By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
He was the first rifle-armed Toronto Blue Jays right fielder.
Before Jesse Barfield, Shawn Green, Raul Mondesi and Jose Bautista, there was Steve Bowling. The former University of Tulsa running back was the starting right fielder for the Blue Jays in the franchise’s first game on April 7, 1977.
In just 89 contests with the Blue Jays in their inaugural season, Bowling registered 14 outfield assists, good for second in the American League behind Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.
“I felt like defensively I could play with anybody,” said Bowling, in a recent phone interview from his home in Jenks, Okla. “When you finish second to Yastrzemski, a Hall of Famer, for assists from the outfield – and he had a 100 more chances than I did – I was thinking, ‘Man, I got a chance to play.’ It didn’t work out that way.”
A thoughtful and modest man who now enjoys a successful career as a product support specialist in the construction industry, Bowling feels fortunate about how his life has turned out. He’s happily married to his wife, Alice, and has three grown sons (Steve, Ben and Jared) and three grandchildren, but you can still sense a tinge of disappointment in his voice when he discusses the way his tenure with the Blue Jays ended 37 years ago.
Bowling is quick to point out that he respected Jays manager Roy Hartsfield, but the two of them just never got on the same page.
“It was just a difficult relationship,” said Bowling. “I mean, Roy was a great manager. I played against him in the Pacific Coast League for two years, so we had seen each other and how we competed, so from a professional level, it was a very good relationship. It was really good up until spring training 1978.”
After finishing second in the American League in assists and winning the club’s Player of the Month award in September, Bowling understandably expected to be in the mix for a starting job in 1978.
“I came to spring training in 1978 and I think Roy had already decided that I was not going to make the club and I really wasn’t given a chance to make the club,” recounted Bowling. “I got eight at bats in spring training.”
Bowling voiced his disappointment to Hartsfield and was eventually sent to Triple-A Syracuse where he played one game at third base before he was shipped to the Chicago White Sox.
But the way he departed Toronto hasn’t dampened Bowling’s fond memories of the city. The once cannon-armed outfielder recalls navigating 401 traffic, going to The Ex and sampling cuisine from many different countries at the downtown restaurants. But most of all, he remembers being the starting right fielder in that snowy first game.
“I remember thinking it was way too cold. I was thinking, ‘How are we going to play in this?’’ recalled Bowling, when asked about his memories of the opener. “We were told before the game that there was nothing that was going to happen that was going to keep us from playing unless it snowed. Then it snowed and we played anyway.”
The right-handed hitting Bowling got the start in right field against Chicago White Sox left-hander Ken Brett and was 0-for-2, but he did record the first putout in franchise history when he caught a fly ball off the bat of Sox second baseman Alan Bannister in the first inning. He was eventually replaced by left-handed hitting Alvis Woods in the fifth inning and the Blue Jays went on to win 9-5.
It seems fitting that the only article of clothing that Bowling still has from that 1977 season is a stocking cap that Jays players wore to protect themselves against the elements.
“Playing in that first game was a memorable experience,” he said, “and one that I look back on as a special privilege.”
Of course, competing in that historic contest was the type of thing that Bowling had dreamed about since he was a child growing up in Tulsa, Okla. He started playing baseball when he was five when his older brother Allen’s team was short a player.
At Webster High School, Bowling was a standout on the baseball, basketball and football teams. In baseball, he led the squad to two state championships, but it was his skills on the gridiron that earned him a football scholarship from the University of Tulsa. Bowling accepted the scholarship under the agreement that he could also play baseball.
“After my freshman year, they were a lot of baseball scouts that didn’t want me to play football,” he said. “They felt like if I got hurt it was really going to hamper my ability to play professionally.”
With this in mind, Bowling served as a punter for the first five games of his sophomore year, before he returned to the field as an offensive back. On the diamond, he played mostly outfield and helped the team finish third at the College World Series in 1971.
But by his senior year, he decided to focus on baseball and his decision paid off when he was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the seventh round of the 1974 MLB amateur draft. He signed with the Brewers and reported to the Newark Co-Pilots, a Class-A Short-Season, New York Penn League squad, where he hit .298, belted 12 homers and posted a .453 on-base percentage in 67 games.
This earned Bowling a promotion all the way up to Triple-A Sacramento the following season where he socked 20 home runs, before returning to Triple-A in 1976 to knock in 92 runs and receive his first big league call-up that September. When he arrived in Milwaukee, he quickly discovered that he didn’t have cleats that would match his Brewers’ uniform.
