SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies broke their Cactus League camp at Salt River Fields last Thursday, completing their first spring under new manager Walt Weiss.
Rockies' players roamed around the spacious clubhouse embedded under the lawn area in right field at Salt River Fields. They passed around baseballs to be signed, and sang and danced to strains of (mostly) country music before taking the field to play their final 2013 Cactus League game. They would leave on Friday to play one more spring training game on Saturday against the Seattle Mariners in Salt Lake City.
What did it all mean? Only that Opening Day 2013 was just days away, and no one seemed more excited about that prospect than fifth-year big-leaguer Dexter Fowler.
What a cool dude, Fowler is. An original Perfect Game All-American in 2003, Fowler holds his head high and interacts freely with teammates, fans and an occasional pesky questioner, showing poise and professionalism. It seems to come easy to the Rockies' starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter, as it should, considering he's coming off the best major league season of his career and just put the lid on a terrific Cactus League campaign.
In 17 spring games in the Valley, Fowler hit .412 (21-for-51) with six doubles, two triples, four home runs, nine RBI and 17 runs scored. His on-base and slugging percentages were .455 and .843, respectively.
"I'm trying to get ready for a good season and I think this is the first step," Fowler told Perfect Game from the comfort of the Rockies' Salt River Fields clubhouse on Thursday.
That would be the first step toward improving on what can only be called a career-year in 2012 for the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Colorado center-fielder. Fowler recorded career-highs in games played (143), batting average (.300), hits (136), home runs (13), RBI (53), OBP (.389) and SLG (.474).
"(Last season) carries over with your confidence and I think that's huge," he said. "Obviously, we didn't have a good season as a team, which was really disappointing, but you take the success you had (individually) into the offseason, and that makes for a good offseason."
Fowler begins what should be his fifth full major league season on Monday when Colorado travels to Milwaukee to take on the Brewers at Miller Park. The 27-year-old native of Alpharetta, Ga., has established himself firmly within the Rockies' organization -- he is in the first year of a two-year, $11.6 million contract -- and has traveled a fair figurative distance since the Rockies made him a 14th-round pick in the 2004 MLB amateur draft right out of Milton High School. He had signed to play collegiately at Miami (Fla.).
Fowler was listed at 6-foot-4, 188-pounds on his Perfect Game profile as a senior at Milton, so his physique is basically unchanged after nine years of professional baseball. PG ranked Fowler as the No. 12 overall national prospect in the high school class of 2004 and it surprised many that he fell as far as the 14th round in that year's draft.
He was a standout on the PG circuit, where he played in five PG WWBA National or World Championships with the powerhouse East Cobb Baseball organization. He has fond memories of those PG days from a decade ago, while admitting it was somewhat of a blur at the time.
"Everything seemed to happen so fast back then," Fowler said. "It's hard to believe that it was that long ago, but I remember thinking, 'Hey, I'm going to have a chance to be in the big leagues' and now, here I am, going into my fifth season."
He played at both the 2002 and 2003 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the East Cobb Astros, and at the 2004 PG WWBA 18u National Championship with the East Cobb Yankees. Those EC Yankees boasted a roster with 20 NCAA D-I commits, including current Chicago White Sox starting second baseman Gordon Beckham.
"That gave you a chance to really know what it feels like to play (a level) above your high school team," Fowler said of the WWBA experiences. "A lot of us were 16 (years old) and we were playing with an 18-and-under team and it gave you that much more confidence before you actually hit the ground."
The highlight of his PG career came in 2003 when he was selected to play in the inaugural Perfect Game All-American Classic, played that first year at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. He played with the East Team on a roster that included Rockies infielder and teammate Chris Nelson, the late Los Angeles Angels right-hander Nick Adenhart, Washington Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez and Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Neil Walker.
"That was awesome," Fowler said, flashing a smile. "The thing about it is, you were playing then and now a lot of the guys you see in the big leagues you played with or against with Perfect Game -- in Jupiter or Fort Myers or wherever."
Fowler played only four minor league seasons before making his big-league debut on Sept. 2, 2008, as a 22-year-old. He did appear in 54 minor league games from 2009-11 during rehab assignments, but was officially the Rockies' starting centerfielder at the start of the 2009 season. He remembers well the lessons he learned in the bushes, however.
"I was fortunate enough to skip over Triple A and I did go through some injuries, and there were a lot of ups-and-downs," Fowler said. "I was in the Pioneer League, and being African-American, there weren't but a few of us at some of the places we were at -- you were either playing a sport or in the military. It's tough and it's a learning experience; you definitely have to be ready for it mentally."
Once Fowler got his chance at the major league level he was determined to make the most of it. He hit .266 with 29 doubles, 10 triples, four home runs and swiped a career-high 27 bases as a rookie in 2009, and finished eighth in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting. He hit a National League-high 14 triples in 2010 and followed that up with 15 three-baggers in 2011.
But while Fowler soared to the top of his game in 2012, the season didn't go quite so well for the Rockies as a whole; they finished 64-98 and in last place in the National League West Division, 30 games behind the division champion and eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.
Jim Tracy resigned as Colorado's manager after the season and the club brought in Weiss, who played shortstop for the Rockies from 1994-97 and was still active through the 2000 season. Last year at this time, he was coaching his son, Brody, at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo.
"I'm excited about it," Weiss told PG in January when both he and Brody were at the PG World Showcase. "I've got a lot of history with the Rockies and that helped during the interview process with them being comfortable with me and vice versa."
Fowler seems very comfortable with the Rockies' new field boss.
"He's not too far removed from the game, which is awesome," Fowler said. "He knows the grind and he knows what we're going through, as well as what it's like playing at Coors Field (in Denver)."
There's a lot of work to be done, for sure. As Fowler moves into what should be the prime years of his career he feels up to the challenge, just like he did when he was at Milton High and spending his summers patrolling the outfield grasses on fields in Jupiter, Fort Myers and Marietta, Ga.
"Obviously, you're going to have your ups-and-downs but at the same time you've just got to find a way to battle through," he said. "You've got to not let your highs be too high or your lows be too low."
Perfect Game All-American Classic