza's fun is being a good father, which Shields has observed on many occasions.

"He's an unbelievable father," Shields said. "He's come over to my house a bunch of times and had some barbecues. He's constantly playing with his kids. Just constantly works with his kids. He brings his oldest son to the ballpark with him a lot of times now. He's definitely a great dad.

"If I was a kid and I had him as a dad, we'd be watching cartoons every day. Because that's what he loves to do. He watches cartoons when he's not with his kids. I'm not going to lie, I do, too. But not as much as he does."

In addition to cartoons, Shields reports that there are few TV shows Garza doesn't like.

"He likes 'Two and a Half Men,' 'The Office,' anything that has to do with TV -- he's in it, he's ready to go," Shields said. "And he likes video games. He plays video games all the time. I think if he was my dad, it would be pretty fun."

Joe Maddon isn't opposed to having characters on his team and he seems to get Garza, of whom he said his first impression upon seeing him was that "he looked like Dean Martin." The manager recounted his first conversation with Garza after the Rays had traded for him.

"He really came on strongly about wanting to win, and said so many times how he felt he was a team player first and it was all about team first," Maddon said. "He kept reiterating that to me during that phone conversation.

"That first time through was really animated, loud, team, about winning, that's all I ever heard from him that first conversation. Then I met him and had a sit-down conversation, got the same thing out of him. I could really feel the emotion out of him, too."

That emotion plays well in October, and so does quality stuff, which makes Garza a valuable commodity during the postseason. Heading into the coming postseason, Garza feels he's right where he needs to be.

"October is a different type of baseball," Garza said. "Everything is turned up, a lot more sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, and that's a lot more exciting. You know that there's no more pressure. It's one and done and you're out. So what's there to worry about? That's the best part about pitching there."

Relatively speaking, Garza knows what real pressure is, which likely makes handling playoff pressures different for him.

"We've come a long way from where [my wife and I] started," Garza said. "We know how we started, so now it's more of a humbling thing to remember that and see where we are now. But I'm still a work-in-progress. And I always will be, until they put me in the ground."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.