“Fathers playing catch with sons” is one of the most storied of American images, expressing a bond that goes well beyond the baseball diamond, crosses generations, provides a beacon for foreign-tongued fathers unfamiliar with bats and gloves and balls but eager to help their sons reach the field of their dreams, and unites families of all ethnicities in a shared ritual from sea to shining sea. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall writes eloquently of that image, “fathers playing catch with sons,” in his paean to baseball of the same title, calling the American pastime “continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.”
And as someone who still keeps the old leather handy because his daughter, age 27, still asks, “Hey, Dad, do you want to have a catch?”, this writer is pleased to report that the ritual has long-since crossed gender lines as well. (More on that later.)
Ask Theo McDowell about his earliest memories of baseball, and the 2017 Western New England Pitcher-of-the-Year evokes the father-son image with the quickness and authority of one of the 92-mph, two-seamed fastballs he has been serving opposing hitters this spring. The varsity nine is off to an impressive 9-0 start, and the 4-0 McDowell along with fellow hurler Emmett Sheehan, also 4-0, is a big reason for the team’s success.
“My father had the combination to the locked shed where the baseball gear was kept at Cascade Park,” McDowell recalls of his early baseball memories in Essex Junction, Vermont. “Inside the shed were the bases for the field at the park and rakes to groom the infield,” he explains with a wistful joy not usually associated with groundskeepers’ tools. “It was just down the street from our house. My brother and I would go down there with our dad every chance we had. It wasn’t long before twenty kids from the neighborhood were showing up for games that my father would organize.”
And those games at the local park were a good thing in another way, too. McDowell was banned from tee-ball – yes, banned from tee-ball! – because of his precociousness on the diamond.
“We were never an X-Box, Play Station kind of family,” says McDowell, whose family moved to the Salisbury campus two years ago when his mother became Chair of the Math Department. “If we were bored, we’d head outside to the yard or down the street to the park. Even when I reached Little League, I would go home after pitching a game and head out to the yard to throw sixty whiffle pitches, as hard as I could. I honestly believe my development as a pitcher has a lot to do with whiffle ball.”
The early baseball memories go back even farther for McDowell than those neighborhood games at Cascade Park. “My older [by two years] brother Max and I played whiffle ball pretty much every day,” McDowell reminisces. “Starting when I was about two, my grandma would pitch underhand to us – three swings for me, then three swings for Max. We wouldn’t stop until the sun went down. She would stay out there with us until we couldn’t see the ball in the twilight.”
McDowell’s grandma was more than his first batting-practice pitcher. She looms large across the span of his playing days to date. “She loved baseball,” he further rhapsodizes her, “and came to all my games. With her white hair and Florida tan along with her loud voice, you couldn’t miss her in the stands. She was by far my biggest fan. Going through her death on Christmas Eve in 2016 was one of the toughest experiences of my life.”
Last spring, inside the brim of his baseball cap, McDowell penned the words “R.I.P. #1 Fan.” For perhaps the only time in the conversation, McDowell, whose warm smile and genial laugh belie his competitive fires, grows somber in sharing the memory of his grandmother and the inscribed tribute to her that rests over his brow each time he takes the field.
McDowell’s development has taken a steadily ascendant trajectory over his three-year career on the Hilltop. As a fourth former and varsity walk-on, he made three relief appearances for then-coach Xander Jones, totaling six innings pitched, without allowing a run. Last year, en route to picking up Pitcher-of-the-Year honors, he became a starter under new varsity coach Kevin Huber, going 7-1 with 29 strikeouts over 42 innings pitched. Opponents batted .150 against him as he compiled an earned run average of 0.86. McDowell’s numbers in four starts this season include a 0.67 e.r.a. and 31 K’s through 21 innings.
That “steadily ascendant trajectory” could also characterize McDowell’s physical growth over the past three seasons. As a fourth former, he stood 6’1”. By the following spring, he had grown to 6’3”, prompting teammate and co-captain Dylan Sanchez to coin the now-ubiquitous nickname “Stork.” That appellation has become only the more appropriate as McDowell, who also skated as a defenceman for the varsity hockey team the past three winters, has continued to gain stature, looming large over opposing batters from atop the mound this spring at 6’5”. “It’s definitely an advantage,” McDowell affirms. “I’m releasing the ball that much closer to the plate, and the hitter has that much less time to react.”
During his three seasons as a Knight, McDowell has studied the craft of pitching under the tutelage of coaching legend Duane Estes, who honed his craft amidst the wheat fields of Kansas around the same time Bob Feller, another mid-Western farm boy, was establishing himself as the greatest pitcher of his generation (at least in one fan’s humble opinion). McDowell’s repertoire of pitches has steadily expanded from the two-seam fastball and curveball he brought with him as a fourth former to an array that now includes a three-quarter slider (“three-quarter” referring to the arm slot from which the pitch is thrown) and a change-up.
