Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

The Nine: Garvin Alston—Beyond the Dugout

How Garvin Alston made it to the Major Leagues, a story of baseball, community and perseverance
Garvin Alston pregame in Sacramento during the 2022 season. (Ralph Thompson Photo)
February 28, 2024

Throughout February, MLB, MiLB and the Sacramento River Cats will celebrate the contributions and achievements of the Black baseball community, past and present, during Black History Month.

Throughout February, MLB, MiLB and the Sacramento River Cats will celebrate the contributions and achievements of the Black baseball community, past and present, during Black History Month.

Garvin Alston in a mound visit during a Sacramento contest in 2022.Ralph Thompson Photo

The love and interest in the game known as “America’s Pastime” is often handed down through the generations, with family playing its part in building newer generations of players and fans. There has been no shortage of great baseball families, including the Griffey’s, the Molina’s, the Alou’s, the Bonds’, the list goes on and on. Having someone to guide, teach and connect with over the game of baseball breeds a love that usually sticks with one throughout the course of their life.

Growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. was no different, as Garvin Alston picked up his love for the game from not only his dad and his brother, but all members of his family. Baseball lived in the veins of the Alston’s, as his father, Herbert Alston Sr., was the commissioner of and a coach at the local little league in Mount Vernon. Alston was a self-described “tag-along kid,” as he followed his brother Herbert Alston Jr. everywhere, and he developed a natural affinity for being around the ballfield.

“I first fell in love with the game and just being around the ballpark,” Alston said. “Being able to run around and get dirty without my mom getting mad at me, that was kind of the main thing. It stems from my dad more than anything else.”

It did not take long for that seed of love to truly blossom into the passion that Alston had for the game. That love, combined with a clear talent from a young age, helped Alston progress to Babe Ruth League, the next step up from Little League and the first venture onto a Major League-sized field. Next was high school ball in Mount Vernon, and on April 25, 1989, he threw a no-hitter against Roosevelt High School. It was Mount Vernon’s first no-no since 1979, as Roy Smith also accomplished the feat 10 years prior (Smith would make his MLB debut just five years before Alston hung his zero in the hit column). Proving he was a true two-way star, Alston batted .439 during his senior campaign and was picked to the All-Westchester County First Team.

Continuing his baseball pursuit, Alston found himself at Mercy College, a school in NCAA Division II. The level of competition did not matter to Alston, who was chosen as the New York State Coaches Association’s Rookie of the Year, selected to the Conference All-Star Team, and later was picked to be a part of the New York State Collegiate All-Stars Team, which played against the New Jersey All-Stars Team at Yankee Stadium. Year two was even better after Alston was he tabbed as a Division II All-American. Before his third season, Alston transferred to Florida International where he logged an ERA of 3.83 and was a member of the U.S. Baseball trials in Homestead, Fla. prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics.

However, those achievements almost did not come to pass. It was away from the diamond, on the hardwood of a basketball court, where Alston suffered what was nearly a career-ending injury at the age of 13. While playing basketball, Alston tried to draw a charge call and was knocked backward onto the court. Immediately upon landing he broke his left hip, and tests later showed a hairline fracture in his right hip. Both hips needed surgery, a plate and two screws each, and it seemed as if his athletic career might be over before it could truly begin.

“My doctor who performed my surgery, Dr. Alvarez, he said we can make it to where he can walk again, but he probably will not be able to play competitive sports,” Alston said. “I never went back to basketball, that was over, but baseball was something that was in me that I truly loved. I believe I got that love from my dad and how much he truly loved the game, he viewed it as a thinking man’s game and my dad was a thinker, so it was one of those things where I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get this, understand this,’ and become more intelligent in my play instead of just using physical abilities.”

Not only were his significant injuries now obstacles to overcome, but there were also other factors that Alston had to battle. Among those included money, to get him into some of the game’s bigger arenas in an effort to get noticed by teams and scouts. Though Mount Vernon was a tough city full of hard workers, the climate of the city was not on the rise according to Alston. All of those factors compounded as he entered rehab for his injuries.

