Nine Questions with Former Gwinnett Outfielder Stefan Gartrell
Last season, as Minor League Baseball launched “The Nine” to honor and celebrate the historic impact of Black athletes in professional baseball, the Gwinnett Stripers contributed by looking back at the on-field accomplishments of the top five Black players in Atlanta Braves’ Triple-A history. Just one of the five –
Last season, as Minor League Baseball launched “The Nine” to honor and celebrate the historic impact of Black athletes in professional baseball, the Gwinnett Stripers contributed by looking back at the on-field accomplishments of the top five Black players in Atlanta Braves’ Triple-A history.
Just one of the five – slugging outfielder Stefan Gartrell – came from the Gwinnett era (since 2009). Gartrell played for the team then known as the “G-Braves” from 2011-13 and was one of the International League’s most vaunted power hitters during that time. Nearly ten years after his final game with the club, he still ranks among Gwinnett career leaders in home runs (2nd, 54), runs (4th, 166), RBI (4th, 180), and doubles (5th, 63). His .801 OPS is third highest among Gwinnett hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances.
Selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 31st round of the 2006 Draft out of the University of San Francisco, Gartrell beat long odds to become a star at the Triple-A level. Following a trade to the Braves in April 2011, he produced the defining season of his pro career with the G-Braves, blasting 25 homers and tallying 91 RBIs in 116 games to earn IL Midseason and Postseason All-Star selections.
Gartrell fell short of his dream of reaching Major League Baseball but has directed his focus to an even greater life goal. Since retiring in 2015, he has founded Ripple Effect 22, a faith-led mentorship program for youth in his native San Francisco.
Broadcaster Dave Lezotte caught up with Gartrell to look back on his Gwinnett career and find out more about his new mission.
DL: The story of how you joined Gwinnett is one of the most unique trade stories I’ve ever heard. You were dealt from the White Sox to the Braves right after a series between their Triple-A clubs. What was that like?
SG: That was the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me. I was on the bus (with Charlotte), I think we were headed to Norfolk, and we were leaving. It was just a weird week, because I was on the 40-man roster for the White Sox, they made some moves and decided to take me off the 40-man roster. They were letting me know “hey you can’t play, you’re going through waivers,” but I was still with the team.
We’re on the bus, it was raining like crazy, the game (against Gwinnett) got canceled. I’m sitting there, everything is packed up. I’m actually on the phone with my wife, who was my fiancé at the time. (Knights manager) Joe McEwing comes up to me and says, “hey man, you just got traded, so you have to get off the bus.” I thought he was kidding. I was like, “who did I get traded to?” He goes “to the Braves, you’ve got to catch their bus, they are headed out right now.”
I get off the bus, everybody else is saying bye to me on the White Sox side. Then I head over to the Braves side, and I walk on the bus and they’re like booing me when I get on the bus. It was funny, it was weird to literally switch teams from one bus to another. The craziest part was that we finished the road trip back in Charlotte. I had maybe a week-and-a-half before we played the team I just got traded from.
DL: Your 2011 season with Gwinnett is still one of the best offensive campaigns in team history. How did you regroup after the trade and put together an All-Star year?
SG: I want to give myself credit, but I’ll just be like that’s God, because I don’t know. It was an interesting time. I know that I had come into the season really a highly touted prospect in the White Sox organization and I had a really good Spring Training. And I had already started off pretty good during the season with Charlotte. I was expecting to have a pretty good season, and then everything kind of halted and it threw me for a loop.
I do remember there were times when I was in my head quite a bit. I was pressing a lot. I was trying really hard to win over my new teammates and my new club. The good thing is I know that they wanted me because they traded for me. I was like “ok, I’ve got to prove them right.” And then it just came to this point where I was just like, “alright, I have this ability, I can play, I can hit, just don’t put too much pressure on myself.” And things just started clicking. The ball was huge for an amount of time where I just saw it really well.
I also felt like I was on a really good team. Every single time I got up to the plate, there was always someone on base. Matt Young was always on base it seemed like, or Jose Constanza, someone was on base. I would go up there with the approach of “if they’re on second or third, no matter what I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that they get in.” I simplified it at that point. And then it just happened that I started hitting the ball really well. Even just trying to get them in, it became, here’s a double, here’s a homer. It was a great year. The (Triple-A) All-Star Game was awesome. All of it culminated in a great experience.
DL: In 2012, you returned to Gwinnett and teamed up with Ernesto Mejia to form the league’s biggest one-two punch. Mejia was tied for third in the IL with 24 homers, and you were tied for seventh with 20. What was that season like?
SG: That was fun. One, because me and Ernesto were really cool. In professional baseball it’s tough because you want to do your best on a team, especially in the minor leagues, but you’re also competing against your own teammates because you’re trying to make it to the big club. But with me and him, it was funny because we got along well. We were both pulling for each other and kind of competing with each other but like in a really fun way. Not like “oh, he’s stealing my shine” type of deal. It was like we had a lot of fun together. We would switch in the lineup quite a bit. He would back me up if I was slumping a little bit, so I’d get better pitches, then when he was slumping, I’d be behind him. We played off each other really well.
DL: You spent one more season with Gwinnett in 2013, and after a stint in independent ball, retired as a player in 2015. How difficult was that decision, especially having come so close to the Majors?
