A new target

Brent Humphreys/Sportsnet

Most Blue Jays prospects hone their stuff in the minors; Chris Rowley tweaks his game between tank training and route marches. Now the West Point grad’s hopes of making the big club hang on the army letting him go.

Chris Rowley worked in deliberate rhythm, each pitch timed with a falling bead of sweat. When he looked in for a sign, his mind raced with clear-eyed self-criticisms. Not your best stuff. Giving up too many fly balls. Bust them inside. Slider down.

West Florida was in the middle of an August heat wave and the sky was cloudless, slowing both the game at the Blue Jays’ shade-free training complex and life itself to a crawl. Between pitches, the diamond was almost quiet enough to hear the pep talk Rowley gave himself under his breath. Some of your best games are when you don’t have your best stuff. You were an All-American. Show them they should have drafted you.

The next batter stepped up to the plate. Teams in the Gulf Coast League have no scouting reports to work from, so Rowley knew this kid was catching for the Pirates but he didn’t know Reese McGuire from Adam. He didn’t know the 19-year-old was hitting .320, didn’t know he had a $2.6-million bonus, precisely $2.6 million more than the Jays had invested in Rowley. With a one-and-two count, looking for a fastball, McGuire took his home run swing eight inches over Rowley’s slider and screwed himself around so sharply his spikes dug a three-inch divot in the batter’s box. Another three inches and he would have hit water.

All summer Rowley had overpowered batters in the Gulf Coast, MLB’s Florida rookie-ball circuit. More of the same against the Pirates, not-your-best-stuff notwithstanding: six innings, just one run on a ball thrown away on an easy double play. And when the manager went to the bullpen in the seventh, Rowley’s season was done: 4-0 with an ERA of 1.12 across 32  innings. He had racked up 39 strikeouts with only three walks, a man in a boy’s league. Rowley could have been shipped to affiliates higher up Toronto’s chain—Bluefield or Vancouver. The next day, he did ship out: out of pro ball for two years at least and, yeah, maybe forever.

Rowley would have celebrated his 23rd birthday with his teammates the day after the win over Pittsburgh’s rookies but instead, at dawn, the trainer drove him from Dunedin to the Tampa airport, where he’d catch a flight to LaGuardia. He had to head back to the school where he’d graduated pre-law in the spring, dean’s list and all. He had unfinished business that couldn’t wait for the end of the GCL season.

Rowley owed for his degree. Not a student loan—if it were only money, it could be paid off in instalments. No, he owed time. Time that would start with a few weeks helping out with the varsity baseball team. Time that would grow more demanding come winter with an assignment taking him a long way from the game.

Last May, Rowley collected his diploma and his second-lieutenant bars at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Like all cadets, he put his tuition and four years of room and board on Uncle Sam’s tab to the tune of $250,000. He had signed on knowing graduates are appointed on active duty as commissioned officers, obliged to serve a minimum five years in the U.S. Army.

For a minor-leaguer, five years is a lifetime. Five years after he signs on with a big-league organization, his hopes of making the Show should be either triumphantly realized or abandoned. And if 2nd Lt. Rowley knew he would be fully bound to the armed forces for five years, then the six weeks he spent on leave in Dunedin would have amounted to an extended trip to fantasy camp, a cruel tease. Yet Rowley has reason to hope his summer in the GCL will turn out to be more than that. Exceptions to that five years of active duty can be made on a case-by-case basis for student-athletes from the U.S. service academies. In Rowley’s case that might be as early as the summer of 2015. The numbers are stacked against any minor-leaguer making the bigs and, yeah, Rowley will need a lot to fall into place to get his picture on a baseball card. Throw those long odds at him and they bounce off like he’s wearing a flak jacket. “Every level I’ve played, I was told going in that I wasn’t good enough to stick,” he says. “A little more adversity doesn’t bother me.”

Chris Rowley had led the charmed life of a high-school star in the upper-middle-class suburban enclave of Duluth in reliably Republican Forsyth County, Ga., the 13th wealthiest county in the U.S. according to Forbes and home to a couple of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Every school has that guy: a clean-cut, square-jawed and strapping son of white-collar professionals, inexorably destined for success. You might have beaten him on your very best day but 10 years on you’d be working for him.

Rowley’s older sister, Brette, posted a 4.15 grade-point average, but he didn’t have her work ethic in high school. “Chris had as much ability in the classroom but he was more dedicated to basketball and, especially, baseball,” says his father, Darryl Rowley, a management consultant. “He hoped to get a Div. I scholarship.”