Not only has McDowell become a student of the craft during his three-year Salisbury career, but he has also matured in his approach to the physical demands of pitching. “Last year,” he recounts, “was the first time I took the conditioning seriously. With Coach Estes’ guidance, I began a workout regimen, putting my main focus on mobility and flexibility. Especially with [Major League] scouts telling me I need to add twenty to thirty pounds to my current [175-pound] weight, there is a danger of getting too big and too strong, which can result in a loss of flexibility if I’m not careful.”
McDowell has likewise matured as a student. During his academic career at Salisbury, he has excelled in the English classroom, earning honors placement, while generally earning solid-enough grades in the B to low-B range in his other course work. Only in the recently completed winter trimester of this his sixth form year, however, did he finally achieve the Honors List. “It had always been a goal of mine,” McDowell acknowledges, “but I always seemed to come up a bit short. It was exciting,” he says, beaming, “to hear my name called at the Academic Awards Assembly two weeks ago” – as anyone who observed McDowell might have guessed, to see him leap from his seat in Seifert Theatre and bound up to the stage.
“The project-based experiences helped me out [in achieving Honors],” McDowell adds, referring to the innovative assessments used curriculum-wide this past winter. “An historical-fiction project I did for Mr. Siff’s elective Literature and the Family,” an enthusiastic McDowell elaborates, “was especially interesting. I wrote a story set in 1940, using material about my ancestors: my great-grandparents who met and married in Cairo, Egypt, during World War Two. Doing the project, I learned a lot about my family, particularly through interviews I conducted with my mother and with her mother.”
Based on communications he has had with baseball scouts, McDowell is likely to be selected in this June’s MLB draft. He is ready to consider offers from whichever team picks him and then decide whether to turn professional now or enter the University of West Virginia next fall and put off signing a professional contract for a year or two.
Among the opportunities he has had to showcase his talent to baseball scouts, the Summer Rivalry Classic in 2017 stands out for McDowell. For this event, he had a bullpen session at Yankee Stadium and took the mound at Fenway Park. Talk about “living the dream”: does it get any better than pitching in two of the three most legendary ballparks in the country, before one’s nineteenth birthday? “When a high school player enters the world of professional scouts,” McDowell explains matter-of-factly, “you’re invited to attend these events. The coaches are the MLB scouts who brought you to the event. My coaches were from the Yankees, the Rays, the Phils, the Red Sox, the Tigers, the Cubs, and the Brewers. You see all these people with different team hats watching you play. It’s an unbelievable experience.”
Probed further, McDowell expands on the experience: “The day after pitching [the series] in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park was like waking up from a dream. Fenway has the most beautiful mound I have ever seen or pitched on, and I was standing on that mound because other people wanted to see me. It sharpened my focus on getting to the Majors and stepping onto those mounds again.”
And summers have, of course, provided the time for McDowell to develop his game further at the highest levels of age-grouped competition. He was, for example, a member of the Northeast Rays team that advanced through the 64-team field to the Elite Eight round of the Perfect Game National Tournament at Lake Point Baseball Complex in Atlanta, Georgia. “We played three games some days,” McDowell recalls of the event. “8:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. College coaches and pro scouts filled the stands at all of the fields in the complex.”
Events such as Perfect Game also provide a reality check. “The two best under-18 pitchers in the United States were at the tournament – both on the same team, in fact. Both throw 98, 99. [McDowell tops out at 91, 92.] They will be the first two pitchers selected in the June draft.”
A conversation with McDowell about baseball is sprinkled with wisdom and lore of the game, peppered with piquant opinion. To wit:
* [Struggling Yankee star and former Miami Marlin Giancarlo] Stanton is not used to the climate yet. Once it warms up – watch out.
* [Hall-of-Famer and the last hitter to bat .400 for a season] Ted Williams once said that hitting a baseball is the single hardest thing in all of sports. He’s right.
* Baseball is a game of failure. A hitter who fails 70% of the time and hits safely the other 30% is a Hall-of-Famer. A pitcher misses his spot by fractions of an inch, and the hitter can put the ball in the seats.
And this gem:
* “Old school” is [long-time Knights’ pitching coach] Mr. Estes going over a regimen for strengthening shoulder muscles – and then handing you two tennis-ball containers filled with cement to do your exercises.
* XBL is one of the greatest things to hit the Hilltop, but you’ll notice I’m throwing only with my [non-dominant] left arm. I’m not taking any chances with the right.
Head varsity coach Kevin Huber is not the only one who might take exception to his star pitcher’s putting that prized limb in jeopardy for a game of stickball: the Major League scouts lining up for a chance to whisper in McDowell’s ear would be mortified. Even with McDowell’s transforming himself into a southpaw for XBL, there are still probably some dubious scouts who might call the coveted prospect’s judgment into question. Little do they know how deep reach those backyard ballgames’ roots into McDowell’s very core.
- Procter Smith