SG: The thing that made it easy was knowing where I was going after my career. I had wanted to start the nonprofit that I founded since I was 16. I had this idea for it for a long, long time. In 2015 it was just so much confirmation that not only was it time for me to step away, but I was supposed to start this program and move into it. If I had stepped away from baseball and had no clue what I was going to do, I think that would have been depressing. But because I left moving to another chapter, knowing that, ok, here’s the next challenge, here’s something that I’m going for. And then also understanding that believing what I’m about to start, what I feel like I’m called to start is going to change people’s lives and help a lot of young people. It changed my perspective of me walking away from something. Instead of walking away from it, I was walking into something. And that made things a lot easier for me.
DL: That leads right to what you’re doing now as the founder and owner of Ripple Effect 22. What can you tell me about your organization?
SG: It’s a faith-based youth mentorship program. Our goal is purpose development. We follow what we call the four P’s”: Purpose, Plan, Pair, and Path. We believe that everyone’s here for a purpose, there’s a plan for their life. We then pair them with a mentor once they feel like they understand what they’re called to do. And then they have a path on achieving that and walking in it. Our slogan is “empowering to purpose.” We feel like if a kid knows who they are and why they’re here, it gives them hope, it gives them direction. They won’t go down a path that can lead to detriment and destruction.
We work with mostly at-risk youth, but we work with everyone. We work with over 500 kids now in San Francisco and the Bay Area. It’s been awesome to see the transformation in the kids’ lives. And not just in the kids’ lives, but also the families we work with as well.
DL: With all the adversity you faced in pro baseball as a 31st-round pick, how much of that experience do you use in your current career?
SG: Literally all of it. I think the biggest thing is to be able to help kids understand that if you have a goal or a dream, if you’re passionate about something, it can be your motivator. It will push you past your comfort zone.
I was projected to be from the fifth to the 15th round, in that area. To go to the 31st round, I was just like “whoa, what happened?” I decided not to be bitter about it, I was just going to prove everybody wrong, like they should have had me higher. It wasn’t a place of being cocky, but it was like this confidence.
I talk to a lot of kids about this, too. To have true confidence, you also have to be humble. You have to realize that you have weaknesses, and so you try to turn these weaknesses into strengths. Cockiness, they don’t believe they’re bad at anything. And so, I was like “ok, whatever I’m not great at, whatever they see as a reason why I shouldn’t have been drafted higher, I’m going to get better at it.” I pushed hard, I worked hard. It was a lot of perseverance that went into it, and determination. I also had a lot of good friends and mentors and coaches that helped me along the way.
DL: Speaking of mentors, who were some of yours as a young athlete?
SG: My dad and my mom were just amazing; they were very supportive. They took me everywhere, took time out of their day to always take me places.
I’d say Rich Murray, that’s (National Baseball Hall of Famer) Eddie Murray’s brother. Rich is out here in San Francisco. He does a lot of training and coaching out here. He saw my potential when I was young. It was him and another coach, Bob Bell. I would work with these two, and in baseball there’s not a lot of black people, but both of them – two black coaches – were like “hey, we see something in you.” They worked with me all through high school for free, I didn’t pay them anything. And it was just really cool that they did that.
And then when I was in college, there was also our catching coach Rigo Lopez. We bonded; he was a volunteer coach at the time. And now he’s the head of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in northern California. We bonded more on the spiritual level. He was like “you’re doing well in baseball, but let’s work on your spiritual life and just kind of help you out with any emotions and mental issues.” He’s like the guy I would go to talk and to pray with whenever I was going through stuff. And he’s still somewhat that guy, he’s still a mentor. He went straight into service and the ministry after baseball, and I did the exact same thing, so I still speak with him as well.
DL: Did you develop any mentors during your time in the Braves organization?
SG: Some of the best conversations I ever had was when I was in big-league camp with Chipper Jones. During breakfasts and lunches, he would sit next to me and talk. He also coined my nickname with the Braves, which was “Garty.” Nobody called me that my entire life, and then all of a sudden everybody in the Braves organization was calling me Garty because of Chipper. It was cool to sit with him and talk to him during batting practices, too. He would come out and just chat. To see his demeanor and how hey played was really cool.
I was also blessed to have a really good conversation with (Baseball Hall of Famer) Hank Aaron. When he passed, it hit me hard. It was just one conversation, but it was over an hour long. He just sat down with me – and this was during the time when I got traded and I’m playing really well, I was an IL All-Star, and he had heard of me. It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had in my entire life.
I know I’m dropping two really huge names in the Braves organization, but those were some of the ones that I think shaped how I operate.
DL: By the end of your career, did you find yourself starting to mentor younger players? If so, anybody in particular?
SG: I would say the biggest mentorship was when I was with the White Sox. It was Trayce Thompson. We were locker mates (in Spring Training). His locker was right next to mine. So, we talked a lot, we hung out quite a bit. He was young, I think it might have been his second full year of minor league ball and so he’s in big-league camp. He would hang out with me, and I would take him places.
Juan Pierre did the same thing with me when I was coming up with the White Sox. And so, I was like “I'm going to pay it forward, I’m going to do this with (Trayce).” He was just really cool dude, and I was able to kind of help him out, walk him through some stuff. Now he's way more successful in baseball than I am, but I'm so proud of him.