BASEBALL CITY, Fla. -- On a sunny Saturday morning in Central Florida, Jeff Garber worked at second base with a group of Kansas City Royals minor leaguers.
As he taught baserunning to the players, a charter bus sped past the cloverleaf fields. The major league Royals were heading up the road for an afternoon spring training game.
The bus, and the big stadium up the hill, are reminders of the goal for most of those on the four fields of the Royals' minor league complex.
"The kids need to know they're not that far away," said Garber. "They have to polish their skills. Many of them have the same talent as the players in that stadium, but those players are more consistent with their skills."
Garber, who lives in Valdosta in the off-season, has made a professional life with the Kansas City Royals' minor league organization. He played eight seasons in the minors, then began coaching. After one year as a coach, he managed a team in Spokane, Wash., for two years. This year he enters his fourth season as manager of the Wilmington (Del.) team in the Class A Carolina League.
In five years as manager, Garber has come close to his first league title three times.
His 1998 Spokane team had tied for the best record in the short season, but missed the playoffs due to losing a tiebreaker.
The next year, his first Wilmington team made the final game of the championship series, but had the game in Myrtle Beach, S.C., canceled by an impending hurricane.
He also made the final game of last year's Carolina League championship season, but the Blue Rocks lost. The game was played Sept. 10, the day before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. One more day and that series would have been canceled.
"We've been in a position to win ball games," said Garber. "You have to adapt to what team you have, and win in a variety of situations. You never know what can happen."
Winning is a plus in the minds of Garber's bosses. At the lower levels of the minor leagues, the Royals want to develop players.
"I'm at a level where I teach more. Kansas City cares less about our record," Garber said. "Getting them better in skills, getting them better for Double A ... If I do that, I'll get a job next year."
But he can't go out and tell his players, the fans or the media that player development is job No. 1.
"The challenge for me is you have to manage with your hands tied. Everybody does," he said. "Injuries, trades, things come up. We still have to find a way to win.
"But this is the level where you separate whether kids can play or not. I like that challenge."
Winning in Wilmington is a good experience. The Blue Rocks averaged over 5,000 fans last season. The Carolina vs. California League All-Star game will be played there this summer.
"It's mini big league," said Garber. "Baltimore and Philadelphia are real close. And I'm from Pennsylvania, so I'm familiar with the area."
Garber was a 10th-round draft choice out of James Madison in 1988. He played eight years in the organization, making it as high as Class AAA.
When playing in the major leagues wasn't a option, the Royals hired him to coach -- and teach.
"I believe in the Royals and the Royals' system," said Garber. "They want us to be teachers."
He learned from his experience as a minor league player.
"It took me two or three years to look back at my career," he said. "I did everything I could. I can live with that now.
"I'll never forget what it's like to be a player."
As a manager, he's also grown up.
"You have to know when to push players and when to back off. Know when to be their best friend and when to kick them in the butt.
"You have to pace yourself. It's 140 games in 148 days. It's a day-to-day grind."
He also sees the game differently.
"The older you get, the game slows down," he said. "I sit down when I manage now. Early in my career I was pacing, and I didn't see everything I needed to see.
"That's why a lot of managers in the major leagues are older guys. Experience teaches you a lot.
Family is also job No
. 1 for Garber. His wife Michele is the curriculum director for Valdosta State's sports medicine program. When school ends, she and their two children -- Madison and Jackson -- pick up and move in with Jeff.
As the children grow older, Garber faces a career decision.
"Without my family I couldn't do this. They're supporting me," Garber said. "But Michele's a single mom for six months.
"It's tough, but I'll never sacrifice my family life for my career. As the kids get older, we will make other decisions. Sooner or later their priorities will take over.
"Coaching is what I love to do, whether on the college or pro level."
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