Jay Blue: Talking ball with West Point grad Chris Rowley

Interview with Chris Rowley
By Jay Blue
Blue Jays from Away

Chris Rowley is an unusual player in the minor leagues. While many who aren’t drafted out of high school go to college, often their choice can have very large repercussions on his future career. 

If you can go to an elite school like Vanderbilt, you’re immediately increasing your chances of getting drafted when you’re eligible. If you go to a junior college, you may be eligible for the draft sooner, but teams may doubt your abilities, playing against lesser competition.
 
In Chris Rowley’s case, he played against high levels of competition but by choosing to attend West Point (the United States Military Academy), he ended up engaged with a very complicated set of issues that kept him from getting drafted. First of all, all graduates of the US service academies (West Point, the Naval Acadmy, Air Force Academy) must serve five years as an officer in their chosen service. There is a chance that the service will release talented players from active duty after two years but the player must apply.

For Rowley, a multiple All-American after a tremendous college career that included a nomination for the Senior CLASS award, his commitment to the army was likely what kept him from being drafted but he showed his quality competing in the Gulf Coast League after signing with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013 and earning the Blue Jays from Away Pitcher of the Year award for the club with a 1.10 ERA, a 0.67 WHIP, three walks and 39 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings.

We caught up with Chris while he’s getting ready to join the Blue Jays for spring training as he returns to his baseball career after two years in the army. Here’s our interview.

Jay Blue: Chris, you’re in a unique position. You’ve secured a released from your army duties and you’re going to be rejoining the Blue Jays organization as a pitcher.

Chris Rowley: Yes, sir. That’s right. I was released from active duty on Jan. 22 and I will be heading down to Dunedin on March 5.

JB: Now this is an unusual way for a ballplayer to get to the major leagues but let’s go back a little bit because obviously it takes a very special type of person and a special commitment for someone to go to West Point to not only pursue a career in the army but to also play baseball.

CR: Right. I’d be lying to you if I told you that I went to West Point understanding what it meant. I was a 17-year-old kid who wanted the opportunity to play baseball at the next level. I was a very late bloomer athletically and I got a full ride. Everyone who goes to West Point gets a full scholarship and I was offered a spot on the baseball team. I really appreciated that and I wanted to further my baseball career and from what I had heard, West Point was a great school. The rest of the stuff kind of came later, the commitment, the maturation, if you will, came a lot later, but I definitely appreciate the experiences that I was able to experience because of West Point and my time in the army.

JB: I know that West Point is a very hard school to get into. Did baseball help you in that regard?

CR: Everyone has to qualify to get in one way or the other. I think that I had a little bit of help in terms of with the admission people and the coaching staff but at the end of the day I had to qualify to get in. While they helped direct me that way, athlete or non-athlete, you have to meet the admission standards to get in. I was right on the fringe so they did a lot to help me get in.

JB: I actually read an article fairly recently, not just about you, but about the experience of playing collegiate athletics at one of the service academies. It sounds like it’s a pretty intense ride.

CR: It’s a lot on your plate. I think that you don’t really realize it while you’re there because you’re just doing it. Everything that has to be done has to get done. Obviously there’s only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, you’ve got to make sacrifices and just try to find ways to get everything that has to get done done. I really didn’t realize how tough it was to balance everything until I graduated and then, now I’m out of the army. It’s very tough to do. You’re going from 6 o’clock in the morning til 11 o’clock at night every single day, for the most part. That’s kind of unusual.

JB: Did you find it a little bit of a break when you signed with the Blue Jays and only had to worry about baseball for a couple of months.

CR: Yeah, it was great, I was playing in the GCL and the GCL doesn’t go quite as late into the night. Instructs was similar, it’s a pretty early morning every day, it’s kind of a grind. I felt like I was well-equipped for that because of where I went to school and the experiences that I had in the army and at West Point. It’s different when you’re getting up in the morning and going to class and doing the military thing and trying to play baseball and then doing homework and projects and papers and when your job is to get up and compete and be the best baseball player you can be, both were very enjoyable for me. Obviously the decision I made showed which one I really wanted to do, in terms of chasing a career, but as far as the time spent, it was a nice little break for me, just because you’re done by five or six instead of 11 o’clock at night, and doing something you really love to do.

JB: When did you have an idea that the Blue Jays were interested in drafting or signing you or even anybody else was interested in signing you to a professional contract.

CR: I had a fairly successful college career and I knew that teams were interested. I talked to several other teams who told me that they were going to draft me. I won’t name any names because it doesn’t matter now and that obviously ended up not happening. But yeah, I knew that teams were interested. I also knew that they know that on paper, what I looked like as a 6-foot-2, 200 pound pitcher that throws 90 mph that has a military commitment. So I was really disappointed when the draft came and went and I didn’t get drafted but everything happens for a reason. I actually didn’t know until the next Monday that the Jays had called during the draft to say that they would like to sign me to an undrafted free agent contact, but didn’t have any contact whatsoever with them before that. I actually didn’t get the message until Monday because it was left at the baseball office at West Point.

JB: Was anyone else offering you a contract or was it only the Blue Jays.

