ST. PETERSBURG — Jeremy Sowers picked up his first victory since September 2009 when he called down to the Rays dugout from the team’s video room on April 5 and suggested manager Kevin Cash ask the umpires to review the slide into second base by Toronto’s Jose Bautista.
You know the rest. Replays showed Bautista interfered with second baseman Logan Forsythe, the call on the field was overturned and the Rays won their first game of the season.
But did you know Sowers spent four years pitching for the Indians? Or that he was the sixth overall pick in the 2004 draft? Or that he worked in corporate strategy for Wal-Mart after leaving baseball and getting his MBA?
So how did he end up as an assistant in the Rays’ baseball operations department, preparing advanced scouting reports and monitoring the games for possible replay reviews?
“I realized by stepping away from the game that I actually like this game,” said Sowers, 32.
The game is a grind, even for top draft picks. Sowers was a 6-foot-1, 190-pound left-hander out of Vanderbilt with a fastball that topped out in the low-90s. He was 18-30 with a 5.18 ERA in 72 games (71 starts) for the Indians. Then he hurt his shoulder.
Sowers spent one year rehabbing from surgery that would rob him of at least 5 mph on his fastball. By then the shine of being a top prospect had worn off.
Sowers said he was presented with this dilemma: “Am I going to be one of those guys who just tries to hold on for an extra cup of coffee versus do I have a real career when I get back? I did not have the track record so to speak, where they would say, ‘We trust this guy coming back, so we’re going to take a chance.’ ”
When the Indians released him in 2011, Sowers decided to sign with an independent league team to continue his rehab with the hopes of leaving the game on his terms. Then he ruptured his Achilles.
By then, he and his wife, Ashley, were ready to start a family. The prospect of being a pitcher who could be moved back and forth between Triple-A and a major league club wasn’t appealing to someone who was planning on becoming a father.
“I went to college to play baseball,” Sowers said. “I went to class, I got my degree, I did all the right things, but I didn’t go there looking for a career other than baseball, and that put me in a really weird situation. What do I do? At this time I was 28, how do I leverage what I’d done? I wanted to try doing something outside of baseball, just because there’s a certain stability to it that my family would probably appreciate it more.”
His twin brother, Joshua, had received his MBA after his baseball career stalled after two minor league seasons. Joshua was enjoying his new life in the corporate world.
“Our paths were very similar in that we both went to college, hoping we’d both get drafted,” Sowers said. “He seemed to catch on (to the business world), liked it. Since we’re twins, we’re obviously incredibly similar to each other. I thought that was a very good foot forward. Went there, gave it a real shot to see what that world was like. Started realizing there were a lot of things that can be brought from that education into this game.”
Sowers worked for the Orioles last season before moving to the Rays in January. He is amazed at how much he didn’t know about the game, like scouting and analytics. He even finds the conversations in the coaches room fascinating.
Rays first base coach Rocco Baldelli knows the feeling, having gone from being a player to the front office and then to coaching.
“It’s like anything in life, you pay attention when you’re out there as a player and want to learn,” Baldelli said. “You’re still not exposed to anything you would be exposed to as a coach or working among the guys upstairs in the front office. Over here, the way we operate, there is a lot to learn.”
Sowers is not sure where he wants to go with his second career in baseball. He’s still learning, still trying to decide which path would interest him the most.
“I might in a year find out I really like scouting or really, really want to coach. I don’t know,” Sowers said. “Player development is probably where I have the most passion right now. I look at my own path and I have plenty of examples of maybe I should have done this, maybe I should have done that and pay it forward. Unless you’re a top-round pick, your moment can come and go in a blink of an eye.”
Sowers and Ashley have two daughters, Brooklyn, 4, and Elizabeth, 1.
He also has a new perspective on the game by looking at it from a different angle, and so much to learn.
“When I played baseball, it was hard for me to get outside the bubble of how privileged this industry and life is, minor leagues aside,” he said. “I’m glad I’m back. I’m glad I got an opportunity. I genuinely like this game and I want to be more positive about the experience, help teams win.”