These aspirations seemed within his reach. Georgia ranks as a hotbed for high-school baseball, on par with Florida, Texas and California, so he was showcasing his stuff in front of scores of NCAA recruiters. In his junior year, the Georgia coaches association named Rowley as one of the 10 must-see players in the state. He could throw any pitch he wanted any time he needed, changed speeds like he was mechanically calibrated and wore out the black with his slider. “He was so intelligent and competitive,” South Forsyth coach Jamie Corr says. “He had an 85-mph fastball but he pitched like he was throwing 95.”

Still, only a couple Div. I schools showed casual interest. When recruiters were handing out scholarship offers, Rowley’s moxie mattered not without velocity. “My fastball maxed out in the low 80s, and you can’t turn around and spit in Georgia without hitting a high-schooler throwing 92,” he says.

For a good long stretch, he had one lonely offer for a full ride from a school that wasn’t on his wish list. Suffice it to say that he never heard a word from Clemson, his favourite team, or any other powerhouse programs in the southeast. For once, his universe didn’t roll out as scripted.

Darryl warned his son about settling for the single offer on the table. “I let Chris know that it was a big commitment [to accept a scholarship] and things change fast,” Rowley’s father says. “You could hurt your arm the first pitch you throw. The coach who signs you might get fired. I told him, ‘Be careful about the school you choose. If you never throw another pitch, you’ve had a great career.’”

Early in the fall of his senior year, Rowley received another nibble, a recruiting letter and a phone call from Army’s athletic department. The idea of going to a service academy hadn’t been on his radar—his grandfathers had served but he had never felt a strong connection to the military. One visit to West Point changed that. With its formidable black-granite halls and monuments honouring American heroes, the academy on the banks of the Hudson was a world apart from the McMansions between the private golf courses of Forsyth County. He heard West Point’s siren call for the best and brightest. Its motto—Duty, Honor, Country—stirred him in a way that nothing back in Duluth did. “This is where I’m going,” Rowley told his father that day. Once home, he wrote his congressman, asking for the requisite letter of reference.

Trying to do the right thing, Rowley called the school that sent him a scholarship offer to let them know about his plans. What happened next still burns him. “It was insulting,” he says, despite taking the high road and opting to keep the identity of the school to himself. “The coach, who’ll remain nameless, told me, ‘Come back when they explain the five-year commitment to you.’”

Rowley went out in his senior year and led South Forsyth High to the state 5A championship game. South Forsyth lost the game but still finished ninth in USA Today’s national rankings.

When Rowley reported for his freshman year, he experienced a culture shock, just like the other 1,300 incoming cadets. He was no longer that guy, but instead just another faceless plebe set for six weeks of Beast Barracks, a boot-camp trial by ordeal that would break 99 percent or more of the general population. During one of the 5 a.m. marches with a 50-lb. pack, Rowley had his epiphany: He wasn’t in Duluth anymore. “I had made a pretty impulsive decision to go to West Point,” he says. “Unless you are a legacy and brought up in this environment you don’t know what you’re getting into.”

It wasn’t exactly a seamless transition: Academically he thrived, athletically he struggled. Against hitters in the Patriot League, the NCAA loop Army and Navy play in, Cadet Rowley looked outmatched as a freshman and was little used. He didn’t earn a varsity letter. So used to success, he came off as being hard to coach on first impression. “Chris was a confident kid marching to the beat of his own drummer, maybe headstrong, definitely stubborn,” pitching coach Anthony DeCicco says. “Some young men come into the baseball program and just follow orders, but Chris had a vision and purpose and it never wavered, not even as a freshman. Those qualities are what you find in a winner and look for in a leader.”

Rowley’s baseball career took off as a sophomore. He posted wins over Lafayette in the league semis and Navy in the final. But these were just hints of what he would do as a junior: an 11-1 record and a 2.40 ERA. He was named a second-team All-American and was in the running for national Player of the Year awards.

A few MLB scouts approached Rowley in the spring of 2012, his junior year, and asked him about signing if he were drafted that June. “They didn’t know about the obligations or that it would be a wasted pick,” Rowley says. “They didn’t know [cadets] can opt out as a freshman or even as a sophomore, but when we complete our junior year, there’s no walking away.”

Still, Rowley hoped to be drafted after his senior year and recent precedent encouraged him. Seattle took southpaw Nick Hill, possibly the best pitcher in Army’s history, in the seventh round of the 2007 draft; in 2012, Boston selected Rowley’s battery-mate, catcher J.T. Watkins in the 10th round. Promising signs for Rowley, but asterisks were attached to both of the draftees, special cases with mitigating factors.

