The answer, was it in his arm? Nope, thought Robby Rowland, my right arm feels stellar. Maybe it’s my body? Nope, I’m not tired. I’m only 22 for pity’s sake. Maybe it’s my stuff? Nope, the fastball goes 90, the curveball curves, the splitter dives. Ah, wait a minute. Now I got it. It’s my mind. It’s wound tighter than a Swiss watch. I have more tension inside of me than a hostage negotiator. I have so many thoughts flying around inside my head it feels like a beehive in there.
On Aug. 7, 2014, Rowland was having this conversation with himself, a conversation he thought he would never have. Four years before that he was selected in the third round of the Major League Baseball draft. Arizona loved him. What was not to love? He had a 7-1 record and a 0.32 earned-run average his senior year at Cloverdale. He had 117 strikeouts in 65 innings. He threw two no-hitters, one of which was a perfect game. He was All-State in basketball. He had skills, you know.
Now it’s Aug. 7, 2014. The Pittsburgh Pirates informed Rowland they were releasing him. In 2012 the Pirates had traded for Rowland. Now, for the first time in his life, Rowland was without a baseball team. It felt like he was without his right arm.
“I kind of thought maybe I’d go to the JC (in Santa Rosa) and play basketball,” Rowland said. “I didn’t feel like quitting. I still knew I could play. But it might take me a little time.”
Took longer than he thought. August passed. And September and October and November. His agent, Adam Karon, kept hearing the same thing: Gosh, kid, we like you but our roster is full and if it was up to me and blah . . . blah . . . blah. Rowland’s numbers made it a tough sell: In four years in the minors, never pitching higher than Class A, Rowland was 23-36 with a 5.28 ERA.
“This is gonna take longer than I thought,” Rowland thought to himself.
Into his life Rowland was thrown a life preserver. His name was Zach Mortimer.
“I owe everything to Zach,” Rowland said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without Zach.”
Mortimer was an area scout for the St. Louis Cardinals. He had known of the Rowland legend. “Robby was a consensus third-rounder,” he would say. Consensus third-rounders are marquee talents. They usually don’t just disappear into a 5.28 ERA.
Come to the baseball field at UC Davis, Mortimer told Rowland. Show me what you got. Physically, Rowland showed him this: “Robby had a loose arm. I thought he still could have more velocity in his pitches. He had a plus-fastball. He was confident he could use both sides of the plate with it. He had a splitter. He was an athlete.”
That was the assessment of Rowland’s body. Now came the tricky part. Towns all across America have former minor league pitchers who have loose arms and plus-fastballs. What Mortimer needed to see was the mind behind the talent, the disciplined mind to corral that talent, to develop, nurture and ultimately extract every physical gift on every pitch.
“Robby said one thing that really impressed me: ‘I need to get back to where I was in high school. I need to be confident and aggressive again,’ ” Mortimer said.