By CJ Pentland
Canadian Baseball Network
It didn’t take long for Jamie Lehman to realize that Don Cowan was no ordinary scout.
Now the West Coast Regional Crosschecker for the Toronto Blue Jays, Lehman flew out to Langley, B.C. in 2009, shortly after being hired as a scout himself. Cowan picked up Lehman and they headed off to meet a player, and when done, Lehman asked if he could get dropped off at the Best Western where he was staying.
Cowan said no need – Lehman could stay with him in his guest room.
“I never felt anything but at home at Don’s place, with him and his wife, Louise,” said Lehman. “The grandkids were always over, along with his three children. It became the best part of those trips. Spending time catching up with his family, getting to talk baseball and life, and everything in between.
“That says a lot about who Don is. He opened his home to me when we barely knew each other, and we got to spend a lot of great time together both as colleagues and then as great friends over dinners, breakfasts and a few rounds of golf in between.”
Since 1993, Cowan was a fixture at ballparks in Western Canada as one of the most respected scouts in the region. Yet in January 2018, after nearly 25 years in the Blue Jays' system, Cowan officially retired.
A former player, Cowan grew up playing ball in South Vancouver and later spent three years in the Minnesota Twins system as an outfielder and second baseman. He reached as high as class-A Orlando, but his walk-to-strikeout ratio – 85-to-93 – perhaps provides an early indication of his careful eye.
Cowan remained active in Canadian baseball after his playing days ended in 1964, getting involved with Baseball B.C. with fellow scout Wayne Norton, and working on Baseball Canada coaching manuals. It was in 1993 when he was heading up the B.C. Selects Program and taking teams to the Canada Games and other national championships that former Blue Jays scouting director Bill Byckowski reached out to him and said he was looking for someone to scout Western Canada. Cowan took on the position, and had been there ever since.
Over those 25 years, Cowan had a first-row seat to many changes in Canadian baseball. One of the biggest was adapting to Canadians being included in the draft. The Blue Jays often scouted players from out west through the Vancouver-based National Baseball Academy, which they helped develop, but the scene changed in 1991 when Canadians became eligible.
“Initially, we weren’t sure where players would go in the draft – how good they were, and where they’d be taken,” said Cowan. “But we soon found out with Ryan Dempster (Gibsons, B.C.) when he went in the third round, because we really liked him, and just before he graduated saw his improvement. We were very interested, and he went in the third round, and that was sort of a surprise; nobody had gone that high.”
More talent continued to develop out west, with the next notable crop coming in 2002. Left-handed pitcher Adam Loewen (Surrey, B.C.) out of the Whalley Chiefs program was a guaranteed top-end pick, and went fourth overall to the Baltimore Orioles, but the Jays had their eyes on Jeff Francis out of the University of British Columbia. Cowan did a lot of legwork on the lefty from North Delta, and Toronto had worked out a deal and planned to take him 14th overall. As far as they were concerned, no one picking before them had any interest.
But then the Colorado Rockies muddled things up – changing their mind and selecting Francis ninth overall. Cowan called it probably the biggest disappointment during his career, as Toronto thought they had him signed, but it ultimately didn’t work out.
“He was a great kid, and I think he would’ve played for the Blue Jays and would’ve liked that," said Cowan.
The note about Francis being a great kid touches upon what others saw as Cowan’s greatest strength as a scout. For Cowan, he didn’t just scout a ball player and their performance, but the overall person.
“Without question the things that made Don so valuable were his relationships and passion,” said Lehman. “For someone that has been in the game as long as he has, he still outworked everybody. He never missed a pitch, kept incredibly detailed notes, and knew every player and every family better than the other teams. Scouting at the end of the day comes down to relationships, and that's what made Don so valuable.”
“Just everything [set him apart],” said Kevin Briand, a current pro scout for the Blue Jays and their former director of Canadian scouting. “Hard-working, very organized, very knowledgeable. I want to try and find the right words – a great representative of the organization. Classy, very good relationships with the baseball community. Just – he was awesome.”
Cowan’s ability to connect with players, coaches, and their families has played an even more critical role as the scouting landscape continued to evolve. He cites the role of statistics and showcases as two major differences from when he started out, but those didn’t change his scouting mindset.
“The numbers, I think they get a little confusing sometimes because you don’t know where the numbers came from – did a guy hit .600 against weak pitching, or did he hit .250 against really good pitching – so they rely on statistics and looks, and the way the players play,” said Cowan. “And as I say, the good ones are getting more sophisticated – they’ve got a lot of these skills, but it comes down to how well they compete, and that’s what you’ve really got to look for: what kind of at bats do they have against pitching, [and] do they battle.
“It becomes a mental thing as much as anything. I think the kids, especially the ones back East, are better mentally prepared than they were 20 years ago, and probably same thing for the kids out here [in the West]. I think when they get better competition it really helps them, and a lot them are going to these showcases, but you’ve got to be careful with that too. The kids years ago didn’t go to the showcases, and you got to watch them compete all the time. Nowadays you’ve got to be careful with the showcases because the kids can just look good in a showcase – especially a pitcher. He can go out there and throw 90, 95 for one inning, but the question is ‘can he do anything in a game?’ over seven or eight innings. And I think you’ve got to be careful of that.
