Ex-Wildcat McGowan finds new path

Cody Thorn. Special to The Examiner
Garrett McGowan, a Blue Springs High School gtaduate, played 13 games for Illinois this spring before the coronavirus shutdown and after a record-setting stint at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College. McGowan, who is among the league leaders in this summer's Ban Johnson League, is transferring to Division II Pittsburg State in hopes of earning a spot in the major league draft someday. [Photo courtesy of Illinois Athletics}

Garrett McGowan is showcasing the prodigious power that made him a Division I player this summer in the Ban Johnson League.

The Blue Springs High School graduate was named the league’s hitter of the week, announced on July 17, for getting five hits, scoring five runs and driving in seven runs in two games that week for Regal Plastic.

That is just a microcosm of the summer the left-handed slugger is having, as he leads in two of the three triple crown categories as the season winds down by the end of the month.

He has six home runs and 24 RBIs, both the league high ahead of teammate Will Fricker, who has five home runs and 18 RBIs. Fricker just graduated from Park Hill South and is headed to Missouri in the fall.

McGowan is second in the league in slugging at .840 and is third in OPS (on-base plus slugging) at 1.298. McGowan is batting .380 on the year, but that is only good enough for eighth in the league, which saw an influx of talent as many other summer collegiate baseball leagues were canceled.

“It is nice to have him, he’s an intimidating figure out there,” said Regal Plastic coach Clint Culbertson of the 6-foot-3, 240-pound first baseman who is a staple in the middle of the lineup. “He can make pitchers work extra hard and people worry about him, which makes the people in front and behind him better. He is a legit two-way player; he makes the infield better around the bag and he has a solid bat. When he is up, you have a chance to score.”

McGowan’s home run prowess is no surprise. After graduating from Blue Springs, he landed at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College and left that school as the all-time home run leader with 25 in two years. That helped pave the way for him to play at Illinois this spring.

He started in three games, played in seven, and had a .231 batting average for the Fighting Illini. He had a home run and a double as well before the season was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His .538 slugging percentage and .913 on-base plus slugging was second on the team, while he had a .375 on base percentage.

Illinois had won two in a row against Elon and was traveling to Carbondale, Ill., for a three-game set against Southern Illinois when the season came to an abrupt end. Coach Dan Hartleb didn’t beat around the bush, telling the group of players with their bags packed for the road trip and ready to load them on the bus that the season was canceled.

“It was a very big surprise to everyone,” McGowan said. “We saw everything going on but it was just, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that happened.’”

McGowan took a few weeks off before getting back in the cages. He was set to play for the Alaskan Goldpanners this summer and on May 22, the prestigious collegiate summer league announced it wouldn’t be playing. McGowan was excited to play in the historic league and for a team that has sent more than 200 former players to Major League Baseball. Barry Bonds, Tom Seaver, Rick Monday and Dave Winfield are some of the more prominent names to pass through, and nearly a dozen former Kansas City Royals played for the Goldpanners.

One of McGowan’s would-be-teammates this summer would’ve been Clark Candiotti, a player at St. Mary’s College who is the son of former big league pitcher Tom Candiotti.

“It would’ve been a great experience,” said McGowan, who would’ve played for former major leaguer Phil Stephenson. “I couldn’t pass that up if you get an opportunity like that.”

He kept his options open for the summer and in the back of his head, he kept on thinking the Ban Johnson League would stay up since it is usually just Kansas City area players. McGowan had played baseball for Yard Baseball Club out of Grain Valley in high school and two of his former coaches, Beau Franklin and Culbertson, were involved in the Ban Johnson League.

“I’m grateful to play and competition was a big part of everyone’s life,” McGowan said. “It just feels great being back on the field. Just being off the field for so long was hard on everyone. Being able to play again … it feels great.”

While McGowan has been busy tearing up the Ban Johnson League, he also found a new place to play next year. His tenure at Champaign, Ill., was a short one as he is transferring to NCAA Division II Pittsburg State.

McGowan essentially got caught in a numbers crunch with which baseball programs across the country are dealing. When the NCAA granted every spring sport student-athlete an extra year of eligibility after the pandemic cut the season short – Illinois played 13 games – teams were in a tough spot. They had an incoming class of freshmen and in addition, seniors that would have been done were given an option to come back and retain their scholarship.

Baseball, at the D-I level, has only 11.7 scholarships to divide up between about 30 players.

“I knew the money wasn’t looking good for me and ultimately it didn’t work out well for me and I decided to leave,” McGowan said. “I knew I could compete at that level, but I was happy to find a place that fit what I needed.”

Coming out of DCCC, Pittsburg State, Missouri Southern, Belmont Abbey College, Eastern Illinois and Illinois were the finalists for his services. He chose the D-I school, but when his name hit the transfer portal this spring, Pitt State was the first school to call.

Coach Bob Fornelli was interested in McGowan last year, when McGowan hit .337 with 15 doubles, 13 home runs and 50 RBIs for the Dodge City Conquistadors. He was an all-conference pick and earned the Kansas Jayhawk Conference Community College gold glove award at first base.

“It felt like it was an opportunity with what I wanted to do and I knew the coach before,” said McGowan, a NJCAA Academic All-American pick in 2019. “I had a good relationship with him and they have a great program, a good looking field and an elite program. It was the best fit for me.”

McGowan also looked at Southern and Belmont Abbey, a Division II school in North Carolina, this second recruiting go-round in as many years.

McGowan, a communications major who will minor in coaching, will play with three former teammates from Dodge City at Pitt State.

He is hoping to carry over the success from this summer into his first year at Pitt State and he follows in the footsteps of his dad, Donnie, and hears his name called during the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.

Donnie McGowan, another coach at Yard Baseball Club, was a fourth-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox out of Central Missouri in 1985. The former MIAA pitcher of the year and William Chrisman graduate played four years of pro baseball before topping out in the Florida State League. Along the way, the elder McGowan played with major leaguers Brady Anderson, Scott Cooper, Curt Schilling and Tim Naehring.

In a unique twist, if Garrett McGowan produces like he wants at Pitt State, he might have Naehring catch some of the highlights. The former Red Sox third baseman is now vice president of baseball operations for the Yankees.

“I’m hoping if baseball doesn’t work out, I can stay on as a graduate assistant at Pitt State and get valuable experience,” McGowan said. “but I absolutely hope I tear it up and get drafted.”