“Through God’s grace I just kept going and going, and I was able to find a way to deal with what I was dealing with,” Alston said. “Help was basically I did what we could afford as far as rehab, I basically rehabbed for as long as I could until the money ran out. It was just me working and running, my mom was there for every single rehab assignment that I had. I had to build myself back up, doing what I can to build the strength in my hips and my legs.”

It was during this time that Alston started to recognize there would be other hurdles in his path to overcome, factors that ranged outside the baseball field and into everyday life.

Mount Vernon was a diverse area as Alston recalls, but after returning from injury and beginning to travel for baseball, he started to look around realize that he was one of few on the field and specifically on his team that looked like himself—a Black ballplayer. Growing up, one of his best friends was White, but Alston noticed at a certain age that everything started to change. Though the two used to hang out, he noticed that as they got older he was no longer part of the group, he wasn’t able to go to his friend’s house and vice versa, and there were excuses used for why they could not be together. Eventually, Alston began to realize at an early age that it was his skin color that began to effect people in a way that things change.

“Just having those conversations, and how people talked, and the different schools where I was going back in Mount Vernon and other guys were going to other schools where their homes were bigger and their schools were different,” Alston said. “Everything looked different, I felt like I didn’t have anyone that I could connect with other than just being on the field and being a baseball player, which was fine. I didn’t understand that at the time.

“When it comes to me as a player, it wasn’t as noticeable for me at that time because my eyes were on the prize, knowing that I need to advance and move on,” Alston continued. “I had my two friends on the team, I really didn’t look outside my circle, I was friends with everyone, and everyone was great. You develop relationships regardless, but there is a noticeable difference when it comes to being around it and being the only one, and it’s not a good feeling. You have to play that role of making sure you don’t say anything or do anything incorrect, because you can find yourself not apart of it as well.”

Setting his sights on the ultimate goal, Alston used inspiration from the people around him, people such as his mother, Rosa Alston, who molded and taught him how to listen and to absorb. His father shaped his toughness, not just physically, but also mentally. Alston’s father used to tell him stories of Satchel Paige, and so Alston would head to the local library to check out books on Paige in an effort to mimic his delivery. What struck Alston even more is that Paige never made his MLB debut until the age of 42, following a Negro League Baseball career that had already spanned over 20 years, and the history behind why that had happened. To this day, Paige is still the oldest debutant in MLB history, and played his final game at age 59, which also stands as an MLB record. Alston also studied Jackie Robinson and noted that he’s appreciative of what Robinson had to go through in order for Alston to get his own opportunity.

Beyond that, Alston tried to emulate the styles of his heroes and idols within baseball. Players like second baseman Willie Randolph, as Alston had always wanted to be a Major League second baseman. Right-hander hurlers like Dwight “Doc” Gooden and “Smoke” Dave Stweart, and other ptichers such as Brett Saberhagen and David Cone. Alston tried to look at who he classified as winners, then tried to replicate how they competed and their mental toughness. Among those who he idolized was Marvin Freeman, a player who totaled 35 wins while bouncing between three teams in the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, and the Colorado Rockies. What drew Alston to a player like Freeman was his brashness, but also how he was cerebral in how he approached the game and each batter. It was the fact that there was a different side to Freeman come game day, he showed an intensity unlike many others.

Not only were those players to look up to, but many of them were players that looked like Alston. It’s one thing to follow in the steps of Mount Vernon legend Roy Smith, but it was another to know that there were players, and more importantly people, that Alston could see himself in. There was finally representation for Alston, shaping a reality that he, too, could one day reach what his dream had been since he was a child following his brother and father around the ball field. That representation was crucially important during this time period in America, when racial tensions were heightening and shown through in incarceration rates, redlining, and police brutality.

