When Chris Rowley was a senior at South Forsyth, the crowds would be more than the War Eagles’ cramped confines could fit. Fans would bring chairs and seek out spots beyond the left-center field wall to watch a team that was stacked with college talent, one that would make it to the state championship series before falling to Pope.
Two members of that team, both pitchers, are still playing baseball full-time. There’s Jake Drehoff, in the Boston Red Sox organization with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, and then there’s Rowley, with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons in the Toronto Blue Jays system, a step away from reaching the majors on a long, unconventional path.
Rowley was not a serious draft prospect or even a stud college recruit for the War Eagles. He played a year on the freshman team before making the jump to varsity, and at his peak, he sat in the 84-86 mph range with a heavy sinker and what former South coach Jamie Corr called a “wipeout slider.”
“He throws a ton of strikes, and yet he misses barrels,” said Corr, who later coached Lambert to a state title and now heads the baseball program at Florida Southwestern. “That’s just something that I don’t know how much you teach … He’s not a guy that grew up being able to throw the ball by people, so he had to live off precise location, which made him a better pitcher.”
At Army-West Point, Rowley became a star. He went 11-1 with a 2.40 ERA as a junior and earned multiple All-America honors for that campaign. Rowley took a small step back as a senior, with a higher ERA and more hits allowed, but he still helped the Black Knights reach a regional, in which he allowed two runs in a start against a powerful Virginia squad.
These would have been the attributes and track record of fairly high draft pick, if not for the matter of Rowley’s military commitment. Because of that, he wasn’t drafted, although the Blue Jays did offer him a free agent contract. He accepted, crushed the rookie-level Gulf Coast League over nine appearances and then was off to active duty.
Rowley was stationed out of Fort Stewart, to the south of Savannah, and was deployed to Bulgaria as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, which provided support to NATO states potentially affected by Russia’s military actions. He threw occasionally, but not off a mound.
Rowley’s military commitment was supposed to last five years, but servicemen with opportunities to play professional sports are sometimes allowed to serve less. In January of last year, Rowley’s application to do so went through, and he left active duty.
Minor league life can be infamously difficult, with below-minimum wage pay, a diet mainly composed of PB&J sandwiches and a brutal travel schedule without the cushy accommodations of the major leagues. It doesn’t compare to the grind of Army life, though.
“West Point and the Army definitely shaped me positively,” Rowley said. “Just with professionalism and testing my limits and all this stuff, and I think that definitely applies for the minor leagues. It’s definitely a grid, but nothing is ever as bad as it seems.”
The Blue Jays didn’t exactly nudge Rowley back into full-time minor league life — last spring, he went straight to Dunedin in the high-A Florida State League. He had a run of rough bullpen appearances in April and May, but Rowley began to get starts as the summer went on, and his ERA dropped below 3.00 a couple times.
In 2017, Rowley made the jump to the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats and began to dominate like when he was in the GCL, pitching to players four years younger than him. His ERA was 2.19 on May 16, when he was primarily a bullpen arm, and it dropped to 1.62 when Rowley allowed one run in four straight starts.
The Fisher Cats and the rest of the Eastern League are currently on their all-star break, but Rowley won’t be there for the festivities, though he was back in New Hampshire this week collecting his things from the clubhouse.
Last year, Rowley didn’t make the all-star squad because his stats didn’t shape up until after the break. This year, it was because he was called up to the Bisons on June 19.
“I think you’d definitely rather be promoted,” Rowley said.
Rowley hasn’t changed much as a pitcher since high school. His pitches have picked up velocity and his sinker has gotten heavier, but he still relies on deception and precision to get outs. He doesn’t have a clear go-to pitch between his sinker, slider and changeup, calling them “1A, 1B and 1C.” He mainly works inside to take advantage of his pitches’ movement and jam hitters, and, in the vein of Greg Maddux, tries to make his pitches look as similar as possible until they’re almost at the plate and the batter has decided to swing.
There’s a strange duality to Rowley, too. He’s 26, so he’s too old to be a prospect, and he’s been above the average age of every level of the minors he’s been at, except triple-A. But Rowley’s stint in the Army means he has much less mileage on his arm than most players his age, so there could still be meaningful development left for him.
Rowley hasn’t been as dominant with the Bisons as he was with the Fisher Cats. Double-A typically skews to younger players with more raw talent, but Triple-A is stacked with players with ample big league experience. On July 8 against the Pawtucket Red Sox, Rowley faced a lineup with Rusney Castillo, Brock Holt and Pablo Sandoval — all of whom have spent significant time in the majors — in succession.
“They’ve seen a million people like you before,” Rowley said. “So you’ve got to execute your game and trust that your stuff plays there.”
Rowley isn’t making any guesses on whether he’ll see Toronto soon, whether it be for an emergency start in case of injury or a proverbial cup of coffee when rosters expand in September. But he’s close, closer than any player from Forsyth County currently is.
Nobody from the county has made the majors since Glenn Sutko, who debuted with the Reds in 1990, but the county’s rapid growth has been accompanied by a surge of talent, with two likely first-round picks in Lambert alum Seth Beer and Forsyth Central rising senior Ethan Hankins coming down the pipe.
And Rowley, whose route to this point has been far from normal, could be the next model for them to follow.