By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Khalid Ballouli would’ve loved to pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic to honour his grandfather, Dick Fowler.
And if he’d been born five years later, it might have happened.
“That would’ve been something that I would’ve jumped on completely,” said Ballouli, who was a right-hander in the Milwaukee Brewers organization from 2002 to 2006, in a recent phone interview.
Since the World Baseball Classic’s inception in 2006, players like Mike Piazza (Italy) and Seth Lugo (Puerto Rico) have competed for countries their grandparents were born in.
Unfortunately for Ballouli, his grandpa, a Toronto native and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee who pitched parts of 10 big league seasons with the Philadelphia A’s between 1941 and 1952, died eight years before he was born. So he never had the opportunity to get to know his grandfather, but he does savour the stories he hears from his mother, Candice, about her big league dad.
Ballouli, who recently turned 40, is well aware that his grandpa was the first Canadian to throw a no-hitter in the major leagues and that the 6-foot-4 right-hander accomplished this feat in his first start (on September 9, 1945) after returning from service in the Canadian army.
He also knows that his grandpa played for the immortal Connie Mack and marvels at the fact that his grandfather threw a 16-inning complete game against the St. Louis Browns on June 5, 1942.
“There are probably still some stories that my mother has that I would be completely enthralled and interested in,” said Ballouli. “I remember one time she just kind of offhandedly talked about how my grandfather and Ted Williams had a closer friendship than most rivals. I said, ‘Mom, that’s not a throw away story. I’d like to hear details about that. What does that mean? Were they pen pals?’ And she said, ‘Oh no. They would visit and he would come up to New York.’”
More than 50 years after his grandfather was pitching against Teddy Ballgame, Ballouli would find himself facing his own fearsome left-handed hitting slugger in Prince Fielder at a Brewers pre-draft workout. And though he never met his grandfather, there are definite similarities between the two. Both were tall right-handers (Fowler was 6-foot-4 and Ballouli 6-foot-2), and Fowler’s widow and Ballouli’s grandmother, Joyce, told Jim Shearon for his book, Over the Fence is Out, that Ballouli’s delivery was just like his grandfather’s.
Both were also savvy and resourceful on the mound — as likely to outsmart a batter as to overpower them. Since he retired after the 2006 season, Ballouli has earned three university degrees including a Masters and a Ph. D., and in talking to him, it’s clear he’s very much into the art of pitching. His grandfather, especially late in his career when he was battling bursitis, was much the same. When his velocity began to diminish, he incorporated a knuckleball into his arsenal, and A’s catcher Buddy Rosar, one of the most highly regarded defensive receivers of the 1940s, called Fowler the smartest pitcher he ever caught.
But the paths to their professional careers were very different. Born in 1921, Fowler grew up in Toronto and honed his skills with a Catholic youth team before he was discovered at a Toronto Maple Leafs (International League) tryout camp in the summer of 1937. At that time, a collegiate baseball scholarship was not an option.
In contrast, Ballouli was born in Charlotte, N.C. in 1980. His mother, Candice, who grew up in Oneonta, N.Y., met her husband Walid at university and the family eventually settled in Austin, Texas.
“I know that baseball was naturally a big part of my mom’s upbringing and I think they wanted to keep that tradition even without my grandfather’s presence,” said Ballouli.
Ballouli’s dad is Lebanese and had never played the game as a child, but that didn’t stop him from ensuring his son had every opportunity to excel.
“My dad did everything a baseball dad could possibly do from providing opportunities, equipment and time,” said Ballouli. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
It wasn’t until he was attending Stephen F. Austin High School that he realized his baseball skills might lead to a pro career.
“I think the Cleveland Indians called me when I was a junior in high school and they started talking about the draft and that was around the same time when I started having colleges call for campus visits,” explained Ballouli. “I think at that point I started to realize where I stood with the rest of the country relative to my age group.”
During his high school years, he briefly pondered turning pro, but he and his parents felt college was the best route to go. Ballouli was an A student and had a number of colleges interested in him before he accepted a scholarship to Texas A&M.
“I think we knew I was going to stay in Texas,” said Ballouli. “My parents wanted to watch me play and state tuition was obviously cheaper, regardless of the scholarship that was offered.”
Ballouli pitched three seasons for Texas A&M where he became the team captain and earned All-Conference honours, and his strong right arm sparked the interest of big league scouts, including those evaluating talent for the Brewers.
“I knew the Brewers were interested in me because they brought me out for a pre-draft workout and there were only about 50 kids in the country – high school and college – that were invited to that,” said Ballouli.