Eventually, Alston’s hard work paid off when he was selected with the 27th pick of the 10th round in the 1992 MLB Draft by the Colorado Rockies. In just two professional seasons, he arrived in Double-A, and in 1995 Alston had finally achieved his dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player when he made the Opening Day roster for the Rockies. Though he did not pitch during that season, Alston made his MLB debut a year later on June 6, 1996 against the Houston Astros. Despite finally appearing in an MLB contest, Alston spent most of the 1996 campaign in Triple-A where he logged 14 saves for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

Alston had a full-circle moment during 1995 and 1996, as he was afforded the chance to be teammates with one of his idols: Marvin Freeman. It was a pairing that seemed to fit well, the older veteran in Freeman, who was in the final season of his 10-year career, mentoring the rookie Alston. Over the course of their time, Freeman taught Alston the ins and outs of pitching, how to use his pitches, and taught Alston that you should not only have a No. 1 pitch, but rather that all your pitches should be your No. 1. Coming from an idol of Alston’s, it was not a just the opportunity to talk shop with one of few on the planet that had accomplished what he had hoped to, it was a chance to realize that representation that he had begun to see as he was growing up. It also gave Alston the chance to be a part of that representation for the first time.

“I think baseball is just a mirror image of America, and what it is and what it looks like, and how we’re viewed and how we’re looked at,” Alston said. “To be able to see those guys on television and be an inspiration, it meant everything to me. That’s why it’s so important for myself to be in a position where I can be seen, and also heard. To the fact that these young kids that are coming up that have aspirations of being in the Major Leagues, whether as a player or a coach, and know that you can reach the pinnacle of an organization in Major League Baseball, to have an opportunity to go out there and do some real positive things is important. It may not be in baseball, it might be in another industry, but them seeing me out there working and being visible in the community, I think that’s important.”

Growing up, not only did Alston see that representation in his favorite ballplayers, he saw it in a member of his own family: his father. Alston recalls how his dad was visible and present nearly every day in their local community, helping those who needed it without hesitation. Not only was the senior Alston a coach, he was essentially a community leader, trying to teach lessons not just about sports, but about life in general.

“He was the one I saw every day in the community, going to the park, feeding kids who didn’t have food, being able to give them structure,” Alston said. “Not being easy on them but expecting the best out of them. Although we were playing a kid’s game, there were expectations on his side to make sure when you go out there, it’s not just about baseball. He would check on their grades, and when report cards came out, if you’re grades weren’t good then no matter how good you were, you sat. These things were learning lessons, not just for baseball, but learning lessons for life that I was able to see and understand and realize that this actually matters. He instilled that in me not just by talking to me, but also by being in the community and showing me.”

Representation is still crucial today, and while over 40 percent of overall 2023 opening day rosters come from non-White backgrounds, the rate of Black players continues to decline and was listed at just 6.2 percent (59 total players). There are still major efforts put forth to increase Black participation, which has come through programs that the MLB has implemented such as the MLB DREAM Series—a development experience event focused on the dynamics of pitching and catching for diverse groups of elite high-school athletes, particularly African-American players, from across the country during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. For the 2024 DREAM Series, there were more than 80 predominantly Black athletes invited to participate, learning from former MLB players including former 1995 World Series champion Marquis Grissom and operated by MLB Vice President of Baseball Development Del Matthews. Back in 2019, Alston had the opportunity to work with Matthews as the pitching coordinator at the DREAM Series and reflected on his opportunity to give back.

“It means everything where these kids who are not fortunate enough to have opportunities to be seen or play at a Major League facility, they get the Major League training and knowledge and experience from the coaches that go out to help, it’s everything,” Alston said. “For me, it would have just been being around kids that look like me, and being able to have those same experiences that I came from within my neighborhood or my city, and we can share stories and talk about it. We can be support systems for one another to where you don’t feel like the only one. Sometimes, you can be in a group of people but also feel lonely, and I felt that feeling a long time in this industry.

“For me, it’s imperative and I’m happy that the DREAM Series and what they’re doing to give these kids the opportunity,” Alston continued. “It felt good just to be able to give back the energy that they were giving me, showing up and preparing themselves for their seasons so they could have the opportunity to either go to college or go and be a possible professional draft pick. The end goal is to fulfill that dream [of making it to MLB], but also be good people, be good citizens, and the DREAM Series gives you that opportunity to learn what this is all about. It’s not just about throwing a baseball, the DREAM Series does both sides of it, it gives you stories and understanding of where your history comes from and all the people that came before that sacrificed their time and their life to be able to play a sport and something that you love. Del Matthews has done a wonderful job of putting that together, and the people that they bring in to talk to the kids, and to give them nuggets to use if they chose to be better not just in baseball but in life as well.”

