|Eddie Michels - Rocketsports.com photo|
Athletes who play for US Armed Force Academies have to deal with the fact throughout their collegiate careers that their chances of playing their sport professionally are slim.
There are exceptions - David Robinson did go on to a storied NBA career after he literally outgrew the Naval Academy; Napoleon McCallum was able to play for the Los Angeles Raiders for a season while the ship he was assigned to was home ported nearby. Mitch Harris was drafted by the St Louis Cardinals in 2008, but had to delay his career for 5 years while serving in the Navy, and made his MLB debut last year. Nick Hill, considered one of the best players in the history of the US Military Academy, was able to receive an exemption after being drafted by the Mariners in 2007. 8 years and some bad injury luck later, he finished 2015 with the Phillies AAA affiliate.
From a Blue Jays perspective, they took a flyer from the US Air Force Academy in the 10th round of the 2013 draft in C Garrett Custons, and signed P Chris Rowley as a free agent from the Army after he went undrafted that year. Assigned to Bluefield, Custons hit .222/.295/.315 in 17 games before reporting for duty at the Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, FL. Rowley was sent to the Gulf Coast League, where he dominated the younger hitters, striking out 39 in 32 innings, and allowing only 22 batters to reach base. At last report, Custons was working as a Budget Analyst with the Air Force at Patrick AFB in Florida.
Academy athletes owe Uncle Sam a service commitment after graduation, and players like Custons and Rowley have managed to sneak some pro ball into the 60 days they have before reporting for duty. Some apply for exemptions, but they have to serve two years of active duty before applying. And there are no ways around the system - no playing on weekends or vacation time, no time off to attend minor league spring training. On August 8th, in his last outing in 2013, Rowley shut out the GCL Pirates over 6 innings. The next day, on his 23rd birthday, he was on a flight back to New York, headed to West Point to start fulfilling his commitment. At first, Rowley served as a grad assistant for his former team. After that, he was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and then Fort Stewart, in his home state of Georgia. Rowley re-connected there with his Army catcher, J.T. Watkins, who was drafted by the Red Sox (10th round) in 2012, and after a handful of games in the New York-Penn League that summer, applied for an exemption, and was able to play for the Sox Class A affiliates in 2015.
Deployment eventually was in store for Rowley, who was shipped out to Eastern Europe, but he was able to keep his arm in shape by throwing to his company's senior medic, Sgt Cody Berndt, who Rowley said, "helped me a ton."
Rowley applied almost a year ago for the exemption, and he received word of his approval in October - our first hint that something might be in the works was when Rowley's named was listed on the Blue Jays Instructional League roster.
He confirmed this week that he received the exemption, and will be heading to Dunedin on March 5th, as minor league camp gets set to open.
What are Rowley's chances? Not great, to be honest. He was signed as an org guy - a college arm signed to eat up GCL innings in order to proctect 2013 high school draftees and International Free Agents like Conner Greene, Clinton Hollon, Jesus Tinoco, Jake Brentz, and Evan Smith. Blue Jays pitching consultant Paul Quantrill watched Rowley pitch, and sent back a report that graded him as "100% bullpen, zero pro value." As a non-drafted free agent who signed for no bonus, Rowley's leash would be much shorter than most prospects - he will be only given so long to prove himself. He hasn't faced a live batter in about 30 months, and he hasn't pitched above rookie ball. Turning 26 in August, the clock is ticking very loudly for Rowley.
At the same time, had he not had the looming military hitch, Rowley might have been promoted up the ladder to see what he could do (he may well have been drafted in the first dozen rounds, as well). In the ensuing two years, he may have risen as high as AA if he had continued his GCL success. He might profile best as a starter, but his ascent through the organization may be quicker through the bullpen. Rowley sat at around 92 with his fastball in his GCL stint, with impeccable command. Other than his last two GCL outings, he had an excellent groundball/flyball ratio. Quite simply, Rowley fills the strike zone, mostly in the bottom half. He should start the season at Lansing or Dunedin.
Of all the stories involving minor leaguers, this is the kind I enjoy the most. How can you not be pulling for a kid like this?
Rowley is clearly giving up a lot to pursue this dream, putting his career on hold to chase it. There might be some who would suggest that given his age and the odds he faces, why not just get on with life? But for those of us who are older, 25 is still very young, and there is still plenty of time for a career in whatever field he chooses (Rowley graduated pre-law, making the Dean's List at the Military Academy - he will have some options if baseball doesn't work out). Life is short enough as it is to begin with, and living with regret is no way to do it. I'm looking forward to making the trip south to Dunedin next month to catch both major and minor league camps at the Blue Jays complex. My eyes will be focussed more closely on guys like Rowley and Gabe Noyalis - guys who came to camp with a story.
Hats off to writer Gare Joyce, who wrote an article about Rowley in Sportsnet Magazine which formed part of the research I did for this post. Joyce, who normally writes about hockey, put together an excellent profile about Rowley, which you can read here. He also wrote an excellent piece about former Jays farmhand Boomer Collins, who is now trying to make a go of things as a T20 Cricket player - you can google that for yourself. Joyce also wrote an excellent book entitled, ""Future Greats and Heartbreaks," a journal of his year spent following scouts and prospects for the 2006 NHL Entry draft, which included some insights into the character of the mercurial Phil Kessel.
Joyce is a very underrated writer, in my opinion. I enjoy his work a great deal.