Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Gwinnett Braves Stefan Gartrell swings for the ball during a recent game at Coolray Field.
Stefan Gartrell's welcome to the Gwinnett Braves came in a chorus of boos. They didn't last long and he laughs when he thinks back to that rainy night in April.
"It was a really interesting thing. I didn't know anyone really that well," Gartrell said. "It was cool to have a little bit of a ride to get to know some of the guys. It was a little frantic and a little confusing, but it worked out. I really, really enjoy being here. It's a great team, a great group of guys and a great organization."
On literally a dark and stormy night, Gartrell walked into Coolray Field a member of the Charlotte Knights and left on a bus with the Gwinnett Braves. News of Gartrell's trade to the Atlanta organization came at the last minute as both teams packed up early after rain postponed the final game of their series. He was sitting on the Charlotte bus, headed for Norfolk, when manager Joe McEwing called his name. Gartrell knew the White Sox had placed him on waivers and were looking to trade him.
As Gartrell remembers McEwing said, "Gartrell, come on."
Gartrell stood up, and remembered. "Should I bring my stuff?"
"Yeah," McEwing answered.
"I got up to the front of the bus and I asked, 'Where did I get traded to?'" Gartrell recalls. "And he said, 'Here.'
"'You got traded to Gwinnett, you have to hurry up and get all of your stuff and go catch their bus.'"
And just like that, his more than four years with the Chicago White Sox ended.
"That was probably one of the weirdest things I have ever gone through in my life," Gartrell said. "And hopefully I don't go through anything weirder."
Gartrell isn't angry with the White Sox. He isn't happy. After all, he was on their 40-man roster and a once-rising prospect in their organization. He was second in the International League a season ago with 27 home runs and was hitting .304 with four doubles and a home run in the first seven games this season when they placed the San Francisco native on waivers.
After coming to the G-Braves, for two weeks, things looked bleak. Gartrell struggled and his average dipped from above .300 to as low as .178 on April 30. He hit a couple of home runs, but in five of his first 11 games, didn't get a hit and he struck out nine times in that stretch.
"I was trying to impress. I was trying to work very hard and show that this is the best trade you ever made," he said. "I was trying to show my new teammates I was a really good guy and really good teammate. I was really stressing and pressing to be as good a player as I could instead of just relaxing and enjoying the games. For the first week and a half I was pressing a little bit too much and was struggling a little bit."
Gartell started playing baseball with a whiffle ball and plastic bat at age 3. He forced his parents to put him in T-ball early and after his mother, Beverly, saw his coach, she forced his father, Maurice, to coach Gartrell.
The father-son coaching dynamic lasted until Gartrell reached junior high and created a strong relationship with Gartrell and the rest of his family. Still living on the west coast, Gartrell's parents, brother, grandmother and aunt watch most of his games on their computers. His parents watch on their television thanks to his tech-savvy brother.
"They have it with the audio so it is basically like they are watching a baseball game, well they are, but like a major league game," Gartrell said. "They've seen everything."
When things are going well, he gets calls of congratulations. When he is struggling, everyone offers advice.
"They are pretty supportive," Gartell understates. "I love it, I love it."
Slowly the slump ended. By the end of May the average was back up to the high .200s. His power stayed true, but his singles and doubles increased. He his tied for second in the league with 16 home runs. He needs just four more to break the Gwinnett Braves' record for home runs in a season set last year by Freddie Freeman. Freeman hit 18, but one of Gartrell's this year came with Charlotte. But the impressive numbers aren't the biggest blasts. With 23 doubles, Gartrell already surpassed his total of a year ago and he is top-5 in the IL. They are coming in such high numbers, even his grandmother noticed. The extra hits mean extra RBIs, putting him second in the league with 54. He hit 80 last season.
"Last year I showed that I could hit for power, but right now I am trying to show that I can be consistent with it and get more than one hit a game," Gartrell said. "Last year I would be 1-for-4 with a home. I mean, I had 27, but my average was low and I struck out too many times."
This year, the numbers get noticed. Gartrell is one of four Gwinnett Braves players to make the International League All-Star roster.
This year's game is in Salt Lake City, a more manageable trip for his family in California and a long way from those early struggles with the G-Braves.
"Once I was settled with where I was living and everything was all settled like that. I started playing better," he said. "Comfort level, being comfortable with where I was at also showed up in my game. Now that I am comfortable, I guess I am playing like I am comfortable, I guess."