CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Their journeys began at separate Georgia high schools but their paths soon intertwined on the playing fields at the East Cobb Baseball Complex in Marietta, Ga. Along the way, beginning in 2006, the Georgia youngsters’ mutual travels took them beyond East Cobb to fields in Fort Myers, Fla., and Jupiter, Fla., and major league venues in San Diego and Minneapolis.
Power-hitting third baseman Kaleb Cowart from Cook County High School in Adel, Ga. and speedy outfielder Chevy Clarke from Marietta (Ga.) High School combined to play in a total of 45 Perfect Game-sponsored events between 2006 and 2009. In six of those the two prospects were teammates as members of the elite East Cobb Astros. In one other they played together as members of a team known simply as East Cobb Baseball.
This spring, roughly 830 miles from the East Cobb Complex, the two are teammates again. Cowart and Clarke, both first round draft picks of the Los Angeles Angels in the 2010 MLB amateur draft, are on the roster of the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Angels’ farm club in the Class A Midwest League. Fittingly, the Kernels play their home games at Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Cowart’s and Clarke’s professional careers are in their infancy and someday they may go their separate ways. But for much of the past six years it seems as if the two have been joined at the hip, at least since they were 14 or 15 years old and began playing for the EC Astros.
“Me and Kaleb, we both played at East Cobb, and it’s pretty much just about team chemistry there,” Clarke said from Perfect Game Field before the Kernels played their fifth game of the young season Tuesday night (April 10). “Playing at East Cobb, it’s like, ‘I’ll pick you up, you pick me up and we can do this together.’”
Cowart, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound switch-hitter, was selected by the Angels with 18th overall pick in the first round of the ’10 draft, waited a couple of months to sign (for a reported $2.3 million bonus) and was sent to the Arizona Rookie League. By the time he arrived, Clarke – a 5-11, 185-pound switch-hitter who the Angels took with the 30th overall pick of the first round and who had signed earlier that Cowart for a reported $1.089 million – was already there.
The two had kept in touch during the signing period and were teammates once again, albeit briefly. Cowart was promoted to Rookie-level Orem last season while Clarke spent another season in the ARL. This year, they’re reunited in the Midwest League, and things have started out well for both.
The Kernels won four of their first five games (through April 10) with Clarke hitting in the 2-hole and Cowart stepping in right behind him at No. 3 in the order. Both were productive.
Cowart, ranked the Angels No. 5 minor league prospect, went 7-for-24 (.333), with a couple of doubles, a triple, three RBI and four runs scored. His 11 total bases ranked second on team behind cleanup hitter Frazier Hall. The Kernels’ first several games were played in temperatures in the 40s, but Cowart seems to be adjusting.
“I’ve been seeing the ball well at the plate and I’ve put some good at-bats together, and we have a great team,” Cowart said. “Things are going pretty well, other than this cold. It’s cold out here, man, but we try to get past it as a team and just go out and play.”
Clarke also hit .333 (6-for-18) in the Kernels first five games, and flashed his speed base-running ability by going a perfect 4-for-4 in stolen bases.
“I’ve felt pretty good … but I did a lot of work this offseason and I just came in prepared,” Clarke said. As for the cold, he said simply, “I just try to block it out.”
Cowart’s journey from Adel to Cedar Rapids actually began in McDonough, Ga., in early November, 2006; that was when he traveled to Henry County High School to participate in the Southside Atlanta State Showcase. It was the first of 26 PG events Cowart would attend – including 15 WWBA and three BCS Finals tournaments with East Cobb – and he was off and running.
“When I was like 14 my dad looked (PG) up and we decided to go to that first one,” Cowart said. “That’s where I first got noticed and I started playing with East Cobb, and once I got hooked up with East Cobb I just kept going to ‘em and going to ‘em and going to ‘em. It was a great experience; I think Perfect Game has a great program with what they do, and it’s the best in the country for amateur baseball.”
By the summer of 2006, Clarke – a veteran of 19 PG events – was already playing with the EC Astros in PG WWBA tournaments in Marietta. Cowart hooked up with the Astros the next summer and the two played together as teammates for the first time at the 2007 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers.
They played as teammates in five PG tournaments with the EC Astros in 2008, including the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter. The final PG event they played in as East Cobb teammates was the 2009 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter.
“I remember when we went down to Jupiter, that was a great experience for everybody,” Clarke said. “Everybody loved Jupiter – that was like the World Series for the high school players.”
Cowart and Clarke also played in two marquee events in 2009: the Perfect Game National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and the Aflac All-American Baseball Classic (now the Perfect Game All-American Classic) at PETCO Park in San Diego.
There were 19 prospects at the 2009 PG National that went on to become either first round or first round compensation picks. There were a total of 12 first round picks on the two 2009 All-American Classic rosters, including Cowart’s and Clarke’s East teammates, right-handers Cameron Bedrosian and Karsten Whitson, and catcher Justin O’Connor. The seven first-rounders on the West squad included the first two overall picks in 2010, outfielder Bryce Harper and right-hander Jameson Taillon.
Coincidentally, Bedrosian was selected by the Angels with the 29th overall pick in the 2010 draft – one slot ahead of Clarke – and could conceivably join Cowart and Clarke with the Kernels at some point this season.
“That was surreal,” Clarke said of the Classic experience. “That was something I had worked for since I first heard about it when I was 16. I always made that a goal to make the Aflac team. Me, Kaleb and three other boys from our (East Cobb) team made it, and that was just another plus to it. That was just a dream come true.”
The other East Cobb prospects that played on the East team at the 2009 PG/Aflac All-American Classic were catcher Brandon Stephens, outfielder Trey Griffin and infielder Zach Alford.
“I think that was the first time I got to play on a major league field,” Cowart said. “It was something special that I’ll always remember.”
Both prospects agreed that their Perfect Game/East Cobb experience helped them reach their goals.
“You get to see a lot of different pitchers and how they pitch, and you get to see a lot of great talent,” Clarke said. “It pretty much prepared us for what we were going to come into as far as pro ball. The whole thing was just a great experience.”
“East Cobb is first class all the way. You get treated like a big-leaguer basically; it’s better than minor league ball to a certain extent,” Cowart said, before catching himself. “OK, it’s not better than minor league ball, but it’s still fun. It was a blast and I had a good time playing up there.”
The goal for Cowart and Clarke now is to climb the minor league ladder, leave the Low-A Kernels behind – hopefully sometime this season – and move on to the Angels’ High-A affiliate Inland Empire in the California League. Double-A Arkansas and AAA Salt Lake City represent the next rungs in the ladder, with the final destination being with the big club in Anaheim. It’s easy to forget, perhaps, that Angels top prospect Mike Trout began his minor league career in Cedar Rapids.
“I like the progress I’ve made a lot,” Clarke said. “Coming from rookie ball, in my first year I struggled a little bit and my second year I struggled again. I just kept my head in there and I didn’t quit; the hard work is paying off now.”
Cowart also hopes to keep building on what he has already learned and accomplished.
“My first year, I signed real late and I didn’t get a lot of at-bats, but that’s just all part of it because that’s just how the system works,” Cowart said. “I had to go through extended spring training last year and that was one of the best things for me. It helped me figure out a lot on my swing and coming out and being ready for the everyday grind, which minor league baseball is.”
First-year Kernels manager Jamie Burke has liked what he saw from his two first-rounders and former East-Cobb prospects so far.
“For me it’s about getting better every day,” Burke told the Cedar Rapids Gazette on April 8. “It’s about getting better in this league and moving up to the California League. They’re priority guys, but they might feed off each other a little bit; just putting pressure on each other to perform, in a good way.”