The Loyalty of 3

Trio puts MLB careers on hold for one more run at Omaha

By Matthew George

Sawyer Carroll lay in bed on an August night at his Henryetta, Okla., home. The Washington Nationals had just selected him in the 18th round of the 2007 MLB Draft.

Representatives of the team had spoken with him, and he had spoken with his father. The money the club was offering was big. But Carroll couldn’t bring himself to sign on the dotted line. It just didn’t feel right.

Carroll pulled out his cell phone and began passionately punching keys. A few minutes later, he pressed send and closed his phone.

Collin Cowgill’s phone beeped. He snatched it up and stared at the three- or four-page text message from Carroll. Cowgill had already made up his mind.

The Oakland Athletics were offering the Lexington native six figures to join their organization. He was going to sign, until he read the message. Carroll was going back to UK.

Cowgill took the news to pitcher Scott Green, a teammate at both UK and in the Cape Cod summer league. Green too had been drafted, a 12th-round selection by the Boston Red Sox. With word of Carroll’s decision to return, the three UK standouts opened up the lines of communication.

“It wasn’t really an all-together decision, but talking to each other and finding out each other’s viewpoints and how we feel, how good we are going to be was really the biggest factor in deciding whether to come back or not,” Cowgill said. “We all just believe so much in what we are going to have this season.”

It was official. The trio stared down their major league dreams and walked away from them. They were returning to UK for one more season under head coach John Cohen. And one more shot at Omaha, Neb., site of the College World Series.

“You can talk about leadership all you want,” Cohen said, “but when kids have checks sitting on the desk in front of them and are willing to walk away from that money and come back to the University of Kentucky, that means a lot to me.”

Once drafted by a major league franchise, players have the option to sign a contract or opt out and maintain their amateur status, as the trio of Cats chose to do.

Players like Carroll, Cowgill and Green are a big reason why Cohen has turned UK’s baseball program around during his short tenure as head coach. Entering his fifth season at the helm, Cohen boasts the school’s only SEC championship in 2006 and guided the team to an NCAA Regional the same year.

But a plague of injuries caused UK to sputter in 2007, as the team picked to finish among the top of the SEC  failed to make the conference tournament.

Cowgill missed the entire 2007 season with a hand injury that was initially only expected to sideline him for two to three weeks.

“Having to sit out last year really got me thinking I just wasn’t ready to leave college baseball and to be done with that part of my life,” Cowgill said. “I just hadn’t gotten enough yet.”

The star outfielder spent the offseason competing with Green for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League, and was named a Cape Cod League all-star before being picked by the Athletics in the draft’s 29th round.

Cowgill, who Cohen said has the best physical skills on the team, has returned as a healthy redshirt junior and has had no second thoughts about his decision.

“I have a very strong belief in what we have here at Kentucky,” he said. “This lineup, this staff, the coaching staff — everything here I just believe in.”

Cowgill’s injury wasn’t the only key loss the Cats had to play through last season.

In front of Cohen’s office hangs a picture taken during UK’s game against Ball State in the NCAA Regional the Cats hosted in 2006. UK had just turned a double play, and the photo captured a panoramic view of the crowd. Among the thousands of fans in the stadium, there is one dot that pops out. It’s 6-foot-8, 245-pound Green sitting in the stands.

Green, one of the country’s most sought after pitching prospects, missed the entire historic 2006 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But watching from the stands made him realize something.

He wanted to be a part of this season. He wanted to be a part of another regional. And he wanted to get to Omaha.

Green saw limited action in 2007, tossing just 17.2 innings while recovering from the surgery.

But Green thrived in the Cape Cod League. Facing future major league ball players, the fireballer notched a 3-1 record with a 1.56 ERA in eight starts.

“You get amped up when you know you are facing someone who you know is going to be a big-time guy,” Green said. “That is where every competitor wants to be.”

But that is not where Green wanted to be. At least not yet.

Despite a six-figure contract on the table, Green, whose four-seam fastball has been clocked around 95 miles per hour, wanted to return to UK for his junior year.

“It could have been with any amount of money,” he said. “It’s not about that. It’s about being here and feeling comfortable here and what the coaches can do for us and what we can hopefully do for Kentucky this year.”

Though last season did not go as expected, Carroll, who led the SEC in doubles in 2007, is excited about the pieces that have fallen into place for this year’s team, especially with the return of the three draftees.

“In major league baseball they have a lot of trades,” said Carroll, who will play right field for the Cats this season. “If we did have trades (in college), I can’t think of anybody I would want to trade for. I like our team a lot.”

Cohen said having Carroll, Cowgill and Green back means everything to the club.

“It’s leadership, it’s production on the field, it’s the way those guys go about practice,” Cohen said. “It’s big.”

Cohen said he hopes he can reward them by sending them off the right way: with a trip to Omaha.

But the trio said it was their coach who merited the reward.

“Coach Cohen has done so much for me as a player and as a person,” Cowgill said. “I feel like not that I owed it to him, but that he deserved to have guys like Sawyer and Scott and I come back and help him get to a place where he deserves to go, and a place we have worked so hard to get to, and that’s Omaha.”