“Scouts before said ‘you don’t scout performance, you scout the kids’, and I think more and more people at the top are scouting performances. And you’ve got to be careful; especially when it’s a showcase, that you’re not just seeing a quick flash of somebody looking good, and then you really start to like him. You’ve got to see him over time.”
Three such players that Cowan scouted thoroughly and connected with were pitchers Andrew Case, Shane Dawson, and Tom Robson, all of whom are in the Blue Jays minor league system in double-A or higher.
Case, who hails from Saint John, N.B., made a name for himself when he threw a no-hitter at Tournament 12 in 2013, but Cowan already had him on his horizon – having seen him pitch at the Prairie Baseball Academy of the Canadian College Baseball Conference. While other teams clamored to sign Case after his no-no, the Jays capitalized on Cowan’s prior history and relationship with Case and PBA to sign him in October of 2013. Last season, he reached triple-A after posting a 1.58 ERA and 1.025 WHIP at double-A New Hampshire.
Cowan was also the first Jays scout to lay eyes on Dawson, who came from small-town Drayton Valley, Alta., and also attended PBA. Toronto selected the lefty in the 17th round of the 2012 draft, and he has reached double-A and appeared on Canada’s 2017 World Baseball Classic roster.
Robson was one of the first players Lehman and Cowan signed together out West, as the Jays took him in the fourth round of 2011. The Ladner, B.C., native has suffered some injury setbacks, including Tommy John Surgery, but Cowan still believes he has a really good chance of making the majors – noting that he pitched just as well as Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard when they played for the Vancouver Canadians; Robson had a 0.94 ERA over 38 1/3 innings pitched with the C’s in 2013, and helped Vancouver to a Northwest League championship.
“We felt great about taking Tom Robson in the fourth round because of how well we knew Tom, and his family,” said Lehman. “That was because of Don’s legwork, and the years he spent in those ballparks talking to coaches, players and families.”
Cowan’s legacy will extend far beyond the players he scouted and signed, though. His impact extends past the boundaries of baseball, as he has influenced players and scouts alike to be better individuals.
“I’ve learned so much from Don, it’s hard to narrow it down to even just a few things,” said Lehman. “As a scout he has taught me to be patient, be thorough and be aggressive. You have to like players to get players. It is so easy to go scout and say a kid can’t play, [and] you’ll be right 95% of the time. But Don has an incredible ability to see a player's potential through his flaws, and that is an incredible lesson for young scouts to learn.
“More important than anything he taught me about baseball is what I learned from him as a person. Don is an incredible person, a great husband, a great father and an incredible grandfather. His dedication to his family and the care and kindness that he shows to everyone he meets are attributes I hope to emulate. When I started working with Don on that first trip to Langley in 2010 we were colleagues. But Don, Louise, his children and grandchildren are family to my wife and I, and we now plan trips around when we can see them. We were even able to spend a night on our honeymoon in Maui with them, and it was by far the most fun we had on the entire trip.”
Briand often seemed at a loss for words on how best to describe what set Cowan apart.
“The quality of the person overall,” he summed up. “The person, the baseball person, a terrific family man. He was a very good employee. Again, I’m repeating myself, but the legacy is that he was tremendous in several different areas. We were very lucky to have him for all those years.”
As for what Cowan will remember most, it all comes back to the players and the Canadian baseball community.
“I think just the kids,” he said. “Just being there sort of inspires some of the kids to play better, or to be recognized, and I think we were able to help a lot of kids. Not just to get signed, but to get into a college or something like that – to the next level. There have been so many good kids out here over the last 20, 25 years, and I think it’s encouraged them to do better.
“You meet a lot of good people across Canada, too – I really enjoyed that. There are lots of good scouts out there and lots of nice people that are involved in baseball. I think, generally speaking, baseball in the country in the last 25 years has really improved. The kids are playing at a much higher level; that’s good to see that. There are lots of good people in Baseball Canada in particular and what they’ve done and the programs they’re running – they’re helping the kids more than anybody get to the next level.”
Cowan also praised the efforts of Roberto Alomar and other former Blue Jays in their efforts to promote baseball across Canada.
While he has retired from his official title as scout, he still plans to be around the ball field. He plans watch his grandkids play, and might help his son, Steve coach them – “not that I’ve got much to offer,” he said with grand understatement. He says he’ll have no shortage of stuff to do in retirement: spending more time with his wife, hanging out with friends, playing more golf, travelling. Through it all, he will still have a lasting connection to the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Primarily, Don’s legacy will be one of dedication, humility and passion,” said Lehman. “There is no question his presence at local baseball fields will be missed by families, coaches, players and scouts. Without a doubt the Blue Jays' scouting department is losing an incredibly valuable contributor. His knowledge, the respect and credibility he carried into households wearing our logo is something you can’t just replace overnight.”