PADECKY: No regrets for former Casa Grande phenom Phill Lowery

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The scene is as fresh for Phill Lowery today as it was in 1995. After all, no one forgets the day they were made a star.

A "Phill Board" was erected at the front office at Casa Grande High School. It listed the remaining Gauchos baseball games. That way, when MLB scouts called, the office secretary would tell them which days Lowery would be pitching. For the two weeks before the June 1995 free agent draft, seven or eight scouts would call daily. Before that, for the previous 10 months, Lowery had received two to three calls a night from scouts. Casa's baseball coach at the time, Bob Leslie, said he had to replace his answering machine, worn out it was from so many calls.

Phill Lowery was a commodity, the real deal. An 18-year-old left-handed pitcher who could control a 90-mph heater had clubs idly doodling his name in staff meetings. Smart, mature, grounded in real life by his father, John, who was a CHP officer, Lowery had everything teams wanted.

In the second round, with the 37th overall pick, the Texas Rangers selected Lowery. At the time, Lowery was the highest draft pick in Empire history.

"Phill," said Rangers area scout Alan Regier, "you are going to get your chance to meet Nolan Ryan."

Lowery had 13 pictures of Ryan on his bedroom walls in Petaluma.

The Rangers flew Lowery to Dallas. He was given and passed a physical, toured the stadium in Arlington and ate at nice restaurants for two days. He spoke well, was reverential, welcomed coaching and had big dreams. Yep, Lowery had everything a big-league team would want.

Except, as it would turn out, a left arm that would deteriorate to a point it felt like a knife wound.

"At the end there I couldn't wash my hair with my left hand, the pain was so severe," Lowery said. "It hurt so bad I couldn't wash my truck. That's not any way to live. So I retired."

At the age of 22. After two seasons in Class A ball. After four elbow operations. After never getting that chance to meet Nolan Ryan. After all that, Lowery doesn't feel wounded, robbed or otherwise cursed by his short professional career that ended in Kane County, wherever that is.

"I feel very blessed," said Lowery, 36, married, a father to two boys and in his 12th year as a CHP officer in Amador County.

Lowery feels blessed because he never felt entitled when he played the game. He knew the failure rate of drafted pitchers. The numbers are startling.

Jim Campbell, former general manager of the Detroit Tigers, said success for him was having one pitcher out of 100 drafted to make it to the Tigers. In 2009, USA Today published a story that in the 44 years the Philadelphia Phillies had drafted, only five pitchers had ever won 15 games in a season, and none of them more than once. The failure rate is so high that in the 2005 draft, 48 percent of all players selected were pitchers.

"I played with guys that had phenomenal talent, physical ability off the charts," Lowery said of his two years in the Florida Marlins' chain. Lowery couldn't agree with the Rangers on a contract, played on scholarship for three years at Arizona State and was selected in the sixth round in 1998 by the Marlins.

"It was like God just touched them on the shoulder and said, 'You're it!' They could throw 95-96 miles an hour with no effort. But some of them didn't have two brain cells they could rub together. Some were lazy. Some chased women. Some felt homesick. Some broke down, like me."

Injury is always the bogeyman that chases every pitcher. That would be due to the contrary nature of the throwing motion. Arms are not made to operate smoothly and efficiently and trouble-free by throwing a sphere overhand. That his idol, Ryan, could pitch for 27 years in the big leagues leaves Lowery as open-mouthed in amazement now as it did in 1999 when he retired after two years of minor league baseball.

"I was facing total elbow reconstruction," Lowery said. "The Marlins were willing to do it. I was getting treatments, cortisone shots, but nothing relieved the pain. Those last two years I don't have many memories of throwing without pain. It was all the time. I just couldn't stay healthy."

Does Lowery regret not signing with the Rangers at 18, earning a larger payday than a sixth-round choice three years later? He gets that question a lot.

"I tell people I don't think it would have made any difference because of the physical nature of my arm," he said. "I got my college education paid for. I have a degree in communications. I played in the College World Series with ASU. My roommate my first year with the Marlins was (current major leaguer) Josh Beckett. I have a great wife, two great kids I coach in Little League, love where I live, love what I do."

Because he has two brain cells he can rub together, Lowery's life didn't reflect that Bruce Springsteen song, "Glory Days." Once Lowery could throw that speed ball by you. Then he couldn't. The lesson from that, he said, influences him to this day.

"In baseball, you will get frustrated because that's the nature of the sport," Lowery said. "You have to learn how to handle it. Same thing when I do my job now. When I get a call I have to be calm, patient, not bring irrelevant things into play. That's the advice I would give to anyone who gets drafted: Get good people around you to keep you grounded. I was lucky. I had my dad and Bob Leslie and Paul Maytorena and Mel Arnerich around me."

Those men did their job so well that now, 14 years after his last professional pitch, Lowery said his greatest loss was not his baseball career.

"My biggest disappointment is I never met Nolan Ryan," Lowery said. "My plane was late that day into Dallas and Nolan had a plane to catch. I missed him by 30 minutes."

Oh, that all disappointments could harbor so little regret.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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