CR: Post-draft, the only team that offered me a contract was the Blue Jays.

JB: You go from signing that contract, obvoiusly the college season was over and you had a 60-day window before you had to report to duty. What’s the thought process? Is it “sign the contract, have some fun playing baseball and get on with it?” or were you thinking of not signing at all?

CR: Right after the draft, I suppose, I was very disappointed. I was a first-team All-American in college multiple times and my initial thought was that I wasn’t going to sign. It was somewhat of an immature, kneejerk reaction to, “I think I should have been drafted.” But then I sat down and talked to my support around me and kind of get a level head on it and I still get the same opportunity that I would have gotten if I would have been picked in the first round. For a fleeting second I thought about not signing and just moving on, but my thought was that I would have regretted it if I didn’t so I ultimately made the decision to [sign].

JB: You had a fantastic season [in 2013] as quickly as it went by with the Gulf Coast Blue Jays. Did that give you a lot of confidence that there was a future in baseball too?

CR: I never didn’t have that confidence. Confidence is kinda part of my game in how I approach the game of baseball. I was extremely confident, trying to err off the side of cockiness, I was confident coming into my pro career and I felt like what I did in the GCL validated the fact that I could pitch at any level, at least for me. I think if I had gone to the GCL and struggled and been hit around a little bit then maybe that’s a different conversation that I’m having with my commander or even internally with myself about what to do in the future. But that validated to me, where as a person who does have a lot of confidence, and I feel like I have to have that to be successful, that I can pitch.

JB: You attended the Fall Instruction League this year. What does that do for you in terms of someone who hasn’t played competitive ball in over two years?

CR: It was great. It was awesome for me to get back. I hadn’t thrown on a mound in over two years. I mean, literally, I had not been on a mound in two years. And I got out there, I threw one side [session] and I pitched in the first game against the Phillies. So, it was kind of a crash course back into it but I think it was really really good for me. And I got to work with Sal [Fasano] and all the pitching staff and got some face time with him. There had been a lot of shuffle with the pitching staff since I’d been with the Jays so it was nice to get back and meet these guys. Some of them I had already met and some of them you’re seeing again and allow them to give me something to work on coming into the offseason so now I can come back having close to six months of an idea of what they want me to be doing.

JB: Two questions, I guess. What do they want you to be doing? What are you working on and are you adding anything to your repertoire? Are you trying to firm up the pitches you already throw?

CR: I’m just trying to get as good as I can with what I have. Every pitcher wants to be able to throw harder and be able to throw more accurately and get movement on the ball and command the game, and that’s really what I’m focused on is just getting better at being a commanding pitcher. I know that’s kind of a generic answer but there’s really not much more in depth to it. I’m not developing a brand new pitch, I’m not going to be throwing a knuckleball next year or anything like that. I’m just trying to get as good as I can get and be as ready as I can for spring.

JB: It’s only a couple of weeks until you arrive in Dunedin. Are you starting to get the jitters or excited for it?

CR: Yeah, I’m getting the itch, I’m getting the springtime itch. It’s springtime, time to play baseball.

JB: Do you have any goals for yourself aside from just getting better and just being the best pitcher you can be.

CR: Longterm, obviously, everyone wants to make it. Longterm I would say I want to make it, I want to have a successful career. I’m not really a tangible goal type of person, you know “I want to have this number of strikeouts, this number of wins.” I want to compete with every pitch that I throw and every drill and everything. I want to make myself and my teammates better.

JB: Is there a pitcher inside the Blue Jays system or outside the Blue Jays system, who you model yourself after or you see as someone you want to be like.

CR: Growing up I always watched Maddux. You know, I’m from Georgia and Greg Maddux was the guy. I don’t have the same stuff as Greg Maddux, because no one alive has the same stuff that Greg Maddux had. I try to model my game after him. He could throw anything in any count in any location and it was moving a lot and it had people thinking and missing and he had people all screwed up and turned backwards. And that’s kind of how I do it. A little bit different but if I say I modeled my game after anyone’s it would probably be his and I don’t think of it that way. But growing up with the skillset that the good Lord has blessed me with I think that’s kind of how my game has evolved.

JB: What do you throw right now, what pitches are you working with in your arsenal?

CR: I throw a sinker, a changeup, slider and a cutter.

JB: What do you think your military experience and background, what kind of an edge do you think that gives you to achieve your goals?

CR: I think it may be just my personality. I guess in terms of not quitting and perseverance and mental toughness is really where I think I have an edge. I feel like mentally, I’m just very sharp and focused. I feel everything. I kind of know what I’m doing wrong without someone having to tell me because I can feel it. So I would say mental toughness and maybe a mental sharpness. I don’t know if that’s from the military or something else but it’s something that’s developed over the past few years.

You can follow Chris on Twitter at @C_Rowley_15

 

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Jay Blue

A lifelong Toronto Blue Jays fan, Jay Blue started blogging about the Jays when he was living in Berlin, Germany. He founded his own blog, Blue Jays from Away, to write about developments with his home town team, focusing on the Jays' minor league system. When he's not watching baseball, he is usually on the diamond umpiring or he's pursuing his research interests in the field of ethnomusicology.