DUNEDIN, FLA. - In this spring of gushing optimism, there is this spreading belief that the Blue Jays can do no wrong. And so, not that many steps from the pitching mound where Dustin McGowan spent too many lonely afternoons in rehabilitation, there is a little bit of impossible to believe in again, a contract signing that says McGowan will be a Jay until 2014, and one year beyond that if the club picks up the option on him.
In essence, the Jays have committed four more seasons to McGowan, who realistically hasn’t been in their rotation in almost four years. This is a story with a beginning, a middle, a dramatic pause, but the ending is still being worked on.
The final version of the script remains unwritten.
“You can’t help but root for him,” said Alex Anthopoulos, author of the contract extension, and forever hopeful general manager. “We’re not blind to the fact there’s a ton of risk here. In this division, we have to take a lot more risks than other teams. I’ll take the risk on the right human being.”
McGowan smiled just slightly as he heard those words in the early morning in the media room at the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the spring training home of the Jays. The past three years have been excruciatingly long and painful for McGowan. Every time he got close to coming back, every time he thought he was getting close, there was another setback. There were more days than he cares to remember when he doubted whether he would ever pitch again, whether his massive talents would be condemned by an uncooperative shoulder and a knee that has somehow let him down.
“I feel ‘How do you feel?’ is my new name,” said McGowan, and in that he was talking about his arm, his shoulder, his knee, and his latest problem, a bout with the very annoying painful foot ailment known as plantar fasciitis.
When asked about the foot Tuesday morning, he said almost matter of factly: “It’s just a foot.” In other words, a little foot pain isn’t about to set him back in this real comeback attempt of this most unreal Blue Jays spring. Anthopoulos invisions a pitching rotation that begins with Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and features McGowan, who was last part of the rotation when Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett were at the top of the staff and Romero was a struggling minor leaguer. It was that long ago.
Now he’s 30 years old, and Halladay is in Philadelphia, Shaun Marcum in Milwaukee, Burnett is in Pittsburgh, and McGowan is the old man of the starting staff in camp. The old man and the C — as in comeback and contract.
This is so unlike the Al Leiter Blue Jays tale of years gone by. The Jays had babied Leiter through a bunch of seasons where he was unable to pitch because of blister problems. They believed in Leiter, invested in him, waited for him, but the minute his contract ran out, he bolted. There was none of that here.
This was risk-reward, with both sides doing a little gambling and the belief in the person and in loyalty paying off for both sides. The Jays get the pitcher they want at a reasonable price. McGowan gets guaranteed major league money, and should he perform to the current level of expectation, he will be underpaid in time.
“The one thing, as I put my head on the pillow is, it’s the person we invest in,” said Anthopoulos. “I know I say it. I know it sounds corny or cliché. But I believe in it more and more each year. If you believe in the person, most times you’re going to be right more than you’re wrong.
“We’re going to see this thing though to the end, start to finish, good or bad.”
Those who have watched McGowan in the spring have spoken about his “hellish” stuff. That’s the rub here. He hasn’t lost any of that, but he has made only four big-league starts since 2008. In all that time, the Jays never gave up on him, he never gave up on himself.
“It’s like wondering if I’d ever pitch again,” said McGowan. “You’re always going to wonder (what they think of you). But they stayed with me and it made me continue to work harder.”
This fairytale of a spring continues here but the best of the happily ever after endings is waiting to be written.