Fowler the product of many mentors
Rookie Rox outfielder maturing by leaps and bounds
DENVER -- Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler's father, John, coached youth baseball. His mother, Trudy, is an elementary school physical education teacher. They've spent their lives teaching with analogies. This year, they broke out a saying as old as latter 20th Century technology.
"That one sounds like my dad -- you don't put a steak in the microwave," Fowler said with a smile about his parental advice. "It gets tough and chewy. You let it marinate. You grill it. You season it. In other words, you don't rush it. It had to do with my development. They said don't rush things. It'll happen on God's time."
The lesson came during the offseason. That was when Fowler was supposed to go to camp and learn before being sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs. His mom gave the same bit of caution before Fowler made his first Major League start. He swatted the first pitch for a home run, and hasn't slowed since.
Edible steak in an instant continues to be impossible. And Fowler seems set on rendering moot any connection between baseball and cooking.
The Rockies didn't start Fowler until the third game. The plan was to give him periodic starts to keep him from seeing too much too soon. Going into Wednesday afternoon's game against the Padres, Fowler was hitting .310 with a .394 on-base percentage, two home runs and six RBIs, and had started 13 of the team's 19 games in center field. He is the team's primary leadoff hitter.
Monday night, he tied the modern (since 1900) rookie single-game record with five steals in a 12-7 victory over the Padres. His nine steals (in 10 attempts) led the National League and were one behind the Red Sox's Jacoby Ellsbury for the Major League lead.
Manager Clint Hurdle has gone from easing Fowler in to having a hard time finding a reason to keep him out.
"I'm just trying to go from day-to-day," Hurdle said. "He's now played more games than anybody else in center field. I'm not going to run him into a hole, either. Maybe he'll never get there. There might not be anything to worry about."
Fowler, 23, excites with his smile as much as with his results.
At 6-4 and with a lanky body, Fowler moves with long, gliding strides. Balls that look as if they'll drop for hits, or look as if they'll require diving efforts, end up in his glove -- with him waiting. On steal attempts, he is out of his short, choppy steps earlier than most. And he does it all in an approachable manner. He actually hears encouragement from the stands and seems to acknowledge clever ones with a sly smile.
It seems like an out-of-nowhere story. Fowler did have a dominant 2008 at Double-A Tulsa (.335, 9 HR, 64 RBIs), which lead to appearances in the All-Star Futures Game and the Olympics for Team USA's bronze medalist squad, and 13 games with the Rockies (.154 in 28 at-bats). But the lack of Triple-A experience, and his weak start this spring -- 3-for-20, 10 strikeouts -- seemed to dictate that this success story was expected to occur later in the season.
But those with the Rockies who have followed him as a Georgia high school phenom are not as surprised by the sudden turnaround.
Rockies scout Damon Iannelli and assistant scouting director Danny Montgomery began tracking Fowler at a Perfect Game wood bat tournament in Jupiter, Fla., in the fall of 2003. The first impression was much like his performance in front of the Major League staff this spring.
"He must've struck out on 6-of-7 at-bats," Iannelli said. "But we loved the athletic body and we knew more was there."
It wasn't until a tournament the next spring in Columbia, S.C., that Fowler began showing his first-round potential. He had signed with the University of Miami and teams knew it would take a huge offer to sign him out of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. But the more the Rockies became familiar with Fowler and his family, the more they decided drafting him would be the right move.
As he played his senior year at Milton High School outside of Atlanta, his father was in Asia representing Kimberly-Clark (he has since become founder and CEO of Facility Supply Group, which handles office supply and territorial products). So Montgomery would visit with Fowler and his mother and talk to them for long hours. Iannelli was pictured smiling with Fowler's mother as they watched a high school game together.
The Rockies were impressed with the family's values. Fowler had an interest in computers and was a good enough student for Dartmouth and Harvard to recruit him for baseball and basketball. His older brother, Wesley, had played college basketball and now works for the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves.
The right time turned out to be much later than anyone expected. With teams knowing that Fowler was going to sign for first- or second-round money regardless of when he was selected, the Rockies were able to wait until the 14th round.
It was the one instance in which Fowler's smile disappeared.
"Terrible," Fowler said. "I was almost brought to tears, just because I wanted to play. But at the same time, I knew I was blessed enough to have the opportunity to go to the University of Miami, but I was upset. But I felt things happen for a reason."
Fowler said he isn't wired in a way that he would use the delayed Draft position to fuel his work ethic. That was important to the Rockies, because they had taken one of his close friends, Georgia prep infielder Chris Nelson, in the first round.
Montgomery and Iannelli were encouraged by Fowler's desire to go pro as long as the money was right. When the club cleared $925,000 from the deal that sent former star outfielder Larry Walker to the Cardinals, Fowler signed.
In the discussions, Montgomery and Iannelli told Fowler the story of Juan Pierre, who now is an outfielder with the Dodgers but is an iconic figure in Rockies scouting and player-development circles.
Pierre would arrive early at the Rockies' Spring Training complex every day to work on bunting or coming out of the batter's box after a swing. Coaches couldn't get in early enough to satisfy his desire to work. Teammates couldn't keep up with him.
Fowler still smiles when reminded of Pierre's story. "That's how I am," Fowler said.
Before going pro, Fowler was a right-handed hitter, but the Rockies made him a switch-hitter. For bat control, and survival, Fowler morphed into a split grip from the left side, with a couple of inches between his hands. This spring, new Rockies hitting coach Don Baylor offered to work with Fowler each morning before batting practice or games. Fowler was there religiously, and the results have showed.
Hurdle admitted late in Spring Training that he and the staff were alarmed by Fowler's slow start and wondered if it was too much too soon. But Montgomery said he could see that Fowler was about to turn a corner. Montgomery saw him do it with Team USA last year.
"I went over to Beijing last summer for the Olympics and he started o-fer, but by the end he was one of their better all-around players," Montgomery said. "It's like the light clicked on. Then he told me, 'I'm going to do everything I can do to make the Major League club.' You can't turn him back."
"The game is about adjustments," Fowler said. "I just watch what people are doing against me and make the right changes." Now Fowler is giving the same attention to stealing bases. The video sessions with first-base coach Glenallen Hill are paying dividends. He's also been fortunate to be a sort of a junior member of the club of basestealers.
He had mentors in Willy Taveras and Scott Podsednik when he came up with the club last year. Fowler has also received advice from the likes of Eric Young, whose single-game club record for steals Fowler almost matched on Monday and who has a son, Eric Jr., who is a basepaths threat in the Rockies' system.
Fowler's favorite player as a youth, Ken Griffey Jr., gave Fowler his phone number this spring and the two have talked about the Major League life and its spoils and pitfalls. Fowler said he is delighted to have met Pierre, who is almost evangelical in his desire to help younger players, and the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins.
"I'm a base stealer," Fowler said with a smile, "Or I'd like to think I'm a work in progress."
So far the progress is speedy, but savory.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.