She did not want to go to Buffalo.
It was 1989 and Gari Meacham was pregnant with her third child when her husband, infielder Bobby Meacham, was released from the New York Yankees on the last day of spring training.
For the first time they had no job in baseball and Bobby's agent said they needed to come see him in Los Angeles. They had two days to drive across the country. Once in California, his agent had great news. Bobby had a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates and was assigned to Buffalo.
Well, maybe it wasn't great news. It was good news. It was a baseball gig. But Gari was sick from the pregnancy and the travel and in no mood to cross the country, again. Plus, in all honesty, she didn't really want to be in Buffalo. The Meachams had spent most of the last four years with the Yankees, playing two full seasons and two half seasons in the Major Leagues.
Triple-A, well, that's just not where it was at.
"I just looked at him and said 'Babe, I can hardly move. I can't do it. I’m going to need a couple weeks,'" Gari recalled 28 years later, while sitting in the stands at Coca-Cola Field. "And honestly, I had the worst attitude. I came here and I had the worst attitude. You know sometimes Triple-A is like that. You get the wives of the players who have been in the big leagues and they don't want to be in Triple-A. They want to be back in the big leagues."
The Meachams are back in Buffalo, with Bobby managing the Bisons while still looking for another big league gig as a coach. But this time, there's a different perspective, one that came through two decades of hard work, struggle and prayer.
"Of course our goal is to be a major league manager but we have such a peace, such a gratitude to be here," Gari said. "We don’t waste one day, one minute, one conversation. We want it all to matter. Before it was like, just get me to the big leagues. Just get me back. But now, we just have the perspective that we believe it will happen but we're not rushing through this season. We love the city. We're committed to this team. We're committed to the Blue Jays and to the players, the wives, all of it. All of it. We love it all."
Gari found a way to love her Buffalo experience in 1989, leading a Bible study for the players' wives, connecting with other women and families as they struggled in baseball, in marriages, in life. Now, Gari has expanded her platform, creating a career and vibrant ministry of her own, from writing books and speaking about her Christian faith, to sharing her personal stories of disordered eating and the near break-up of her marriage, to starting a non-profit that has helped transform a remote village in Uganda.
Her style and presence draw you in but it's Gari's authenticity which holds your attention. Her confidence in sharing the vulnerable moments of her past draws you deeply into her story.
Major League wife
Gari and Bobby met at San Diego State University when he was the star shortstop for the Aztecs, soon to be a first-round draft pick, No. 8 overall, by St. Louis in the 1981 MLB draft. The couple dated for two years before getting married and Gari was ready to live the life of a professional baseball wife. Or so she thought.
"I remember we got married and I hadn't finished college yet and my mom was like 'Just promise me you'll finish school.'" Gari said. "I said yes but in my heart I was like, 'I don't care. He's a first-round draft pick. I don’t need it. I'm marrying my prince. Off we go.'
"Well, we didn't even go on a honeymoon. We got married on a Saturday and on Monday we had to report to instructional league. And so I remember living in this little garage apartment and it was like two weeks into our marriage and I was like, Oh no. This is not going to work for me because I'm a very driven person and I said I've got to go finish school. I did and thankfully I had that degree because when I needed it, I got 20 years of work out of it."She worked for 20 years as a teacher and education consultant, both out of passion for her work and financial necessity. The major league minimum salary in 1984, when Bobby broke in with the New York Yankees, was $40,000. They started to have a family, first girls Brooke and Ally then their son, Colton. They needed to maintain two households – one transient for the season along with a permanent location for their family. It was a fight sometimes to keep the family afloat and even harder to keep them together with Bobby gone for eight months of the year. Glamorous moments? There were a few. But mostly Gari felt as if she was always scratching and working to make ends meet.
It wasn't until Bobby became the third-base coach for the Yankees in 2008 that Gari left her job in education with the hope that the family had found a stable position both in the game and financially.
"When Bobby was a coach for the Yankees several years ago, I quit my job teaching," Gari said. "I was like, Oh my gosh. Girl, it was so terrifying. I thought I could finally do without my salary. He's got a good salary. Well that job lasted one season. One.
"And then I was like aaahhhhhh! He had no job. I had no job. I cashed in my teaching retirement that year because I said I'm not going back. I know we're supposed to go forward. During that time frame I got my first book deal. The first book I wrote is a lot of my story of healing from eating issues. Disordered eating I call it – overeating, undereating, compulsivity. That's my story."
She explored this part of her life in depth in her first book, "Truly Fed," recounting her self-deception and spiral into disordered eating that left her body malnourished and stressed. It was at her lowest point during her junior year in college when she first turned to her Bible in earnest, finding solace, hope and a source of strength that would carry her through the challenging times yet to come.
"In college, when Bobby and I first started dating, I was about to take my life," Gari said. "I was very secret. I didn't tell anyone. And then I just reached out to God. Help me, save me. And everything in my life healed over the course of time."
