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Dustin Fowler climbs back from a career-threatening injury wiser and ready to advance his career

Dustin Fowler’s first season after his knee injury has been a learning experience, but he’s been thankful for his opportunities.

Dustin Fowler / Courtesy Oakland Athletics

NASHVILLE — Oakland A’s outfielder Dustin Fowler is cherishing every second he spends on a baseball diamond as he continues to rebound from a career-threatening injury in his MLB debut last year.

On June 29, 2017, Fowler was making his major league debut for the New York Yankees against the Chicago White Sox. Starting in right field that night, he chased a foul ball and crashed into an unpadded electrical box on the wall of Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, rupturing the patella tendon in his knee. Fowler had to be carted off the field and underwent emergency surgery at Rush University Medical Center.

He never even got to see an at-bat.

Fowler’s situation led many to invoke the memory of Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham, who in 1905 debuted on June 29 – the same date Fowler did. Graham, playing for the New York Giants, replaced right fielder George Browne at the end of the eighth inning and was the on-deck hitter when the top half of the ninth inning ended. Like Fowler, Graham never got an at-bat, and it was his only appearance in the majors.

Graham’s sole appearance was the inspiration for a character in a novel by W.P. Kinsella about White Sox outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson published in 1982, which was adapted into the movie “Field of Dreams” in 1989.

“It was crazy,” Fowler said of the events. “Especially hearing all the ‘Moonlight’ Graham comments and that he never got his AB, so it was definitely nerve-wracking.”

Fowler later sued the White Sox and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority in federal court, claiming they were negligent in not padding or securing the electrical box. He is seeking an unspecified amount of damages in the lawsuit, which is ongoing.

The 23-year-old Fowler told Sports Illustrated in May, “When it happened I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back.”

After a long, grueling, and laborious rehabilitation, he did.

“I was fortunate I was able to come back and be the same player I was,” he told OaklandClubhouse in a recent interview. “I’m happy to be back on the field, and I finally got my AB this year.”

It was a pop fly to second against the Houston Astros on May 9, but the 6’0” 195 lbs. Fowler was just thankful for the experience.

“It was awesome,” he said. “It was the day I got called up as well. I think it was the sixth or seventh inning when I got the AB.”

He then added with a laugh, “They wanted me to get the AB out of the way before I went out to play defense, I guess. They wanted me to get it out of the way. But it was awesome. I can’t ask for anything more than I’ve had in my career. I’m not taking anything for granted.”

Taken by the Yankees in the 18th round of the 2013 MLB draft out of West Laurens High School in Dexter, Ga., the left-hander was highly regarded for having ticking the boxes for all five tools. He rose quickly through the Yankees’ system and came to Oakland on July 31, 2017, as part of the trade for Sonny Gray.

Ironically, it was Gray who he faced when he got his first hit in the big leagues – it was a single to right-center on May 11.

Unfortunately for Fowler, the hits going forward were sparse, and he was sent back to Triple-A Nashville on Aug. 2.

He responded excellently. In his 25 games for the Nashville Sounds, Fowler littered Triple-A fields with baseballs, getting at least one hit in 22 of those games. He hit 10 doubles and three triples in that time and scored 19 runs.

Overall in August, Fowler’s slash line was .361/.384/.537 for an OPS of 921, and he had five stolen bases, which led to his call-up on August 31.

“Everything’s feeling good,” Fowler said of his knee. “I still have some treatment to do, and every now and again I have soreness, which is expected because I had a pretty big surgery. Other than that everything feels perfectly fine. I’m happy I’ve got that in the past now.”

Well, not entirely, he admitted.

“There’s definitely situations like going toward the wall [where] I tend to be a little hesitant sometimes and like diving – you think about it then, but it’s going to take reps to get closer and closer to the wall and as I start diving, it’s going to get more and more comfortable. Other than that, I don’t even think about it when I’m on the field for the most part. I’m pretty thankful I was able to get over it quicker than I was expecting to.”

While Fowler has played all outfield positions, he has become most comfortable in centerfield.

“I enjoy centerfield,” he said. “I hope I’m going to be able to stick there. I’m comfortable in the corners as well, but center field is where I want to be. I love it. I take pride in it. I like going and tracking down balls – it’s a lot of fun to me.

