College Sports

SLO Blues slugger considered soccer life before choosing baseball

Tanner Gardner leads the San Luis Obispo Blues in hits and is tied for the team lead in runs and RBI.
Tanner Gardner leads the San Luis Obispo Blues in hits and is tied for the team lead in runs and RBI.

When San Luis Obispo Blues center fielder Tanner Gardner was a sophomore at Frisco Centennial High in Texas he had to make a career choice that would affect the rest of his life.

He had to decide whether to swing at pitches or play on one.

“My sophomore year of high school I actually made the decision to quit everything and just play soccer,” Gardner said. “I made that decision and was like, ‘alright, I’m just going straight soccer I’m going to see where it takes me.’ ”

Gardner, 19, said he started in the FC Dallas program around the age of 8. FC Dallas was one of the first MLS clubs to make a concerted effort to cultivate young soccer talent in the U.S., a practice common in most countries where futbol, not football, is king.

But when his club team folded when he was 15, he had to kick around some new ideas. So he sat down with his parents. They talked. They prayed.

As a striker and team captain for FC Dallas’ youth team, he was a big part of its two-time Dallas Cup winning team and as a freshman on the school’s baseball team he had a school record .511 batting average, seven home runs and was named first team all-district, so the decision wasn’t easy. But in the end, money and distance were the main factors.

“I ended up just figuring out that baseball would be the right option to stay in the country,” Gardner said, mentioning that some of his soccer club teammates ended up going on to play professionally in England, Mexico and Guatemala. “And starting off in the MLS is not a high paying job. I was thinking (baseball) draft.”

In 2014, 12 of the 31 players on the FC Dallas pro club had a base salary under $60,000 — with the average being around $128,000 — according to the MLS Player’s Union, while the Associated Press reported the average MLB salary in 2015 is about $4 million.

“Money was, I don’t want to say the leading factor, but that was pretty big because that’s my future right there when I was 15 years old,” Gardner said.

Just a few years after he decided he would rather wear spikes instead of cleats, the baseball offers came pouring in. Powerhouses LSU, TCU and Texas recruited the switch-hitting Gardner before he ended up choosing Texas Tech.

Now Gardner is spending the summer with the Blues and said the relaxed atmosphere and the chance to be an everyday player has helped him become more confident at the plate. Playing in 13 games for the Blues so far, he leads the team in hits (20) and is tied for the team lead in RBI (14) and runs (15).

“Tanner always has a way of making big hits, coming up with big hits at the right time,” Blues manager Jamie Clark said following Friday’s game, in which Gardner hit a two-run single that broke a 3-3 tie against the California Expos.

Football stars Ndamukong Suh, Odell Beckham Jr. and long-time Major Leaguer Jack Wilson have credited soccer with giving them the skills that helped them as pros.

“With the footwork aspect, for sure,” Gardner said. “I got to play a bunch of infield this year at (Texas) Tech and footwork is a huge deal in the infield so I think definitely it has helped me, even in conditioning with home much you have to run.”

Gardner needed that stamina to run the bases when he racked up six hits in six plate appearances against the Santa Maria Packers last week.

Coming off a freshman season where Gardner was a spot player for the Red Raiders, he hopes that his soccer past will help him improve on last season’s .238 batting average and his chances of a trip to the Major Leagues some day.

“It was a good time in my life and I hope I made the right decision,” Gardner said.