Years later, that healing would include her marriage.
Dark days of separation
The pain of secrecy reentered Gari's life through her marriage and once again, she found herself vulnerable and struggling to trust, unable to reconcile the outside image of a successful baseball family with the realities of what was happening just beneath the surface.
"When our marriage fell apart, which was around the 10-year mark, I was so consumed with image upkeep, which is so common in baseball," Gari said. "You're so worried about looking good on the outside in terms of oh, we have such a good marriage, oh, we've got the perfect kids, oh, we're doing so good with this lifestyle and dadadada."
The image upkeep imploded when Bobby confessed to having an affair. The couple separated for nearly a year, dealing with the fallout from unfaithfulness along with the lingering pain of lies and deceit. Gari not only had her marriage fall apart but she had to rediscover her own identity, one that was independent of the life she tied to her husband.
"Bobby was always the golden boy," Gari said. "On any team we were on he was the chapel leader, he was the Bible study leader. We were the ones who would go out and do speaking engagements in the cities and he was revered in that way. So when these secrets came out that were so appalling and devastating to me, not only did I lose trust in him but I lost a lot of what I based my worth on.
"I was a leader amongst the other wives. I was always the one they would come to. Well I lost all of that because I lost that credibility. I was the one that would always say, as wives often do, 'If that ever happened to us, I'd be gone. So don’t ever let that happen to us.' You know what I mean? Well then when you're in the midst of that pain, you know everything changes. You have to figure it out. You have to grapple with it."Gari is open about the trying time in her marriage, discussing it during her speeches, in blog posts, podcasts and throughout her second book, "Spirit Hunger." The hope is through sharing their story, the Meachams can help other couples find their way through the dark times often hidden from public view.
"I remember telling Gari long ago, I'm just so tired of hiding," Bobby said. "I'm tired of me, really. I'm sick of me. I just want to help. I want to be like her, honestly. I want to do what God's calling me to do. I can actually be open and we can be open about what God's doing in our lives and it can help people. If it causes me some humiliation, I kinda need to be humbled anyway. If it causes me some pain, I brought this on myself anyway. But if that can help somebody else relieve their pain, I'm all for it."
A purpose-driven life
Gari has allowed her worst moments to become a path to ministry, helping people in whatever situation presents itself, but never in a million years thought that work would lead her to Uganda.
In 2010, she made her first trip as part of a team helping local teachers work with students on reading and writing comprehension. She went, albeit a bit reluctantly.
"I had no heart for Africa. Zero," Gari said. "My thing has always been we have enough needy people here, let's take care of them. That's always been my shtick. But the young woman who asked me to go was the daughter of a good friend and she was so gutsy, that I said I would go."
Once there, her heart opened for Uganda. She saw people who wanted a hand up, not a hand out. She saw an economy and way of life that was different from what she knew in the United States, but one that worked for the region. And while there she met a young man who asked her about being a Christian.
"We were on this rooftop in the dark and I just explained God's love," Gari said. "After that night I didn't think I'd ever see him again. So about six months later I hear from him and he was in South Sudan. He had been so impacted by that night on the roof that he had gone to South Sudan and was helping with missions."
In 2013, the young man, Mubiru Vianey, and Gari formed The Vine, a non-profit in the United States and a recognized non-governmental organization in Uganda. It provides education, health services and housing to empower the local community, with a focus on vulnerable children and women.
And the woman who once had no heart for Africa now has a permanent piece of her soul entwined with Ugandan life.
Ask her about her work with The Vine and there is no shortage of stories.
"We have a water well that we were able to dig just in January, so now the whole area has fresh water," Gari said. "We're legal guardians to kids that have no one. We go out and find the worst of the worst situations."
Then there's the sewing school they started, selling Mommy & Me apron sets through their website. But the real goal, Gari explains, is to give the women a skill they can use in their town to generate income and become self-sufficient. Last year they brought 1,500 pairs of shoes, particularly for the children, to help them avoid some common diseases that afflict the region. This year she will once again spend the month of July in Uganda, hosting a giant crusade and bringing a team of 28.
She goes twice a year, every January and July.
"It's one of the greatest things I've ever gotten to be a part of," Gari said. "Bobby had never been so the last two off-seasons he's gotten to come with me in January and they love him there. They call him Papa. He fell in love with everything as I knew he would."
It wasn't until he took a trip himself that Bobby fully understood the love Gari had developed for Uganda and the impact that her work was making on the village. But that really was just a bonus.
He's always been impressed by Gari's work, by her ability to take on multiple projects including her latest – writing a scripted TV show about baseball families in the style of the popular "Friday Night Lights."
"I just let her do her thing so to speak," Bobby said. "I'm comfortable with that because I know that she's so engulfed by what God's doing in her life. She's so in tune with the Bible and matching it up to what she sees placed in front of her. It's just kind of who she is and who I've known her to be all these years."