Alston’s Major League career lasted just six games, hurling six complete innings while striking out five in the process. Though his career ERA ended at 9.00, his record sits at 1-0 as he captured his only MLB win against the Astros on June 11 as the final of a three-game scoreless stretch. Following his career, Alston seemed content to move on from the game that he had spent the majority of his life around and moved in a new direction.

Living in Phoenix, Ariz., Alston turned his attention to his local community as his dad had taught him all those years ago, working on an after-school program for kids in under privileged areas. It was then that Alston ran into an old friend and mentor, longtime Oakland Athletics front office staff member Billy Owens. Owens began as a minor league hitting coach in 1999, and as he embarks on his 26th season with the A’s has held a variety of positions up and down the scouting department. Among those include becoming the director of player personnel and his current role of assistant general manager, and he has the chance to become just the seventh Black general manager in the history of MLB. The two had played baseball together many years before, and Owens posed a simple question to Alston.

“He asked me what I was doing, I told him, and he said you’re a baseball guy, you need to be in baseball,” Alston recalls. “I’m like ‘I don’t know, I’m doing pretty good,’ but he still convinced me to take an interview with the Oakland Athletics. In doing so, I got back on the field and loved it, and realized that’s what my heart was missing at the time. The affection I have for the game, it was something that was sorely missed.”

Alston heeded the advice given to him by Owens, and in 2005 Alston got his first shot at coaching when he became the pitching coach for the Kane County Cougars, Class-A affiliate for the Athletics. As he had done when he was a player, Alston quickly rose through the ranks in the Minor Leagues, becoming the pitching coach for the Stockton Ports (Class-A Advanced, 2007-08), pitching rehab coordinator for the Athletics (2009-14), the assistant pitching coach for the AZL Athletics (2012), and finally the pitching coordinator for the Athletics (2015). That rise, Alston attributes, to advice that his father had given him a number of years ago.

“I put my time in in the Minor Leagues system as a coach and learned my craft, but one of the things my dad used to say all the time was that not everybody learns on the same level as you do or somebody else’s, so you have to get to know the person that you’re working with and understand how they learn,” Alston said. “Whether that’s physical, visual, or if its mental. That’s something I always took with me, so the players that would come into the system, I try to get to know them and how they did things, and go about my business in a way where I’m able to realize their way of learning so that I may get the information to them the best way that I know how.

“Being with the Oakland Athletics, they laid a beautiful foundation,” Alston continued. “They did a phenomenal job of helping me form my stuff into the coach that I am today, which is someone that’s always been in analytics and understanding it to now being a person who is able to have both sides of understanding what traditional is and what analytics is today, and being a really good blend of that.”

Finally in 2016, Alston got his first chance to be a Major League coach, serving as the bullpen coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. In his time there, he served under another one of his idols: Dave Stewart. At the time, Stewart was the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, putting him as one of only six Black general managers in the history of MLB. Alston recalled how “Smoke” was grooming him for the industry, wanting him to start as a bullpen coach with the plan to eventually work him into being a Major League pitching coach. The two remain close, and Alston points out how appreciative he is of everything that Stewart has helped him with along his journey, including much advice when the two were together in Arizona.

Unfortunately, the pairing only lasted that season as a regime change in Arizona led to the ousting of the entire coaching staff. Thus, Alston continued his coaching quest to San Diego where he was set to serve as the minor league pitching rehab coordinator for the Padres. That position lasted for only a few months, until he got the call to become the new bullpen coach for the Athletics.

