by Dan Cleary
SALISBURY, MD---Billy Rowell and his teammates gathered around the television in the Delmarva Shorebirds clubhouse and watched the first-ever broadcast of the Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft unfold on ESPN2 in early June.
The Baltimore Orioles, the Shorebirds’ parent club, had the fifth overall pick and the O’s selected highly-touted catcher Matt Wieters from Georgia Tech. Rowell looked at the screen and he couldn’t help but think about was going through Wieters’ mind, for it was just a scant 12 months ago Rowell was in those same shoes.
"It has to be a dream come true for him," said Rowell, who was Baltimore’s first-round selection in 2006 and the ninth player picked overall. "I liked that it was on TV. I wish I was on TV last year."
Well, if Rowell continues to play like he is, he will be playing on television and in front of great crowds at big league parks all over the country 162 games a year in the not so distant future.
Rowell, currently ranked as the Orioles’ top prospect by Baseball America, is showing the promise the club believed he had when he was the first high school player picked in last year’s draft and signed for a reported bonus of $2.1 million. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound power-hitting lefty is currently tearing it up for the Shorebirds in the Class A South Atlantic League and was named the loop’s Player of the Week for June 4-10.
In his last 10 games, the 18-year-old slugger hit .344 (11-for-32) with a homer, 13 RBI and five doubles, raising his season numbers to .302, 2 homers, six doubles and 19 RBI for the surging Shorebirds (31-30), who are in third place of the Northern Division as of June 11.
Rowell has been able to accomplish all of this despite suffering the first major injury of his career in spring training when he strained his oblique muscle and missed Delmarva’s first 43 games. He made his season debut May 23, and after a slow start, he is now on fire.
"It is a hard injury to recover from,’ said Rowell, who was named the National High School Baseball Coaches Association National Player of the Year in 2006 out of Bishop Eustace High School in Pennsauken, N.J. "There is no real rehab for it, all you can do is put heat and ice on it and wait it out. It is the worst baseball injury because you can’t swing the bat.
"It was very hard," added Rowell, who grew up in Sewell, N.J. and attended the Jack Cust Baseball Academy. "All I had ever done was play baseball. It was my life and not to have it was tough. But I got over it and I trusted the trainers with the Orioles to give me the proper treatment and it has worked out. Now I’m back to normal and my swing is back."
And that can mean only bad news for the rest of the South Atlantic League. Rowell, who played shortstop in high school, has played third base for the last two seasons. In 2006, he hit .329 for Bluefield in the rookie Appalachian League before finishing out the season with Aberdeen of the New York-Penn League, where he hit .326 in 11 games.
The Aberdeen affiliate is owned by former Baltimore immortal and Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who ushered in the era of power-hitting, large shortstops in the 1980s. Ripken finished his career at third base, so is Rowell the "new Ripken?" If you read some of the fan blogs and Internet forums, some people feel he might be. But don’t tell that to Rowell, not just yet. Rowell said he didn’t get a chance to meet Ripken during his short stint last summer.
"Cal Ripken is one of the greatest players ever. It is an honor just to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. But all I want to do is to continue to progress. You learn something new everyday. Hopefully the time frame is a couple of more years and then I can contribute on the Major League level."
The Orioles have a substantial vested interest in Rowell’s development and they are not ready to crown Rowell as Ripken’s heir apparent.. But they want to see him successfully climb up the ladder. The Orioles currently have third baseman Melvin Mora and All-Star shortstop and former American League MVP Miguel Tejada under contract through 2009.
"Billy is doing really well right now," said David Stockstill, Director of Minor League Operations for the Orioles. "His third base play is improving and he is adapting to professional baseball. He has made the adjustments he has had to make. He has shown great maturity for his age."
Stockstill said the organization is not worried about any residual effect from Rowell’s injury and it is pleased with his progress, saying, "He’ll be just fine. All that it hindered him was that he lost playing time. The more baseball he plays, the better he will get in all facets of the game. We’re not looking at a certain timetable. How he develops will tell the story.
"I don’t want to compare him to Cal," he added. "Cal has done things in baseball that no one else has ever done and he is in a class by himself. But we feel like Billy has the opportunity and the talent to be an impact player in the Major League level."
Stockstill said he is proud of Baltimore’s Minor League system and the development of its young players. Two of the Orioles’ last four first-round picks prior to Rowell—outfielder Nick Markakis and pitcher Adam Loewen-- are with the big club.
"I don’t think we get the credit for the good, young players we have in our system," said Stockstill.
So, with the Ripken comparisons floating around and a huge signing bonus, is Rowell feeling the pressure to get on the fast track to Orioles Park at Camden Yards?
"There are a lot of expectations and so-called pressure," said Rowell, the Star-Ledger’s Player of the Year in 2006 after he hit a sizzling .571 with seven dingers and 37 RBI for Bishop Eustace. "I put more pressure on myself than anyone else. So I don’t feel any added pressure. I set the bar high for myself."
Rowell started to set that bar when he was a little kid playing with his father, William, in the family’s yard. "I’ve been playing since I was 2," said Rowell. "I could swing a bat before I could walk. My father would pitch tennis balls to me and I had this big red plastic bat. It was a lot of fun. I’ve always played baseball and loved it."
Now his father watches Billy swing a wood bat, but Billy is still treating pitchers like they are throwing tennis balls. Rowell played his first game as a professional in New Jersey in early June when the Shorebirds traveled to Lakewood to play the BlueClaws.
"That was nice. I had a lot of family and friends there to see me play. It was nice to get a chance to play in front of them," said Rowell. "My parents knew baseball was everything to me and I’m very fortunate to have good parents."
Now all of Rowell’s hard work and his parents’ dedication are starting to pay off on the professional level. And it won’t be long before Rowell will get his wish to be on TV.
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