Immediately after graduation, Hill had been able to apply for an exemption to be on a military reserve list so long as he was pursuing a pro sports career, a broad, no-waiting-period exemption that has since been struck down. Even though the U.S. forces were entrenched in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hill’s application to take a shot at pro ball was approved and he went directly to Seattle’s single-A affiliate in Everett. He has been on reserve status and done some work on behalf of the West Point athletic department over the years, but otherwise his Army ties are limited to lines on his player bio.

In Watkins’s case, he’s the son of a longtime Red Sox scout and signed a $1,000 bonus with Boston. Over the summer of 2012, Watkins struggled, hitting .200 in the New York–Penn League, one level above the GCL. He spent last summer serving at Fort Stewart, Ga., and will have to miss much if not all of the 2014 season also, only making his diamond prospects dimmer. The present regulations applying to Watkins and Rowley: Service-academy graduates must fulfill two years of active duty before applying for exemption. There’s no way to finesse the system; no taking leave for spring training, no slipping away on weekends to play for a nearby minor-league affiliate. All that’s left is to serve and wait. If an exemption is granted after two years, a graduate can head off and chase his dream but must remain on reserve for five years. “For two years all I’m able to do is work out, maybe hit in a cage, but there’ll be no real games,” Watkins says. “But I believe that a player out of the service has something else going for him. They talk about five tools for ballplayers. I think we have a sixth tool going for us. What it is, I can’t put into words, but it’s real.”

Given the scouts kicking the tires in his junior year, Rowley’s more conspicuous tools gave him reason to hope he’d be drafted in his senior year. He did his part on the mound: a 9-4 record and 2.67 ERA didn’t shine as brightly as his junior numbers, but he still racked up 75 strikeouts with only 21 walks. He saved his best for the stiffest test. “In the NCAA regional against [No. 1 seed] Virginia, Chris was in a bases-loaded situation, none out in the fifth inning, one-run game,” DeCicco says. “He struck out their No. 3 hitter and cleanup man, and then got out of the jam with a harmless fly. That’s against the [NCAA’s] top offensive team. Chris had been in the same situation as a junior [in the NCAA tournament] and it was bigger than him. But as a senior, he got out of it and kept us in the game. He had really grown.”

Rowley had grown as a pitcher but not as a prospect. Expecting to go in the first 15 rounds, he tracked the June draft from back home in Duluth. When the 15th round came and went, when he saw collegians he had out-pitched get snapped up, Rowley tuned it out. His phone never rang. He was not one of the 1,216 players selected. It looked like his career was over.

What Rowley didn’t know was another phone had been ringing and a message had been left: The Blue Jays had called the athletic department at West Point and let it be known that they were inviting Rowley to pitch this summer in the GCL. No bonus, basically a walk-on. The rookie-league season stretched a little longer than the 60-day leave all grads receive after their senior year. That window narrowed further: He had to wait two weeks as the necessary paperwork shuffled slowly through West Point’s offices.

Once in Dunedin, Rowley made an immediate impression. His first bullpen session raised pitching coach Willie Montanez’s eyebrows. “You’re not going to be here for long,” Montanez told him.

Rowley’s debut was perfect: an inning of relief, striking out all three batters he faced. His next trip out of the bullpen was no less overpowering: two hitless innings with five punch-outs. After two more strong outings in relief, Rowley got his first start: 5  shutout innings, giving up three hits, striking out nine. “They could have sent Chris up to A-ball after that first game,” GCL Blue Jays outfielder Boomer Collins says.

The reality, though, was colder than that. The Jays called Rowley looking for the immediate returns he would provide and not because they saw him as a major-league prospect. “Our development staff asked us to sign a few undrafted college players who could help the organization at the rookie ball level,” says amateur-scouting director Brian Parker. “We knew Chris had just finished his season so his arm was ready to go, which is important with any undrafted pitcher that we sign. He could come in and pitch innings.”

Translation: We wanted organization players, NCAA pitchers who could save the strain on the arms of bonus babies signed out of high school.

Paul Quantrill’s assessment of Rowley required no translation. The Jays’ roving pitching instructor made the trip to the GCL and had Rowley throw a few innings of a simulated game. Quantrill told Rowley his report back to head office would read: “100 percent bullpen, zero pro value.” To Quantrill, Rowley was a nearly finished product, mechanically sound, not a raw thrower in need of fixing, but as it stood he didn’t project as a major-leaguer. “Not what any young pitcher wants to hear,” Quantrill says. “A lot are used to hearing how great they are and when they hear otherwise they hang their heads or want to pack it in. I heard the ‘zero pro value’ when I was starting out and I thought I took it pretty well. But Chris was smart enough and mature enough to understand the message completely.”

