"Where are they now" is a six-part summer series that will take a look back at the careers of former Kentucky athletes and find out what they're doing post-UK. Today we will catch up with Collin Cowgill, the former All-American outfielder for UK baseball
Collin Cowgill was used to success.
His collegiate career at the University of Kentucky saw him help lead his team to the 2006 Southeastern Conference championship and earn first-team All-America honors after his senior year in 2008. Even in the classroom, where he worked to become a first-team Academic All-American, Cowgill was accustomed to doing well.
A fifth-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008, Cowgill expected to make his mark on the organization and march to the big leagues. After a solid first professional season, Cowgill was 61 games into his 2009 season when he handled a small-scale failure about as poorly as possible.
Playing High-A ball with the Visalia (Ca.) Rawhide, Cowgill struck out for the second time against the same pitcher. He responded by unleashing a blow on the dugout wall, which dislocated two bones in his hand and required two pins to be surgically inserted, ending his season with 80 games to go. Cowgill had dealt with injury before, missing his entire junior season at UK, but this time it was by his own doing. He realized that his approach to the game needed a dose of perspective.
"That definitely was a lesson I learned the hard way," Cowgill said. "I think mostly (I learned) not to take every game, every at-bat too seriously. We play 140 games in the minor leagues and we're going to get close to 600 at-bats, so one at-bat, five at-bats, 10 at-bats don't really mean anything. You can't get too caught up in one little thing that happens or even a bunch of things strung together."
Much of the reason why Cowgill had always succeeded was because of the intensity with which he approached things, but he needed to temper that intensity with a keen awareness of the big picture.
"After I got hurt in '09, I learned to enjoy the game a little bit more and not take it too serious," Cowgill said. "Obviously I take it seriously, but (I remember) that it's just one game or one at-bat."
What has followed for Cowgill in the two years after his self-inflicted injury has been the kind of rise up the organizational chain that he originally expected. He played the entire 2010 season with Double-A Mobile, posting a respectable .285 batting average to go with 16 home runs, 34 doubles and 86 RBI.
That strong campaign in 2010 landed him a spot on the Triple-A Reno Aces of the Pacific Coast League to start the 2011 season, where Cowgill has not missed a beat.
Eighty-one games into his fourth professional season, Cowgill's performance has his teammates with the Aces calling him the potential league MVP. While playing a sparkling center field, Cowgill is first in the PCL in runs (81) and second in batting average (.366), on-base percentage (.440) and steals (26). The 5-foot-9 outfielder also has 12 home runs and 57 RBI and was the leading vote-getter among players earning berths in the Triple-A All-Star game next week in Salt Lake City.
Putting up those kinds of numbers just one level down from the majors, many a player would spend his time wondering why a call-up to the big leagues has yet to come. Cowgill, now 25, is much more focused on sustaining his high level of play and enjoying where he is.
"It's a great feeling when it's going well," Cowgill said. "Obviously you want to keep that going as long as you can. This team, this league and our home field, everything's perfect. We've got a bunch of veteran guys that I can learn from that are teaching me a lot about the game. Our field is gorgeous, our fans are amazing and it's fun to come to the park every day."
If not for the situation in the outfield with the playoff-contending Arizona Diamondbacks, the call likely would have come already. Established young stars Justin Upton and Chris Young play right and center field, respectively, and are not going anywhere. In left field is 24-year old Gerardo Parra, who is having a solid season at the plate and has a strong glove.
Cowgill could almost certainly help the Diamondbacks right now as a fourth outfielder, but general manager Kevin Towers has said that the team values Cowgill so much that they want him to be able to play every day. That's a consideration that Cowgill understands and appreciates.
"It's kind of tough because you're in a spot where it could happen but you try not to think about it and you just have to play," Cowgill said. "There's nothing you can do about it. You've got some guys up there that can really, really play and I don't even know where I would fit in that outfield. I just go out and play every day and if the time comes, it will happen."
Arizona has a record of 47-41 and sits just two games behind the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants for first place in the National League West. If Cowgill does receive a call-up, he will be thrust directly into a pennant race.
"They've got so many pieces on that team right now, I would hope I could fit and do whatever I could to win," Cowgill said. "Whatever I could do to help them win, I'd be more than happy to do it. I'm looking forward to the challenge if it does happen."
