Pro baseball gave Rowland an early wake-up call

Cloverdale's Robby Rowland talks with his brother Richie, right, as both prepared to bat during their tryout with the Giants AT&T Park in San Francisco on June 4, 2010 (JOHN BURGESS / PD)

By BOB PADECKY
PRESS DEMOCRAT

About the only thing Robby Rowland didn’t do last Aug. 2 was look down to see if there was blood still flowing through that right arm.

This was the right arm that made him a third-round draft choice of the Arizona Diamondbacks. This was the golden right arm that had thrown a perfect game and a no-hitter for Cloverdale High. It had thrown 33 scoreless innings.

It was always his pal. But now? How could you betray me, old friend?

“It was the first time I felt out of place (on a baseball field),” said Rowland who along with his brother Richie will leave today for Arizona and the Diamondbacks’ spring training.

On Aug. 2, starting against Great Falls for the Missoula Osprey, Rowland walked the bases loaded. The next guy hit a grand slam. A couple hits and one pop-up later he was yanked from the game after 35 pitches. Three hits, three walks, a home run, four earned runs later and only one out later, Rowland now was sporting a 0-4 record and a 8.10 ERA after his first seven starts in professional baseball.

“Did you feel like you were on an island out there?” I asked.

“An island with not even a palm tree on it, not even cactus,” said his father, Rich, who played six years in the big leagues as a catcher. At a table at a Healdsburg restaurant his son nodded in agreement. As for Rowland hitting bottom, this was more like subterranean. Rowland became one of those mole people. Where was the light?

It came in the form of a sit-down with Missoula pitching coach Gil Heredia. Heredia pitched for four teams in his 10 big-league years, including time with both the A’s and Giants. Heredia is known for getting to the point without fluff or puff. OK, so maybe Rowland was only 18 and this was rookie league but this still is professional baseball, kid. Time to man-up and in his succinct way that’s what Heredia told Rowland.

“Heredia told me the only person who can defeat me is myself,” Rowland said. “I have to believe I am the best pitcher out there. I have to believe in my stuff, that I am unhittable.”

That was it for the pep talk. Heredia didn’t give Rowland a group hug or a muffin to soothe his ruffled psyche. Sure, it was terrific that his brother and teammate Richie, a former SRJC standout, was lighting up the Pioneer League at the time.

Richie, a catcher and designated hitter, was hitting over .400. An undrafted free agent Richie was surprising the organization and will get a strong look this spring because of it. But it was Robby Rowland that was the high draft choice with the accompanying high expectations.

While Rowland may indeed be equal parts class clown and obsessed athlete, he took Heredia’s mandate and examined it through his past behavior. Rowland was startled what he saw.

“I was pitching scared,” Rowland said. “I had seen some of these guys playing in the College World Series. I was looking at some of these guys who were 3-5 years older and thinking there was no way I was going to get them out. I saw that pitching was more mental than physical. And if I didn’t take Heredia’s approach I would be mentally defeated and that would mean …”

An 0-4 record and a 8.10 ERA. So, what the hay, Rowland thought. Go for it. Can’t get any more subterranean. So Robby Rowland became the Gorilla On the Mound. My Mound. My Jungle. My Game. Batter, you’re just visiting. He won his next start, his first professional victory. After Heredia’s get-real pep talk, Rowland posted a 4.23 ERA and a 4-2 record for his last seven starts.

“I knew Robby would have to go through this but it was still painful to watch,” his dad said. Rich could explain, warn, instruct his son until his tongue fell out on what life as a professional baseball player is. But in the end, as it is for all athletes in any sport, conversation and advice doesn’t throw a baseball. Talent does. Talent seasoned with competition. The opposition is still the best instructor in any sport.

“How have you matured as a result of this?” I asked.

Before he said a word, Rowland took a spoon, licked it and placed it on his nose, it sticking there for a few seconds, all the while a grin framing it. Whether he realized it or not, Rowland was representing what baseball is to him as well as to anyone whoever grabbed a glove or a bat — it’s called a game.

It’s not brain surgery. A brain surgeon doesn’t lick a spoon and put it on his nose. But a baseball player always should retain a little bit of the kid inside himself, if only to help with the pressure that can be so suffocating.

“Yes, I have matured, I have learned a lot of things,” Rowland said, “but off the field I am still that goofy kid. In high school I could just throw fastball, fastball, fastball. Not anymore. I have make every pitch count and I have to use all my pitches. What happened at Great Falls, and for the first half of the season, it was the best thing for me.”

From Sept. 19th to Oct. 13th Rowland went to Instructional League in Tucson. A week from this Friday Richie and Robby Rowland’s journey continues, when early spring training begins. Robby has been told there’ll be between 75-80 pitchers in minor league camp.

“This is what we have been told: ‘We have 25 days to prove ourselves’,” Robby Rowland said.

If that statement sounds cold and hard, it only reflects the environment. Baseball is a game to play but a business to learn. Sounds difficult but to anyone who has seen Robby Rowland throw a fastball and stick a spoon on his nose, he’s ready to give it a shot.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.