“Oakland had reached out to San Diego and asked if they would be OK with me becoming their bullpen coach in the Major Leagues,” Alston said. “That time was crazy in itself, my first game was flying to New York and we were playing the Yankees, I had just finished coming off the back field in Peoria, Ariz. [Minor League home of the Padres], and then four days later I’m at Yankee Stadium as a coach for the Oakland Athletics. It was a wild ride that year, but I was happy to be back home and I’ll always call Oakland home. They treated me great, and that’s a place that I truly appreciate.

“It meant a lot to me [to coach in Oakland], as a kid watching baseball and hearing those names, and then having an opportunity to sit and talk with them, and go through the experiences they shared with me,” Alston said. “Dave Stewart is one of my good friends now, and he looks out for me, and gives me advice. Being in the city of Oakland and being there with all the things that effect the Black community and being around it, it felt good to be in a place where you’re seen, and you’re talked to rather than talked at. It was a fun experience to get into the community and connect with those guys.”

Alston shared the story of how his wife, Natasha Alston who is an alum of Cornell University graduate school, taught for the children of legendary Athletics outfielder Rickey Henderson when both families lived in Arizona. That led Alston to develop a relationship with the MLB’s best base stealer in history, and other players such “Hendu” Dave Henderson. His love for Oakland only deepened, appreciating the history of Oakland while also learning about figures such as Stokely Carmichael, and other things that had gone on in the local community. As Alston puts it, he learned many things that were not taught to him in school, but through life that he felt he could bond with.

In 2018, Alston would finally get the chance to fulfill the prophecy that he and Billy Owens had discussed before his first coaching stop in 2005—becoming a Major League pitching coach. Originally, Alston had not planned on submitting his name into the process to become the pitching coach for the Minnesota Twins, and instead preferred to stay in what he described as his home of Oakland. It was not until he was encouraged by (at the time) Athletics manager Bob Melvin that Alston decided to throw his name into the ring, ultimately leading Alston to create a bit of history for himself.

“I wasn’t going to take the job,” Alston said. “But in my conversation with [Bob Melvin] he basically said that there’s not many opportunities like this that come along, I know you just got back with us, but we’ll meet down the road again. He told me that if I liked the offer, take the offer, and so I became [Minnesota’s] first African-American pitching coach ever, and just the fifth all-time so I was very excited about that.”

With the Twins, Alston helped the team to the ninth-best ERA (4.50) and the seventh-most strikeouts (1,377) in the American League. However, regime change struck again and once more Alston found himself looking for a coaching position. Prior to 2020 Alston had planned to become the pitching coach for the San Jose Giants, Class-A affiliate for the San Francisco Giants, but the COVID-19 pandemic stopped those plans in their tracks. However, the Giants realized the asset they had in Alston, and in 2021 he began his role as pitching coach for the Sacramento River Cats.

In his time, he coached River Cats hurlers to three of their four highest strikeout totals in franchise history, including setting the new franchise record of 1,460 strikeouts during the 2022 campaign. Alston guided Sacramento to no fewer than 1,212 punchouts in each of his three seasons, with that mark sitting only 58 strikeouts away from the third-highest total in Sacramento history while doing so in 13 less contests.

All that work led Alston to reconnect with Melvin, as in early November 2023, Alston was tabbed as the bullpen coach on new San Francisco manager Melvin’s coaching staff. As a member of the Giants, Alston will get to coach in the 2024 Rickwood Classic on June 21 when the Giants battle the St. Louis Cardinals at historic Rickwood Field, the oldest professional ballpark in the United States and former home to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. The game is scheduled around Juneteenth, a federal holiday in the U.S. commemorating the end of slavery that is celebrated on the anniversary of June 19, 1865, the final enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. That opportunity gives Alston the chance to reflect more on other points in in American history that have shaped him.

“Rodney King, that was huge for me being able to visibly see what has been going on in our communities and in Mount Vernon and the different places that I’ve been,” Alston said. “To see it all play out put everything in perspective for me about how I’m viewed, how my children will be viewed, how my community is viewed, that was tough. No one should have been beaten like that, whether it was caught on film or not. It’s just unfortunate that America is the way it is, so we have to make really smart decisions not just to be something that you want to be, but to survive and to see the next day. To make sure that when you get pulled over by a police officer, that you’re doing things properly so that you don’t do anything to scare or startle that puts yourself in a position where you may not make it home. Those were the things that started going through my mind at the time that got me thinking more not just about myself and my area, but more about this is how America sees us.”