For now, Cowgill is more concerned about his current team's divisional race, though that one isn't so close. At 50-35 on the year, Reno is eight games ahead of second place Tacoma. Even if Cowgill doesn't have his best game, he still enjoys being around his team and sharing in its success.
"Even if you don't have a good game or you have a tough series, it's still a lot of fun just being there at the field with your teammates," Cowgill said. "It's been a great experience so far and I think that's been the biggest factor in making the adjustment (from Double-A to Triple-A). I'm having a lot of fun playing the game right now and I couldn't ask for much more than that."
Cowgill's current team is blistering the ball at the dish, sporting a league-leading .318 batting average and hitting 116 home runs en route to a PCL-best 622 runs. But Cowgill has been on a team with similar offensive weapons.
With Ryan Strieby, John Shelby, Sean Coughlin, Cowgill and company hitting a combined 99 home runs, the 2006 Kentucky Wildcats scored more than eight runs per game en route to the league championship. Cowgill can't help but think about his current Aces team when he remembers his sophomore college season.
"I just remember that lineup really being able to hit," Cowgill said. "That team reminds me a lot of the team I'm on now: a great group of guys. Nobody expected us to do anything on that team. I think we got picked to finish last in the SEC that year like every other year I was there. Nobody ever thought we were going to be any good."
Being a Lexington native, that season was even more special for Cowgill.
"What a fun experience to finally put Kentucky baseball somewhere in the picture of SEC baseball," Cowgill said. "Being able to bring something to the baseball program that they hadn't really seen in a while was great. It's just amazing all the people that rallied around the team. It's crazy how a little bit of success creates a little bit of excitement for the fans and what fun it was to play when we had a lot of fans there cheering us on."
Then-head coach John Cohen and then-assistant Gary Henderson were able to bring talent to Lexington and develop it in a way that had never been done before. Now, with former players like Cowgill, Strieby, Sawyer Carroll and James Paxton making progress toward getting the call-up to the big leagues, that talent is on full display. Cowgill believes that a track record of readying talent for the next level will help bring the next generation of talent to UK.
"It's awesome. The university has done so much for me, it's nice to see (the coaches) getting some recognition for what they've done, and the guys they've brought in," Cowgill said. "It's not an easy conference to win in, especially being the most northern team. They keep pumping out first rounders and second rounders and big prospects. It's awesome that those guys are having the success that they're having and I couldn't be any happier for them."
Cowgill is extremely thankful for the vital role UK had in helping him get to where he is now, but he very nearly didn't even got the opportunity to suit up for the Wildcats. He had grown up attending games in Cliff Hagan Stadium and had always envisioned playing there for the Big Blue when he was old enough. However, he was faced with the harsh reality of being told that might not be good enough to do it as a junior in high school.
"I remember when Coach Cohen told me, 'I don't know if you're going to be able to play here,'" Cowgill said. "I kind of got mad because somebody was telling me I couldn't do something or I wasn't good enough."
Cowgill used that anger as fuel.
"I dedicated myself to proving him wrong and I used it as motivation to be a better baseball player and to do some of the things that I knew I could do but I hadn't shown," Cowgill said. "It finally came together there at the end of my senior year. When Coach Cohen challenged me to be a better player, it did motivate me throughout that whole year."
Cowgill ended up receiving Mr. Baseball honors as a senior and earned that spot at UK after all. Under the tutelage of Cohen and Henderson, he continued to improve at Kentucky.
Henderson didn't take over as head coach until the year after Cowgill became a professional, but the two formed an uncommonly strong bond.
"I love Coach Henderson," Cowgill said. "He actually came out to a game here in Reno. He was recruiting a kid in Sacramento, I think, and just jumped over a night and we sat outside at the field for at least an hour and just talked about everything from baseball to his son, Ty. He's a friend and he's been great mentor to me."
The two get to spend plenty of time together because Cowgill still calls Lexington home. In fact, Cowgill owns a house just past the outfield fence of Cliff Hagan Stadium and former teammates Antone DeJesus and Carroll are his roommates in the offseason. Although the three no longer play for him, Henderson is not finished acting as coach and mentor to them, which speaks to his character, Cowgill says.
"The way he treats us when we come back in the offseason to work out, he does everything he can to help us," Cowgill said. "He'd do anything for us and, at the same time, we try to do everything we can for them. It's a great relationship I have with them and they take great care of me, so I can't thank them enough for what they've done."