When he's not working at a ballpark or riding a bus in the Southern League, Garey Ingram loves to spend time on lakes casting lines or on the golf course. Other than his two years of playing at Middle Georgia, the baseball life is all Ingram has known since graduating from Columbus High in 1988.
Ingram reported to the Atlanta Braves spring training camp last week for his 27th season of professional baseball, his 16th as a coach and seventh with the Braves. To say baseball has been good to him is an understatement.
"I tell everybody every day that I am super blessed to be able to do this for my job," Ingram said. "I haven't had to get up and work nine to five since I've been in professional baseball. I can't complain. It's just in my heart. I have a heart to play this game."
Ingram is the hitting coach for Mississippi, the Braves' Double-A club. He doesn't usually report to spring training this early. But he was asked to help out in the big league camp this year as management wants to take long looks at several players who are central to the Braves' massive rebuilding process. Ten of their top 13 minor league prospects are scheduled to be in the big
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league camp. Among them are center fielder Mallex Smith, shortstops Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, all of whom could be starting in Atlanta within a year.
All of the prospects are hoping for their big break to get them to the big leagues. Ingram is hoping for the same. He's still only 45 -- maybe not a kid anymore, but still young enough to hope to make it to the big leagues. Sometimes all a minor league coach or manager needs is a break. As prospects develop and move up, sometimes the coaches who help get them there get noticed. That was the case with Leo Mazzone a generation ago.
"That's very much a dream," he said. "If a coach tells you he just wants to stay in the minor leagues the rest of his life he's probably not being honest with you. We all want to be major league coaches and players. That's part of our dream. That's why we're still doing it. If I didn't want to be a major league coach, I wouldn't be doing this. We always have aspirations of doing that."
Ingram joined the Braves after the 2009 season. Most of the hitters he has worked with have been borderline prospects. As John Hart and John Coppolella have overhauled the organization -- from rosters to the scouting department to player development staff -- it's noteworthy that Ingram has remained in place. He spent 2014 in Triple-A with Gwinnett but never looked at his return to Double-A as a demotion.
"Actually, I just love being a hitting coach no matter where I am," Ingram said. "It was more convenient to be close to home. But at any given time they can move us anywhere throughout the season. I didn't look at it as I wasn't where I was supposed to be. I just looked at it like I had the opportunity to work with some of our top prospects who were coming through Double-A last year."
The Braves' farm system was recently ranked the best in baseball by Keith Law, a veteran minor league analyst. While they have built the system on pitching, there are several hitting prospects with intriguing upside.
Ingram worked with Smith and Rio Ruiz last season. In addition to Swanson and Albies, Dustin Peterson, Austin Riley and Braxton Davidson are some of the hitters who could pass through Mississippi this season or soon after.
"I'm not doing this for myself," Ingram said. "I'm doing this because I was a kid who was a 44th round draft pick that really, statistically, had no shot at being a major league baseball player and made it in four years switching positions three times. That's why I'm doing this, because I know there are kids out there who were just like me and kids that are better than me who can have that opportunity to do what I did, even though short lived. That's why I'm doing it."
Yeah, about that big league career. That was a pretty fascinating story itself. He was drafted twice by the Dodgers -- in the 43rd round out of Columbus High (one round ahead of Jordan High's Brent Miller) and then again in the 44th round in 1989 after his freshman year at Middle Georgia. The Dodgers signed him the following June, just before their rights to him expired. He had been a catcher out of necessity for Bobby Howard. The Dodgers liked his speed and his bat.
Ingram hit .343 in rookie ball at Great Falls, Montana, then .297 for Bakersfield in the California League. He spent the next two-plus seasons at San Antonio in the Texas League, Double-A. He had moved from catcher to center field, then to second base. He got promoted to the big leagues in 1994. When Tommy Lasorda told him to grab a bat and pinch-hit, he was so nervous he couldn't find his batting helmet. He ripped a 2-2 pitch to deep left field and hustled into second base. That is, until umpire Steve Rippley told him to keep going. He had hit a home run in his first major league at-bat.
Ingram spent parts of three seasons with the Dodgers and hit .261. But five surgeries -- one on each knee, two on his right shoulder and one on his hand -- ended his playing career. The Dodgers liked what they saw in his demeanor and attitude and his knowledge of hitting to offer him a job as a coach.
Ingram's teaching philosophy is simple. Observe the player, build trust, then find something that works for that player.
"We're talking about a topic that there is no right answer," he said. "There is no one way to do it -- hitting. You will have different types of teaching. You will have different types of video analysis. You have different types of philosophies. Don't get me wrong. There are some basics that everybody does. But hitting can be taught and talked about in so many different ways."
It helps that he can relate to the struggles of being a minor leaguer.
"I know how hard it is. I know what it takes to be a major league baseball player," he said. "I'm just trying to transfer some of that energy and positivity to that kid I touch every day for five months and try to get him as good as I can to get to the next level and get to the major leagues. That's the type of gratification that I look for."
If the development of some of those players leads to Ingram's big break, then great. But just knowing he made a difference will be sufficient satisfaction.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org