One of the other “kids” at that camp was Prince Fielder, and this was where the two would first meet.
“At this time I didn’t know Prince and I don’t know if this was by chance, but Prince was in the last group of hitters and I was in the last pitching group. So I took that as a compliment,” recalled Ballouli.
“We’re at Miller Park and everybody is at their best. I mean guys are running their 60s faster than they’ve ever run them. I’m throwing harder than I’ve ever thrown. I’m probably throwing low-to-mid 90s at this point and Prince comes up against me . . . and I get him down 0-2 and Prince knows the story and he loves telling one part of it, but he doesn’t tell the other. I got him down 0-2, and I think they wanted to see Prince [who was still in high school] hit off college pitching, compared to some of the high school pitchers that were there. I throw him an 0-2 slider . . . pretty much on his back left heel and he spins out on it and strikes out. It was the third out of the inning and I started to walk off and then they said, ‘Run it again.’ They asked if I could throw again and, of course, I’m cocky I had just struck him out and I say, ‘Sure.’”
So Ballouli proceeded to pitch to Fielder again.
“I get him down to 1-2 or 2-2 again and I throw the same back-heel slider,” remembered Ballouli. “And on their scoreboard there at Miller Park, they had a picture of Richie Sexson. He was their popular first baseman at the time. And I kid you not, Prince hits it off Richie Sexson’s neck on the scoreboard . . . And that’s how they ended the workout. Everybody is oohing and awing over that hit, and I’m left standing there, thinking, ‘What the hell just happened here? Did I just cost myself three rounds of draft money?’”
Ballouli, who would later play and become friends with Fielder, says the slugger enjoys telling that story, but he likes to exclude the part about him striking out in the first at bat.
“But it was a testament to how good Prince was. He adapted literally at a moment’s notice and predicted I would throw that again and then hit it 400 and some odd feet,” said Ballouli.
Fortunately, the Brewers wouldn’t hold Fielder’s majestic blast against Ballouli. They chose the right-hander in the sixth round of the 2002 MLB draft (They took Fielder in the first round the same year.) and assigned him to their Rookie Ball club in Ogden.
“Some of the best memories from my baseball career are from Ogden,” said Ballouli. “I was a starter for that team and I met my wife in Ogden. In fact, she sang the national anthem in the game that I opened up with.”
In his first professional season, he went 4-0 with a 4.37 ERA in 15 appearances and was rewarded with a promotion to the class-A Beloit Snappers in 2003. He continued his ascent up the Brewers’ ranks the following year, landing with the class-A Advanced High Desert Mavericks where he set career highs in strikeouts (128) and innings pitched (137 2/3). He was promoted to the double-A Huntsville Stars the ensuing campaign.
Along the way, he got to play with several future big league all-stars, including Fielder, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and Rickie Weeks.
“Guys like Nelson Cruz and Ryan Braun, when they took batting practice, you just knew [they would be stars],” he said. “The way the ball came off their bat was unlike anything that anybody else could do.”
Unfortunately, in 2005, while in double-A, he would tear his lat muscle and after a long and intensive rehab process, he returned the following year, only to suffer the same injury.
“Both times I tore it was in the middle of a game and to hear something like pop, I knew it wasn’t good,” said Ballouli. “When I walked off the field the second time, it was the same trainer on the same field. So the trainer came out and I was walking off with him and he wasn’t saying anything and I just said under my breath, “I’m done probably, huh?’ And he goes like, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be tough.’”
Facing another daunting rehab, Ballouli, opted to hang up his spikes.
“It was tough, but I was looking forward to the next chapter in my life,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be a baseball lifer. I knew I wasn’t going to become a scout or a coach or anything like that.”
Ballouli went back to Texas A&M and earned three degrees, including a Masters and Ph. D in Sport Management. He’s now an associate professor and the Ph. D. program director in the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management College of Hospitality at the University of South Carolina.
His wife, Jessica, and him are also raising four children: Farrah, Zaki, Maya and Zayn.
Ballouli keeps in touch with many of his ex-Brewers teammates through a football pool and still offers pitching lessons on the side.
He has a modest collection of his grandfather’s baseball cards and photos, but he doesn’t own a jersey or a glove from his grandpa’s career, though he’d love to have one of these.
“His impact on me being a ballplayer was certainly very heavy,” said Ballouli of his grandfather. “I’m proud to be his grandson.”
And you get the feeling that his grandfather would be very proud of him too.