Chris Rowley is living his childhood dream.
Rowley, a 2009 South Forsyth alumnus and now recent graduate from Army in West Point, N.Y., signed a free-agent deal with major league baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound right-handed pitcher received a call from the Blue Jays organization on June 8 telling him they liked what he had to offer. Two weeks later, he signed a 60-day contract with the club when he reported to Dunedin, Fla., to play for the Gulf Coast Blue Jays, a rookie level minor league affiliate.
Rowley made his major league debut for the Gulf Coast Blue Jays on Wednesday. He pitched only the fourth inning before being replaced, but struck out all three Yankees batters.
"It’s a blessing; it really is," Rowley said. "This is a dream come true. You know, 95 percent of little kids have [that dream] and it was my dream as well. So, it’s nice to be able to finally begin to start to live that dream out. I’m blessed to have gotten this opportunity to play baseball and I am looking forward to it."
The star right-hander doesn’t overpower hitters at the plate but tactically finds the strike zone with an upper 80s fastball, slider and off-speed pitches. His effectiveness caught the attention of the Blue Jays, and although Rowley grew up an Atlanta Braves fan, he was eager to sign with Toronto.
"I thought [signing with Toronto] would affect me a little more than it did, but at this point it’s about trying to live out that dream," Rowley said. "It’s honestly pretty cool to get to travel a little bit, if I get that opportunity, and it would really be nice to get up there. I mean, I’m from Georgia. I grew up a Braves fan. …To travel and compete against some teams you grew up watching on TV — it’s just special."
Rowley started turning heads when he dominated on the mound his junior year, going 11-1 and setting the program record for wins in a season, winning percentage, innings pitched, most shutouts in a season, consecutive shutouts, consecutive scoreless innings and consecutive innings pitched.
However, Rowley’s senior season didn’t pick up where he left off, as he began the year 0-2 and allowed eight runs in his first two starts. But Rowley turned it around and finished the season with an impressive 9-4 record and a 2.67 earned run average to lead the Patriot League in wins, ERA, strikeouts (75) and innings pitched (97.7). He finished his Army career with 25 wins, good for third all-time in the program.
"Everything worked out for me," Rowley said. "My teammates helped me get those wins. I couldn’t have done it without everyone scoring runs and playing great defense in the field.
"Maybe I had a little too high of expectations for myself trying to do too much because of the [success] I had my junior year. But, I got knocked around a little bit in my first two starts and I wasn’t exactly 100 percent healthy. I actually had to just take a step back and took a weekend off, but I came back and threw pretty well after that and just kind of went back to basics."
His success on the mound earned him First-Team All-Conference honors and helped the Black Knights make the postseason for the second year in a row and only the sixth time in school history. Rowley gave up only two runs in the regional matchup against the University of Virginia, but Army fell 2-1 and was forced into an elimination game against UNC Wilmington, where they lost 9-5.
After Rowley’s 60-day contract expires, he is expected to return to West Point where he will serve as a graduate assistant on the baseball team. If he succeeds in the minor leagues, he could qualify for an exemption from military service. However, if he goes the military route, he will report to Fort Sill, Okla., for field artillery training, and then to Fort Stewart, Ga., with the Third Infantry Division, according to Army’s website.
"I feel very blessed to have been afforded the opportunity to come play baseball, but at the same time I understand that my duty and obligation is to the United States army," Rowley said. "…Unless something comes up along the lines, we’ll handle it, but at this point I’m just concerned about doing this as well as I can down here for 60 days and then returning to the army and fulfilling my duty and obligations with them."