BY CAROLYN LaWELL
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa | Kaleb Cowart would rather hit a home run than strike out a hitter any day. Why? “When you strike somebody out, you get to walk around the mound,” he says. “When you get a home run, you get to jog the bases and everybody is looking at you.
These days, it doesn’t matter. After being heavily scouted as a pitcher, the Los Angeles Angels drafted Cowart 18th overall in the first round of the 2010 draft – as a third baseman.
“I was nervous,” Cowart says of making his wishes known he would only sign a contract as a position player. “I was taking a chance and possibly going to college if I wanted to play. All I wanted to do was play.”
"He’s made some unbelievable plays that drop your jaw. It’s crazy what he can do." Kernels manager Jamie Burke
Cowart had committed to Florida State but signed with the Angles for $2.3 million after being named Gatorade’s National Baseball Player of the Year.
Cowart’s parents introduced him to baseball before he needed a hand of fingers to count his age. As soon as his teams stopped hitting off tees and swinging at soft pitches lobbed in by parents, he picked up a ball and took the mound. He also learned to play shortstop and third base because, as he says, he couldn’t stand not playing every day.
“I was all on board with him not being a pitcher,” says his father, Rene Cowart, sitting next to his wife, Tammy, as they watch Cowart play third during a recent Kernels game. They made the trip to Cedar Rapids to celebrate their son’s 20th birthday. “Position players get hurt, but they don’t seem to get hurt as often, and not as bad as pitchers. I thought he had the talent to play as much as he did to pitch. We took a chance on it, and it worked out.”
In his first full season, Cowart was called up to the High-A Inland Empire 66ers after playing in 66 games with the Kernels. He played in 72 games last season for the Orem Owlz and, in 71 games so far this season, has statistically improved in nearly every offensive category, including a bump in average from .283 to .292; in OPS, from .765 last year to .837 this year; and RBI, from 40 to 59. He’s also cut his errors at third from 16 to nine.
“Honestly, I’ve seen some third baseman here and, for me, I think he’s the best third baseman in this league,” Kernels manager Jamie Burke says. “He’s made some unbelievable plays that drop your jaw. It’s crazy what he can do. His quickness, his awareness and when he gets up to throw a ball, it’s on a line.”
When Cowart was called up to the 66ers, he was second in the Midwest League in RBI (54), tied for fifth in homers (9) and third in total bases (126).
He doesn’t ever think about pitching. But he hasn’t lost the pitcher’s mentality.
“As a pitcher, you have to be a bulldog on the mound,” Cowart says. “That’s how I feel in the box. I feel like I’m going to get a hit every at bat, and you have to go in the box with that confidence.”
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Time for minor league trivia. Gabe Jacobo hit for the cycle as a Kernel on May 8, 2009. How many times has a player hit for the cycle in the history of the Midwest League? (Keep reading for the answer.)
The Kernels hit for the team cycle in the first inning on their way to a 4-0 win over the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. Trevor Hairgrove led off the inning by hitting his first triple of the season, Cowart followed with a double, Frazier Hall hit his fifth homer of the season and Gary Mitchell singled. Kernels pitchers Eswarlin Jimenez, Logan Odom and Stephen Tromblee combined for the shutout. Jimenez struck out five and allowed five hits over seven innings. The win snapped a four-game losing streak for the Kernels.
Veterans Memorial Stadium sits in a four-block area of Cedar Rapids known as Veterans Memorial Park. The area includes an airplane, a tank, a mobile gun, an anchor and granite monuments marking the wars in which the city’s natives have fought. Cedar Rapids baseball teams have played in ballparks named Veterans Memorial Stadium dating back to 1949; the current park opened in 2002. The hallway of the stadium’s suite level pays homage to more than a century of baseball in the city – as well as veterans – with a detailed history told through old photos, newspaper clippings and pennants.
Want the answer? Jacobo, who now plays for the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate, was the first of three players to hit for the cycle in the Midwest League, according to league records. Jaime Pedroza did it on June 5, 2009, while playing for the Great Lakes Loons and Jae-Hoon Ha also did it August 15, 2010, with the Peoria Chiefs.
And in random statistical news, the game started two minutes later than expected, the first ball was a strike, the first batter was called out looking and the “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung in 1 minute and 29.6 seconds. For dinner, we ate two cheeseburgers, a hot pretzel and a massive box of Dots, which, sadly, one of us left under our seat in section 106. We don’t recommend eating random food found at the ballpark, but we hope someone was able to enjoy them.
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