From those experiences, Alston continues to put in the work in his local communities, which to him means being there for everyone regardless of skin color or religion. It means being accountable whether right or wrong, to be someone that is there for someone else in trials and tribulations, to uplift others when you have the opportunities. Those are the values that he tries to instill in his two children, including his son Garvin Alston Jr., who is currently playing baseball within the Washinton Nationals organization. Meanwhile, his daughter, Jayla Alston is preparing to graduate from Rochester Institute of Technology. For Alston, community has to do with who you are around and what you believe in.

“Community means being there,” Alston said. “My community here in Arizona is wide ranging, it’s never a color thing or where you were first born. It has to do with the people you’re around and the morals you believe in and the people you love. Love doesn’t mean you have to do everything that person says and agree with everything they say, it’s understanding your differences and being able to get past it and being able to love someone when they’re not understanding.

“My wife is the epitome of community,” Alston continued. “She works at a high school, and she does everything from helping students to graduate, helping kids get to schools and [Historically Black College and University] schools. We’re presently trying to raise money for kids to go to different HBCU’s so that they understand there are colleges out there that you can go to that will help you, while being around people that look like you, without costing an arm and a leg. That’s community, being able to think of other people within the area that you’re in.”

Nowhere is community more present than in a sports, and in particular a baseball, locker room. Players come from all different backgrounds, with different lived experiences, all with the understanding that everyone is working toward a common goal. Not always is that effort rewarded outside of sports, but Alston feels it can be different inside the locker room.

“When we’re in those locker rooms, it’s family, it’s different, the community is real,” Alston said. “You’re meeting people from different places and backgrounds that may not believe what you believe, but in that community you understand the one goal is to win ballgames, and because of that you come together. When you’re pulling at the same end of the rope, there’s a sense of community.”

Unlike the outside world, where connections can make or break job prospects, Alston feels that in the baseball world, if you stay on the grind that the hard work will pay off.

“Sometimes, you don’t reap the rewards that you put in, as far as being as good or better than others,” Alston said. “You have to wait your turn, and it comes with someone knowing you. Sometimes if you don’t know the right person, then you’ll never get the opportunity because they don’t see you. The one thing I love about baseball, if you do the things you need to do, you’ll get an opportunity eventually. It may not happen when you want it to happen, but you’ll get an opportunity.

“The people that I’ve met in this game, my friends I’ve had for long times while playing, that’s ongoing,” Alston said. “People will call you out of the blue to reminisce about times when we were doing things together at an early age. It’s afforded me the opportunity to see and go different places and see the world. I’ve been able to go over and play in Taiwan, I was able to go to and play in Hawaii, I’ve been able to move around the country and see places I probably would have never seen if I wasn’t playing baseball.”

Even though you can be seen in the industry, Alston still recognizes there is work to be done. Though the numbers of diversity have somewhat improved over the years, Alston points out that many Black coaches are still relegated to either the bullpen, or first and third base coaching positions. While there are those such as Dave Stewart and Billy Owens who have reached some of the top points of a baseball front office, Alston notes that many times you have to take what you can get to prove yourself and your knowledge or abilities so that you may advance.

“When you look at the industry itself, we see the numbers and the numbers tell the story of where things are at,” Alston said. “Me being the fifth Black pitching coach ever should tell the story. You mean to tell me over the years of MLB with all the teams that are out there, and I’m only the fifth coach? That says we need to take a look inside and see exactly what’s going on.

“You take what you can get so you can prove yourself to advance through,” Alston continued. “Everyone has to earn their spot, but I hope that more opportunities become available for those who are not just Black, but Black and able to do the job well at a high level. My job is to be the best coach I can be, regardless of the color of my skin, and that’s how I approach it. Go out there and be the best, but represent where you come from, your family and those that came before you.”