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Attending to unfinished business

Baseball dream never died for rookie prospect

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GARY, Ind. -- It's said that there are defining moments in every man's life. Barry Fowler's came early.

At 24, Fowler had a world of life options in front of him in the spring of 1999 -- all of them tantalizing. He'd just graduated from the University of Georgia with an economics degree and had also just wrapped up a very productive collegiate baseball career (he threw a complete-game shutout against Vanderbilt's Mark Prior) with the highly respected Bulldogs baseball program.

 

But Fowler chose a much more challenging third option -- caring for an ailing family. And that set in motion an unlikely chain of events that over a decade later has him wearing a Winnipeg Goldeyes uniform this spring as he tries to author that most unlikely of sports stories -- the 35-year-old rookie.

"There are defining moments in every person's life and mine was choosing my family and those relationships over baseball and whatever else I might have had going on at that time," Fowler said Wednesday, prior to the Goldeyes defeating the Gary SouthShore RailCats 6-2 in a pre-season American Association contest.

And so Fowler turned his back on baseball and the business world, moving back home instead and settling down for a string of blue-collar jobs as he turned his focus to an ailing family.

"My grandfather was quite sick and he was living with us," he said.

"My stepfather would go off to work and my mom would stay home and look after my grandfather. And it was very hard for her because he had a lot of health problems at the time, a lot of problems getting around.

"And my grandmother was living across the street and she came down with cancer. And so we had that going on, too.

"And then there was this string of deaths as he died and then she died. And then within a year of my grandmother dying, my mother died. And so my stepfather lost his mother and his wife within a year's time. And so I didn't want to leave him at that time, dealing with all that loss like he was."

And so it went for Fowler for the better part of a decade, as the lives and deaths of his family took over his own life and he shuffled from jobs at a warehouse to an elevator company to his present job working for a Georgia utility.

He never married and he's heard the whispers.

"I know there are a lot of people who can look at me kind of weird and say, 'You graduated from college with an economics degree and you played baseball and you're still hanging around the house?' " said Fowler.

"But it's more than that. When people die, that's serious stuff. And life is just too precious and I needed to be there, first for my grandparents and my mom and then for my stepdad."

But while the focus was elsewhere, Fowler's baseball dream never died. On the contrary, he became a genius at keeping it alive by working it into the banalities of his everyday life.

"There were little tricks I'd always do," he recalled. "When I carried tools around my waist, I'd carry a few extras so I was walking around with more weight. Or I'd wear an extra jacket or clothing just so I'd sweat more. Or anything I'd do that required repetition, I'd always do with my pitching hand."

Fowler also continued playing semi-pro ball while living in Atlanta, until finally last year he got his first opportunity to play pro ball with the American Association's El Paso Diablos.

Fowler was solid in El Paso, not giving up an earned run in nine consecutive appearances out of the bullpen at one point and, more importantly, fulfilling a long ago promise he'd made to his family and also himself.

"They all looked at me and felt bad because they were pulling me away from pursuing baseball," he said. "I knew they felt bad and I made them a promise that I would go try -- I would go with all my heart and give it everything I had and I wouldn't let them down and we'd see where that goal would go later on."

That time is now. Still considered a rookie, Fowler flew up to Maryland at his own expense last fall to show Goldeyes manager Rick Forney what he could do and ask for a tryout.

Forney was impressed with what he saw from Fowler -- but even more with the man himself.

"Guys like this are exactly what the independent leagues are about -- giving people a second chance," said Forney. "He's got enough ability and certainly has the desire to play. And I had nothing to lose by bringing him in because I know he's going to work his ass off to make the team -- and maybe some of that work ethic will rub off on the younger guys."

Regardless of his story, Fowler will have to make the Goldeyes on his own merits. And so far he's done that -- impressing by pitching one scoreless inning of relief here on Tuesday in his only appearance so far.

Whatever happens, Fowler says he's just happy to finally address some unfinished business. "I'm so grateful to have this opportunity. I can't tell you how much this means to me."

He doesn't need to -- it shows.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2011 C3

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