“The Brewers wore blue shoes and I didn’t have any blue spikes and they didn’t have any my size, so Robin Yount walked by and he said, ‘Here, just wear these,” recalled Bowling “They were about a half-size too big, but I wore them.”
The shoes must have been a good omen because in his big league debut on September 7, 1976, Bowling replaced centre fielder Von Joshua in the bottom of the fifth inning and proceeded to go 3-for-3. His first hit was a double to left field off of southpaw Don Hood.
“When I was rounding first base, my shoes felt like they were coming off because they were too big,” he recalled with a chuckle.
For the club’s next series, Bowling headed to Yankee Stadium feeling pretty good about his 1.000 batting average.
“The Yankees had an electronic scoreboard which was fairly new back then. So they put the player and their average up there,” he recalled. “Well, mine said .999. because I guess they couldn’t fit 1.000 on there. And when I came to the plate, [Yankees catcher] Thurman Munson says to me, ‘Well, rookie, there’s only one place you’re going and that’s down.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I know.’ Because I thought he was talking about my batting average.”
With that, Yankees left-hander Ken Holtzman reared back and whizzed a pitch past Bowling’s head that knocked him off his feet.
“Munson just looked at me and said, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, rookie,’” said Bowling. “I found out what he meant by ‘going down.’ Obviously he had been talking about one thing and I was talking about another. And we were both right. His was just a little bit more accurate at the time.”
In all, Bowling suited up for 14 games with the Brewers in 1976 and he was playing winter ball in Venezuela that off-season when he was informed that he had been selected by the Blue Jays with their 12th pick in the expansion draft.
When Bowling reported to Dunedin, Fla., for spring training, he knew that he’d have to battle for a roster spot.
“I didn’t know until probably the last week or two days before we broke camp that I was going to Toronto,” he said.
While with the Jays, Bowling became known for his strong arm and plate discipline. He had 37 walks and .330 on-base percentage and also launched his only big league home run. In the fifth inning of a contest at Exhibition Stadium on August 26, he deposited a pitch from right-hander Rick Langford over the left field wall.
“I had hit balls better in Exhibition Stadium that didn’t go out,” recalled Bowling. “I remember hitting one and it looked like it had gone out and then the wind brought it back into the stadium.”
Bowling ended the season on a high note, recording 23 hits and a .366 on-base percentage in September to earn the club’s Player of the Month honours.
But as noted earlier, for some reason, this wasn’t enough for him to claim a spot on the Blue Jays roster the following spring. After the Blue Jays dealt him to the White Sox, Bowling was assigned to Triple-A Iowa where he suffered a major injury to his shoulder while throwing.
“The shoulder injury was not a good deal,” he said. “I was not going to be able throw from the outfield. They didn’t do surgeries back then like they do now. I had a really bad separation and didn’t really play much in the last month of the season.”
After the 1978 campaign, he signed with the Cincinnati Reds and reported to their Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis, but played only three games before deciding to retire.
“I felt stronger and I could hit well, but I really couldn’t throw,” explained Bowling. “The shoulder would dislocate every time I tried to throw. At that point, I just thought there must be something better for me that I’m supposed to be doing.”
Bowling returned to Tulsa and worked in various sales roles before landing with Hilti – a worldwide company that provides leading edge technology to the construction industry. He has been working there as a product support specialist for over 20 years.
Along the way, he married his wife, Alice, and the couple had three sons (Steve, Ben and Jared) and they now have three grandchildren. While his sons were growing up, he coached many of their teams and also found time to finish his university degree in Communications.
“I think my greatest accomplishment, outside of my wife and children and playing professional baseball, was going back to school at 50 to finish my degree,” he said. “Professionally or financially it wasn’t going to do anything to augment my earnings. It was just something that I always wanted to do . . . I actually went to my last class on my 50th birthday.”
Bowling followed the Blue Jays closely in 2015 and he spoke regularly with work colleagues in Hilti’s Canadian office.
“Some of the people in the Mississauga office said, ‘You never told me you played for the Jays!’” said Bowling, who’s not the type to boast about his past. “I found they’re [his Mississauga work colleagues] very passionate Blue Jays fans. They love talking about the Jays.”
And now they can talk about a former Jay that works amongst them – a man who started in that storied, snowy first game and recorded the first putout in franchise history.
“I think you have things that happen in life to you that are deeply honouring, and I don’t think you really realize the impact of them until later on,” Bowling reflected. “Now I’m a little over 63 and I’ve got people saying to me, ‘You played for the Jays. You started for the first team.’ You don’t really put that into perspective until you’re older and you realize how important that team and that day is to Blue Jays fans and the city.”