by John Torsiello
The excitement was evident in Rob Gariano’s voice as he spoke from Arizona about being selected by the San Diego Padres in the June 2010 Major League Baseball Draft.
And why not? He was living every little kid’s dream of playing professional baseball.
“I am so thankful for having this opportunity,” said Gariano ’10, who graduated from Fairfield University with a degree in finance and starred for the Stags’ baseball team as a right-handed pitcher for four years. “Everybody was talking about me getting a signing bonus and getting paid to play but I didn’t even care what they were paying me, just that I had a chance to become a Major League player one day.”
A native of Nutley, N.J., Gariano was taken in the 36th round by the Padres after leaving as Fairfield’s all-time strikeouts leader. He finished his collegiate career with 293 K’s, breaking a 31-year-old school record. He was a two-time All-Metro Athletic Conference selection, and finished third all-time in wins in the conference, tied for seventh in complete games. He was seventh in appearances with 52.
Gariano, who spent the summer of 2009 pitching in the prestigious Cape Cod League, one of several such circuits around the country for collegiate players, became the first Fairfield player to be drafted by the Major Leagues since pitcher Ryan Holsten was selected in the 22nd round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.
Gariano said he was a nervous wreck during the draft process that led to his eventually being taken by the Padres.
“I was hoping during the previous years to get drafted but it didn’t happen.”
This year, “I wasn’t even following the draft. I was at home, and suddenly my cell phone starts buzzing constantly and I figure there is only one reason why so many people are calling or texting me. I called up the draft online and looked at my name on the list. As much excitement as I felt, there was also a lot of relief that I was finally picked.”
It took him a while to wrap his brain around the fact that he was going to be paid for playing the game he loved. “This is a dream of every kid playing Little League. This is the beginning of everything for me.”
Gariano has the tools scouts look for in a professional baseball pitcher. He throws consistently in the 90s, topping off at 94 or 95 miles an hour. He has several pitches – a slider, change-up, and a four-seam fastball – with which to get hitters out. But the people who know talent like something beyond Gariano’s physical ability to throw a baseball.
“I was told that they liked my aggressiveness. I’m only 5-feet-9 inches and 180 pounds, and that won’t jump off anybody’s radar screen. But they talked about my big heart and intangibles that you can’t teach. When I get on the mound I’m not afraid of anyone and I don’t care if it is Barry Bonds at the plate, I’m going to go right after the hitter. And I have the ability to bounce back from adversity, which is something you have to be able to do as a professional player.”
Ironically, Gariano worked as a starter this summer in the Arizona League – a minor league for serious prospects – taking the mound every fourth day.
“The first start they tell you to go out and pitch and see what happens. Then it’s, ‘OK, here’s what we are going to do with you and what we will work on.’ I’ve been working on mechanics and learning how to pitch. At this point, I’m starting to feel my body doing certain things and I’m learning how to make adjustments. It’s a great experience.”
Gariano received a modest signing bonus when he inked his contract with the Padres, and he made approximately $1,100 a month in the Arizona League. He lived in a hotel with teammates located across from the stadium in Peoria. He did take a side trip on an off day with several of his teammates to watch his beloved New York Yankees play the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix, reveling in the fact that he was now watching his favorite Major League team play while enjoying life as a professional ball player himself, not as some wide-eyed youngster or dream-filled high schooler.
Although he admitted he was disappointed he wasn’t drafted before his senior year, Gariano said it all worked out.
“Not being drafted following my junior year was one of the best things to ever happen to me because I got to finish my career at Fairfield with the guys I came in with as a freshman. We always said we came in together and we wanted to go out together and I got to experience all that, my last home game and my last game as a college player. And I got to graduate with my class. I made so many friends at Fairfield and I look back and say what an unbelievable experience I had there. I have no regrets.”
On his degree in finance, he said, “My dad is a financial advisor, so I figure I always have something to fall back on.” But working with numbers and giving monetary advice is something that’s on the back burner right now.
“You never know how things are going to work out but this is an opportunity that not many people get, and it would be pretty selfish for me to pass it up. Obviously, I’m not going to sit around in the minor leagues the rest of my life. But I owe it to myself and all the people who made this possible to work hard and try and get as far as I can.”
Beyond baseball, Fairfield has sent a number of athletes on to the pros.
A legion of Stag basketball players have been selected over the years in the National Basketball Association draft, highlighted by Joe DeSantis ’79 and Mark Young ’79 being taken in the second round by Washington and Los Angeles, respectively, in 1979.
Larry Rafferty ’64 was the first Fairfield player drafted by an NBA franchise when the Philadelphia 76ers selected him in the 16th round in 1965.
A.J. Wynder ’87 in 1987 became the first Fairfield University player to play in an NBA game when he signed a free agent contract with the Boston Celtics and got to play alongside Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish for a short time.
Deng Gai ’05 in 2005 became the first Fairfield player to play in the NBA since Wynder when he signed with 76ers in 2005 as a free agent.
In all, 30 Fairfield players in 30 years were either drafted or signed free agent contracts with NBA teams.
Adam Braz ’01 became the first Fairfield soccer player to sign with Major League Soccer (MLS) when he was taken by the Toronto franchise in the 2006-07 season.
A number of Fairfield men’s lacrosse players have been drafted by Major League Lacrosse, with Greg Downing ’07 in 2007 becoming the first Stag to be selected in the league’s Collegiate Draft. He went on to play in MLL All-Star and Championship games.