Quantrill didn’t catch Rowley unprepared. “In fact, I agreed with him,” Rowley says. “I’m a right-hander with a 92-mph fastball when some average guys in the majors or even in triple-A throw 95 or harder. Then again, the best pitcher in recent history, Greg Maddux, threw 90, 91, maybe 92. Not having the velocity means I have a narrower margin for error in a game and in the organization as a whole. I need to have success at every level I pitch at. Fact is, probably 40 percent of guys in the majors have been told at some point that they had zero pro value.”

When Quantrill watched Rowley pitch in games in the GCL he saw something a coach couldn’t pick up from a workout. “Chris gets outs,” Quantrill says. “There are guys with an abundance of tools who make mistakes. Some have to have their heads kicked in 15 times before they learn, and some never do and don’t make it. Chris doesn’t make mistakes. He gets things right. He goes about his business.”

Encouraging words, sure, but now Chris Rowley has to go about his business on his own. He has to wait until May 2015 before he can file the paperwork for his exemption from his remaining three years of active service and sign on for five years of reserve duty. How long that administrative process will take is anyone’s guess. It might be mid-summer next season, maybe late summer, just short weeks from the end of the minor-league season. It took a few weeks just to get clearance to accept his rookie-league salary, a couple of hundred bucks a week after board and laundry were deducted.

Rowley is confident that (knock on wood) approval will come, but nothing is guaranteed. “It’s not a rubber stamp,” Nick Hill says. “My application wasn’t unanimously approved. I filed the paperwork and it went up the chain. You have no input from that point. You have to hope for the best and accept the decision.”

Of course, some of those in the chain of command making that decision might have looked at varsity sports with disdain when they were cadets, turning out in full uniform for the Army-Navy football game but regarding the Black Knights and Midshipmen as unduly entitled, their burdens unfairly lightened. “Our players experience some push-back from cadets who are gung-ho military,” coach DeCicco says. “There are always going to be some who think [varsity sports] are outside the spirit and purpose of the academy.”

2nd Lt. Rowley didn’t leave class work behind when he reported to Fort Sill, Okla., last fall. He and 30 other officers-in-training take notes during a PowerPoint presentation on the brutal physics of artillery fire. The session starts after breakfast and stretches into late afternoon. When finally dismissed, these graduates of the class of 2013 are bagged but upbeat. They’re used to long days, putting in 16 hours or more finishing assignments or studying. Tonight won’t be a free night but tomorrow will be a break from the classroom, what all of them enjoy more than pure theory: an excursion into the field for exercises. Rowley will be in command of an M109 Paladin, and his five-man tank crew will be firing 155-millimetre shells six clicks down-range as the crow flies, maybe 10, further pockmarking and searing a few thousand acres of desolate Oklahoma brush.

After class and before grabbing some grub, Rowley and classmate Zach Price pack their gym bags and head over to the athletic fieldhouse to change into sweats and spikes. On their walk to the diamond, a cold wind picks up and stiffens flags set at half-mast after the shooting at Fort Hood days before. “It’s better than yesterday,” Rowley says, yesterday being a day lost to test prep, drizzle and tornado warnings. From right field he long-tosses to 2nd Lt. Price in the infield. Not an exercise, just exercise in a casual way, getting Rowley’s arm ready for hard throwing this summer.

Rowley did have a timetable in mind, had hoped to be a little further along by what passes for spring in southwest Oklahoma. Weather and books worked against him but he says he’s not worried: “I’m not on a timetable tied to a minor-league schedule. A team isn’t counting on me. I have to manage myself. Two or three weeks, I’ll catch up.”

Rowley wants to hit his stride in May when he’ll be re-assigned to Fort Stewart, Ga., and reconnect with the other half of his battery from West Point, 2nd Lt. Watkins. “J.T. can pick up something, my arm slot, release point, that I’d miss on my own,” Rowley says.

While he long-tosses and awakens muscle memory, Rowley lets himself mull over the big picture. “I know all about the irony,” Rowley say. “[The army] wants me to succeed to represent West Point and be an ambassador for the service academies. The only organization that was willing to give me a chance is the only one not in the U.S.”

Other futures in the Jays organization are going about their business in the conventional way. Earlier this day, the Lansing Lugnuts, the Jays’ long-season A-ball affiliate, won their season opener. Rowley’s teammates from the GCL are still in Florida awaiting assignment to Vancouver or Bluefield and dreading that the axe might fall. Prospects will play games and soak up cheers. They’ll go to school with the sage advice of coaches. Meanwhile, Chris Rowley will have to envision the game around him, batters standing in against him, umpires making calls, fielders backing him up.

Maybe there’s no quantifying that sixth tool a West Point grad has in his toolbox, but imagination must be an ingredient.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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