“I had to work hard to get where I [am]. At the start of my career, I played the corners, and then I got to work with Reggie Willits with New York and he changed my career in center field and made me a solid defender. So, I’m happy and take pride in it. I had to work so hard at it, so I try to do everything I can every day to get better and better at it.”

Willits, who played in the majors from 2006-2011 for the Angels and Yankees and is now the first base coach for the Yankees, is a constant theme when Fowler talks about his growth as a player. He credits Willits with a lot of his development as a defender.

“The mental side of it,” Fowler said. “First steps, mainly. Getting them quicker and getting set up. Looking at players’ swings – where the ball is pitched, you have the best view from centerfield so you can kind of get a head start. Just the in’s and out’s of centerfield and how to play it and how to get better at it.”

While Fowler strikes out about four times for every walk at the plate, he likes to push things as much as he does in the field.

“I’m always aggressive,” he said. “Everybody has told me my walks have been down, but everyone’s told me not to think to much about it because I’m the type of person where I’m a swing to contact person.

“I put balls in play the majority of time I swing. That’s why I don’t get a lot of walks. Other than that, I’m slowly learning the strike zone. Early in my career I was getting a lot of ‘I was a little too aggressive and swinging at pitches that were strikes but I shouldn’t swing at that early in the count.’ Now, maybe if it’s a pitch I think I can hit, it’s a pitch that I shouldn’t swing at that early. It’s just a learning process. I’ve never walked that much, but I feel like I know the strike zone, so it’s something I’ve had to work on and I’m going to keep having to work on throughout my career.”

Interestingly, in the age of launch angles, Fowler defies the new common thinking.

“I try to almost think about swinging down on the ball,” he said while showing his arm motion when he swings. “When I think swinging down, and it gets into my legs, it’s going to flatten your swing path out. I try to stay on top of the ball the more I can because, realistically, when you hit a home run, it’s a mistake. You catch it a little farther out front and on the bottom part of the ball.

“So with me, I’m an [batting] average guy – a gap-to-gap person – so I’m going to keep the ball as low as I can and use my speed because once I think about hitting home runs, I’m going to get the ball up in the air and it’s going to take my speed away from [my game].

“I try to stay on the ground and hit low line drives in the gap. I like hitting home runs like every one does, but my approach isn’t to try and hit home runs, it’s to hit doubles, triples and just try to get on base so I can use my speed.”

Fowler’s speed is also something he uses on the basepaths – the almost lost art of the stolen base; Fowler had 37 for three clubs in 2015, 25 sacks swiped in 2016, and 19 thefts between the A’s and the Sounds this year.

“That brings back Reggie Willits as well,” Fowler said. “He taught me how to steal bases, too. I never really learned how to steal bases, so I kind of had to learn it late in my career. Right now I’m still learning and progressing as much as I can. He helped me a lot on my set up position, getting angles to second base. I’ve just got to be aggressive. The second you doubt yourself, you’re going to get yourself out, so my mindset is if I think I can get second, then just go ahead and go and don’t second-guess yourself.

Fowler said there really is almost a science to stealing bases.

“Pitchers are different,” he said. “Some guys, you can read their shoulders when they move it a little at first, or their hands or their hips, and most of the time it’s the front leg, and some leave creases in their pants that you can pick up on. It’s little stuff like that. Watching film, watching a pitcher throughout the game and trying to pick up stuff so when you do get to first you can have an edge on them.”

While it is counter to logic, Fowler said stealing third base is – in a way – more difficult than stealing second base.

“I’m still working on trying to steal third – it’s a little bit harder,” he said. “It’s a shorter throw for the catcher, so you’ve really got to get out there as much as you can, and then you’ve got the back pick they do a lot, so you’ve got to be a little more cautious with it; you’ve got to get the perfect jump as well – I think that’s the biggest part, especially with the catcher having a shorter throw.”

Ranked as the number 5 prospect in the Oakland system by OaklandClubhouse at just 23, Fowler, who works on all aspects of his game, is certainly one to watch as Oakland pushes towards a playoff spot this year and for years to come.

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