The Queens (NC) baseball team is out to a 4-0 start in 2018. That’s an impressive stat, considering it is the first four games the program has ever played.
Technically speaking, this is a club season as the Royals transition into South Atlantic Conference play come 2019. But, baseball is baseball to a team that has been itching to show their stuff.
“It’s not official yet, but it’s good to get out there and see what the guys had to offer,” head coach Jack McDowell told NCAA.com. “We didn’t play a big fall schedule, we only had two games because of some field issues. So we were inside just working out most of the time. We didn’t get a whole lot of time to see what that translates to as a unit.”
The 1993 American League Cy Young Award winner is tackling a brand new challenge alongside his Royals student-athletes. Though he had some managing experience with the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league affiliates, this is his first collegiate coaching gig. And he's not just coaching, he's building it from the ground up.
“Basically having kids, you turn to coaching anyway,” McDowell said of his career path after he retired from Major League Baseball. “I coached them in tee-ball all the way through high school. Then I got the gig with the Dodgers for a couple of years, managing their Rookie ball team.”
So, how did the Stanford graduate and former west coast guy wind up on the small Charlotte, N.C. campus at Queens?
“I married a Wilmington [N.C.] girl,” McDowell said. “We moved here about six years ago. I found out through a friend of mine that Queens was starting up a baseball program. I live a half a mile from the campus, so I contacted them. Our Athletic Director, Cherie Swarthout, told me, ‘thanks for your interest, but we’re not looking to add baseball at this time.’ I was like, ‘dude, why’d you tell me that?’
“Literally a year later, Cherie contacted me, and started talking with me like a consultant. By going through that process we started talking more. I don’t think they were sure that I wanted to coach, and I wasn’t sure if they were looking for me to coach either. After awhile I was like, ‘hey, you guys think I can coach this, right?’”
And so it began. McDowell and his assistants began the recruiting process, building the team piece by piece. Quite literally, as a matter of fact, down to the bats and balls.
“The kind of big challenges are out of the way,” McDowell said. “Everyone thinks you got to recruit kids and bring them in. The things that no one ever thinks about is that they never had a baseball team, so you don’t have a single piece of baseball equipment. I swear for the last eight or nine months there hasn’t been a day gone by that we haven’t gone, ‘oh we don’t have this, or we don’t have that.’ You can’t think of it all at one time. That’s been the crazy, kind of fun part of it.”
How about those recruits? The last MLB pitch McDowell threw was in 1999, right around the time most of his players were born. Do they even know who their coach — a three-time All Star, back-to-back 20-game winning, Cy Young Award winner — really is?
“They got Google and all that,” McDowell said laughing. “They figured it out quicker than my Dodgers players. Halfway through my first spring training, those kids after a month were arguing, ‘he didn’t pitch, how could a pitcher be a manager?’ I was like ‘you guys have more information at your fingertips, what the heck are you doing on your phones?’ Don’t you want to know who’s managing you? So, yea, these guys checked it our a lot quicker.”
Queens, of course, is no stranger to elite competition. The Royals have won the last three DII swimming and diving national championships and the basketball team has been atop the rankings for much of the past two seasons. Their home, the Levine Center, even ranked amongst the best arenas in a recent DII survey.
“Not saying that facilities are going to turn you into national champions, but you know what? It helps,” McDowell said with a laugh. “It’s nice that we can get this.
“When you get on the campus, you realize the commitment that Queens has to its athletics and academics combined. You see how well the athletes do in the classroom, that part convinces the parents. What I’m selling kids is that this isn’t going to be your typical college program. I’m a little bit more of a free thinker. I’m not a ‘my way or the highway’ guy. We let kids develop. We’ll teach them things along the way. Let’s put it this way, you’re not going to be able to look at one of my pitchers and say, ‘oh, he played under Jack.’ I let athletes develop.”
Queens opened on the road for its first two series, and is set to make its home debut on February 13. They'll play their games off campus, but thanks to a few old friends and the Charlotte RBI program, McDowell and Queens are working on a ballpark they can call their own. Of course, the beautiful White Sox minor league affiliate Charlotte Knights stadium is right down the road, so McDowell -- a former White Sox player and Knights play-by-play guy -- may have some pull to get a game or two there.
“We’ll be in there. We’ll have one in ’19 and try to sneak in there a little bit more. I’d love to have it be a regular thing, like every Friday or something like that.”
Despite being a 12-year veteran, and a good one at that, McDowell never wanted to be just a pitching coach. When he played at Stanford, he was a two-way player, and learned more about the overall game than just the aspect that made him a big league All Star.
“I think my strengths lie in teaching other facets of the game as much as pitching,” McDowell said. “I joke about it. Here’s what I’d do as a pitching coach. ‘You see that catcher down there, see his glove? Break it, throw it right through there and repeat.’ I’m not a big mechanics guy, I’m not going to change guys. I believe that’s why the injuries are growing. Overall, my staff is going to be healthier than anyone else.
“Limit, limit, limit. Over the last 30 years, that’s all been in place, and we just keep running that road. Are we increasing or decreasing injuries? That’s not even arguable, injuries have doubled or tripled from when I played. You can say that’s old school thinking, but guess what. At some point people will say, 'yea this is not working here.'”
So what does McDowell have to work with at the onset of this Royals program? Judging by a 4-0 start, it seems quite a bit.
“The transfers we got in are real good talents,” McDowell said. “We have nice freshman, but the guys I’m looking at now have a little more maturity and have played college ball. We have CJ Hammonds, Dom Ford and Chase Hager. They transferred in out of [junior colleges], and they are all, talent-wise, draft potential guys.
“There's Jack Bergman from Cincinnati. He only threw about six innings for them in two years. I looked at his mechanics in high school. That was the last film I could look at. They tried to tweak stuff, and he wasn’t throwing the way he knew how to throw. I told him, ‘listen, this summer, go back to your high school film, remember how you used to throw when you were a stud that signed with a DI. I’ll teach you things around that.’ The other guy is Kollin Shrenk. Me and his father were both drafted by the White Sox the same year. He’s coming off a surgery, so it’s the perfect opportunity. He’s from here, he knows how to pitch, and we’re in a situation this year that we can really watch his arm and development this year, without any pressure to dominate and have to stretch him out. He’s throwing great. He can do anything with a baseball.”
The future for Queens baseball is a big uncertainty, but that what makes the journey to DII play all the more exciting. There are endless possibilities for what this team can achieve, and a multitude of program firsts along the way.
If McDowell has his way, that first loss won't be one of them.