Ian Gac Brings Warrior Mentality to St. Paul Saints
Over 2500 years ago, one of the most powerful and well-trained armies the world has ever seen dominated the eastern portion of the Mediterranean. The Spartans were highly disciplined and honored as true warriors who few, if any, could match. The Spartans were so dominant in the art of warfare that it was commonly bantered that one Spartan soldier was worth several men from any other army.
What made the army so terrifying was not just their discipline and skill. It was their tactics, training, and ability to find the weakness in their enemy that made them as formidable as any force that walked the earth. Using these tactics, brilliance, and skill, 300 Spartan soldiers chanted “Ha-Ooh,” their war cry, as they boldly held off over 300,000 Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae; a battle that has gone down in history as one of the most heroic displays of courage the world has ever seen.
St. Paul Saints first baseman Ian Gac isn’t defending his land against invading Persians, but he clearly is a manifestation of the same kind of warrior spirit that the Spartans were known for. His training, attention to detail, tactics, and discipline make the baseball battler one of the most feared players in the American Association. A set of skills that opponents can only hope will lead the slugger back to affiliate ball so they don’t have to face him any longer.
Ian Gac grew up in the Seattle, Washington area. He was introduced to the game of baseball by his father and grandparents, who helped to create a passion in the Saints first baseman that has grown continuously over the years.
While playing well in other sports, it was the baseball diamond where Gac truly excelled. Watching films like the Natural, Field of Dreams, Sandlot, and Bull Durham gave him visions that one day he would be a Major League ballplayer and, when he was drafted in 2003 by the Texas Rangers, it looked like that vision would become reality.
At just 17, Ian left home to begin his professional career with the Texas Rangers rookie league club. His average was not up to his expectations early on, but he showed he had power right from the start. Through his first five seasons he had never hit higher than .242, but he had 53 home runs in a little over 300 games played, showing that he had a skill set that was clearly in demand.
The baseball skill and talent was there; it just needed to be tweaked a bit to take his game to the next level. This was right in the wheel house of the slugger, who has turned preparation and work ethic into an art form.
“My dad taught me how to work hard, show up early, be on time. To him being on time is being 3o minutes early, so you can prepare, get ready and be a step ahead of everyone else. To be better than the next guy you got to work harder than that guy and that’s bled over into all parts of my life.”
It is that kind of dedication to being the first guy in and the last one out that helped to turn Ian into a complete hitter although, admittedly, he finds that there are some pitfalls to it. “They say it’s good to be fashionably late to a party, but I am the guy whose typically walking through the door at 7 o’clock when the party just started. Even the host isn’t ready most of the time,” he explains with a laugh.
Over the next few seasons he saw his average raise at three different levels, as did his power production. In 2011 at High-A Winston-Salem, Gac clubbed 33 home runs in 140 games while batting .279, and was named the Carolina League MVP. The next season he moved to AA-Mississippi where he played in just 75 games before being released. It was an unfitting end for a guy who had proven himself to be a true talent.
It was clear that Ian was not getting a fair chance to prove himself. Something that many around the game were seeing as well. In an article on GradingontheCurve.com, the writer explains that Gac had proven that he deserved better.
“…developmentally, Gac has been allowed to do little beyond run in place. He was initially promoted to High-A in the middle of that 32-HR 2008, but after hitting 35 homers in 167 games there from 2008-09, Gac wound up out of the Rangers organization and back in Low-A with the White Sox, where he had to spend all of 2010 at age 24. He’s now back in High-A for a third go-round, this time in the tough environs of the Carolina League, which makes his huge homer total all the more impressive.”
Released from affiliate ball, Ian jumped to the independent leagues, beginning with Southern Maryland in 2013. He played in just eight games there before joining the Lincoln Saltdogs, where he instantly became a star. Despite missing a large portion of the season due to a hand injury, he slugged 18 home runs in just 60 games while hitting .319.
Last season, he was completely healthy and had an absolutely awesome season for the Saltdogs. Gac battled with Wichita Wingnuts center fielder Brent Clevlen for the MVP of the American Association, with both having absolutely phenomenal years.
The two finished in the top ten in virtually every offensive category. Gac led the league in home runs (27), and was fourth in RBI (77), and seventh in batting average (.349). What made those numbers all the more impressive was what he did in the last two weeks of the season. In the last 13 games for the former Saltdogs star, hit 8 home runs, scored 19 runs and drove in 19. He hit .429 in those final two weeks, carrying his team to Central Division title.
Gac had played out his option in Lincoln, and in the off-season he chose to join the St. Paul Saints. “I was drawn to the new stadium and the new challenge. Plus, it is much easier for my family to get here than it was in Lincoln, since it is a direct flight from Seattle to here.”
The Saints were excited to see the slugger join their club, knowing he would be a major force in the heart of their order. The enthusiasm came crashing down when Ian decided to join Clevlen in Mexico, signing with Veracruz of the Mexican League. Gac loved the baseball crazed environment of Mexico, but soon realized that this was not the place for him to be playing ball.
