Children's Hospital Central California welcomed Matt Garza on a recent visit to the Hospital that treated his pitching arm a little over a decade ago.
Garza grew up in Easton and graduated from Washington Union High School, where his abilities as a pitcher had already begun to set him apart. While attending California State University – Fresno, Garza was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the 2005 Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft. He earned the USA Today Minor League Player of the Year Award for 2006 and made his MLB debut the same year, joining the short list of players to advance through the minors and reach the major league level in a single season.
Since then, Garza has pitched for the Tampa Bay Rays and the Chicago Cubs. His successful first season with the Rays included earning the 2008 American League Championship Series (ALCS) Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors – primarily for leading the team’s decisive victory in Game 7. During his final season with the Rays, Garza threw the first no-hit game in the team’s history.
Currently enjoying the off-season at home in Fresno, the Chicago Cubs pitcher made an “under-the-radar” visit to Children's Hospital Central California.
Garza began his tour in day surgery, meeting patients as they prepared for and recovered from their procedures. Next, he passed through the neonatal intensive care unit on his way to drop in on several oncology inpatients. Garza’s tour ended with visits to outpatient clinics, including orthopaedics – a specialty he became acquainted with as a teenager.
At age 16, Garza visited the Hospital’s original location to undergo surgery on his pitching arm. “They put a screw near my elbow because of problems with my growth plate,” he said. “I played football, baseball and basketball at the time and the surgeon said I was too active.”
Several minutes into his tour, which had already included several beside stops, a nurse asked if he wanted to meet more patients. He nodded and said, “That’s why I’m here.”
Garza had not considered the value of visiting a children’s hospital until he received an invitation through a family friend with a connection to the wife of Todd Suntrapak, president and chief executive officer, Children's Hospital Central California.
“My wife didn’t think I’d be interested at first,” said Garza. “But I said that I would like to come see the kids.” When pressed as to why she might feel that way, Garza shrugged. “I can sometimes be kind of grumpy,” he admitted, undoubtedly referring to what John Donovan of Sports Illustrated called his “talented-but-troubled reputation.” Donovan’s 2008 article described Garza as “a right-hander with a fastball that made hitters' knees weak but with… an attitude that was part pit bull …”
But Garza also has a reputation for putting family first. He and his high school sweetheart, Serina Ortiz, had their first child, a son they named Matthew II, in 2002. Their daughter, Sierra, followed in 2005. The couple married in 2008 and had two more little girls in 2009 and 2012. As a celebrity who dealt with the struggles of parenting as a teenager, Garza appeared on a panel with Bristol Palin at a fundraiser combating teen pregnancy held in New York City when he was 25 years old and the father of three.
Sportswriter Correy Gottlieb, reporter for MLB.com, wrote of Garza’s decision to decline an offer he received in the 2002 Draft. Around the same time Donovan’s article was published, Gottlieb wrote, “Garza chose to forego the life of a Minor League ballplayer, opting instead to accept a partial scholarship from Fresno State University and remain close to his family. There, he played pitcher by day and new dad by night, changing diapers and going to checkups on the back end of road trips and doubleheaders.”
The tender-hearted, fatherly side of the MLB player came through at every patient’s bedside, but especially when Garza entered the room of a bright-eyed cancer patient with a doll-size replica of the Disney castle.
“Who’s your favorite princess?” he asked, dropping to one knee beside the 2-year-old. She opened the castle to reveal several Disney princesses tucked inside and reached for one to offer him. As she handed him the familiar character, Garza shook his head and smiled. “You’re supposed to say, ‘I am’ because you’re a princess.”
Garza hoped to ease the burden families carry from the weight of hospitalization. “I don’t know that I’m doing much.” He shrugged. “But if you can brighten up a kid’s day with a visit and a smile, that’s what I’m here to do.”
And that’s exactly what the star athlete did while shaking hands, posing for photographs, signing Cubs caps and answering questions like “how many strikeouts did you get this year?” to which he replied, “108.”
After meeting the Cubs pitcher – though far from Wrigley Field – the patients and families at Children's Hospital Central California agree Garza is an MVP.