“Playing in Mexico was not for me. It was a great experience learning a new culture. It is pretty cool to see how the games are down there. I liked my experiences there, but it was a little tough to be there with my family here. I just didn’t like being so far away from them.”
The St. Paul Saints were thrilled to see Gac opt to return to Minnesota, as was the slugger himself, but he admits that it does come with a little pressure.
“It is always nice to know you are wanted and appreciated by the team, and I am excited about the enthusiasm about me coming back. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there is a little pressure because I am expected to be the same guy that I was before. Realistically if you look back at last season, that is pretty tough to duplicate. I am just trying to be 90 percent of that guy. It would be great if I was 100 percent, but that is pretty tough to replicate.”
He also hopes that the new atmosphere will provide a new chance to reach affiliate baseball.
“I thought I had done all I could do in Lincoln, and thought maybe a move to another place might help.”
So what makes Ian Gac such a hot commodity in St. Paul? The first thing to realize about the 29-year-old is that there is a lot more to him than gaudy numbers. This is one of the hardest working players in the league, who studies the game and takes instruction as well as anyone you will find.
Coaches, such as former Minnesota Twins player Jim Nettles, have seen promise in Ian since he was 11-years-old. In fact, Gac has a yearly off-season “tune-up” session with Nettles to help him improve his skills and make adjustments to make him even more potent at the plate.
One of the best lessons taught to the warrior came from his former manager in 2007, Tim Hulett. Hulett taught Gac to approach the season in 50 at-bat blocks. It was a way to breakdown the season so that goals could be reached without feeling like he was overwhelmed when he wasn’t succeeding.
“I have found that thinking about reaching goals for the season becomes too overwhelming, so I try to just isolate it to the 50 at-bats. I try to break the season up into 50 at-bats at a time, expecting to go 20 for 50 in each of those stretches. If I’m getting those hits then the rest of those numbers will come, so I just try to take it working 20 for 50. That kind of keeps me from looking at the whole season, and instead gives small sections to focus on.”
That approach has worked quite well, considering that the St. Paul Saints star’s best seasons have come after implementing that plan. It not only shows that Gac is teachable, but that he takes those lessons and applies them to his game. The power-hitter knows he has a special kind of skill set, but he is in no way too ego-driven to believe that he can’t improve upon it.
There is a great sense of pride in Ian Gac, however. He knows he has a special place on the team and in the league, and pushes himself to ensure that he sets a standard of excellence and professionalism that few can match.
“I want to the best player out there. Hopefully I am the guy who carries the team and is the best player on the field. I try to do things to be the best at it.”
While excelling and leading his team, he wants to be the guy that depicts what true professionalism looks like.
“I want to be known as someone who does things the right way and sets a good example for his teammates, for kids and for the community I am in.”
This season Ian Gac is doing a whole lot of example setting for the St. Paul Saints. Using the tactics taught to him by Hulett and by his former rookie league hitting coach, Brook Jacoby, the Saints slugger is off to the fastest start of his career. Just 21 games into the 2015 American Association season, he is hitting .430, second best in the league, and his 20 RBI ties him for third. Gac only has two home runs so far, but his 16 doubles in 21 games is seven more than the next best player in the league.
While he is thrilled with the average and power, it is the RBI numbers that are the most important to the star. A lesson taught to him by Jacoby.
“The most important thing to me is RBI. That was one of the things that coach Jacoby taught me early on. RBI are king to me, because if I am not driving in runs I am not doing my job. My objective is one RBI per game.”
Right now he is just one off that pace, and there should be little doubt that by season’s end he will be at or near his goal. It is just the way this warrior operates.
Ian Gac may not be a Spartan warrior defending his land from King Xerxes and his army, but he has the same kind of commitment to the truly important things in life, much as those warriors of old. Nearly 2500 years ago, those 300 held out for days against an army 1000 times their size to protect their homes and their families. Their wives and children were the most important things to them, and it showed it the veracity for which they fought.
That same kind of commitment exists in Ian Gac. He had the chance to make significantly more money playing in Mexico, a situation that would have probably set him up for life, but he chose to return to St. Paul because Veracruz was just too far away from the ones that mattered to him most. He may have even hurt his chances at reaching his ultimate goal of playing Major League baseball by choosing to do so, but being closer to his family was the only thing that truly mattered. Could anything less be expected from the warrior?
The St. Paul Saints are 18-3 this season, the fastest start in club history. Ian Gac has helped to make this the most formidable lineup in the American Association. Call them “The 22” if you will, because they have built a warrior culture here in the disciplined way that they approach the game. There is honor in how the Saints play and a commitment to stand tall when it is needed most. Its chief warrior is setting the example on how to do that and it would surprise no one to see him holding that elusive championship trophy above his head three months from now.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA
Featured Image from Scott Takushi St. Paul Pioneer Press