I checked in today with Ryan Rowland-Smith in Houston Astros camp in Kissimmee, Florida. In 16 years of trucking around Florida for spring training, I’ve never before made it to Kissimmee, so now I can say I’ve been to every camp in the majors — plus numerous ones that no longer exist (Plant City, Baseball City, Fort Lauderdale, Vero Beach and Winter Haven in Florida; Yuma, Tucson and Chandler in Arizona, and Palm Springs in California, for starters).
Rowland-Smith looks like he’s in fantastic shape after spending much of the winter undergoing intensive mixed martial arts workouts in Los Angeles. And when he wasn’t in L.A., he was working out in his native Australia under the supervision of his father, Rob, who is a famous — and famously demanding — personal trainer down under.
After a brutal season in 2010 (1-10 with a 6.75 ERA, the worst numbers of any starter in the majors), Rowland-Smith felt he needed to rejuvenate himself both mentally and physically. He feels he did that working under the supervision of Jay Glazer, and being around MMA fighters like Randy Couture.
“It’s physically demanding, but also you’re competing every time you work out,” he said. “I got into it, and I just found I was getting stronger, just naturally, so much stronger, and I was competing again. I had lost that. I had lost that all season long. That’s what I loved about it. Whether or not it’s baseball specific, I know myself and my body pretty well, and I know going in there every day, I felt this is helping. I would leave every day just wrecked. I’d get home and just sit on that couch.”
(That’s Rowland-Smith third from the right as Astros pitchers go through fielding drills. One thing I neglected to mention earlier is that Rowland-Smith has ditched his trademark goggles, having finally found some contacts that don’t fog up.).
Last year’s struggles, Rowland-Smith has concluded upon considerable reflection, were mostly mental
“I’ve done plenty of reflecting,” he said. “I’ve never in my offseason looked back on my year like I have this offseason. In a good way. I tried to pinpoint, watch film, this and that. As cliché as it sounds, it’s nothing more than psychological. You could sit there all day and talk about mechanics. But you can look at ’07, ’08 and ’09, there were flaws in my mechanics, the ball was up in the zone. I was missing pitches, I was hanging the curve ball, doing all that. But 2010, I went back and looked at the day I was pitching, the leadup to that game, my routine, things like that. I was looking at how I felt, the anxiety, the nerves. I had never felt being nervous like that, ever. It built up and built up as the season went on. I started off bad and never really recovered.”
But Rowland-Smith also felt that he needed to get himself in better shape.
“After 2009, it’s not like I was sitting in the couch eating potato chips all that offseason,” he said. “But I kind of sat back and said, ‘I’ll do a bit of this and a bit of that’ – like I got this figured out. After 2010, I haven’t got anything figured out.
“It’s such a humbling experience. I understood what that meant. I took a couple days off and got on the phone and called Jay Glazer and said I want to be a part of this program. I sat down with him and we had a really good conversation. It was one of those things where, I’m not living through that again.”
Meanwhile, while Rowland-Smith was going through his own personal hell in 2010, so were the Mariners, en route to 101 losses.
“It reminded me a lot of 2008,” he said. “It was one of those things, before 2008 there were these big expectations on the team. Then last year, I saw the same things happening. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Obviously, you have to get excited about the team and have these expectations. But in April, it felt like the minute things started to go wrong, people started to panic and say, what’s going on?
“And all of a sudden there’s a lot of negativity. You can talk about this and that in the clubhouse, but if you look at certain guys, they had the worst year of their career. For whatever reason. Jose Lopez, he had the worst year of his career. Milton Bradley, he struggled. (Chone) Figgins. I’m not saying I’m in the same boat as them; they’ve been playing a lot longer than I have. It was bizarre. It was from the get-go, early on, just like 2008. We struggled, panicked and then just couldn’t recover from it. All of a sudden everyone is disappointed, and it’s a month into the season. It’s not a good environment, because you’ve got five months to go.”
And then, in May, the story hit about Ken Griffey Jr. napping in the clubhouse, and things really started to disintegrate. Rowland-Smith believes Griffey got a raw deal.
“That really bothered me in the part that Ken Griffey, in that locker room, was huge as a teammate,” Rowland-Smith said. “Look at his career, and it really upset me — and a lot of other guys — that he ended his career and ended his time in Seattle that way. Whatever went on, and whoever said something, or whatever the conspiracy theory that was going on, to me it was just disappointing. That was a hard time, a tough time. For everyone. There was a lot of stuff going on for the coaching staff, the players, the front office. It was a tough thing to deal with. We’re losing, everyone’s disappointed, then you’ve got that on top of it. It was just, wow. It was tough to deal with.”
“I’m a starting pitcher so I go in and out of that locker room (during games). I’ll tell you right now, he goes into the locker room and he watches the game. He’s a professional, and he’s been doing it for 20 years and having success for 20 years doing it. That’s the bottom line. It’s not like he’s in there chilling out. He and Mike Sweeney would go in that video room. I used to watch them, because I used to like to sit there and talk to Griffey and Sweeney on the bench if I’m not pitching. I’d turn around, and they’d be in the video room. That’s what they’d do when they’re in the clubhouse.
“If the guy was hitting .300 with 15 home runs, it would probably be a different story. To me, that was really disappointing. When you take away what the guy’s done, what the guy’s done for Seattle, it upset me.”
Many have speculated that the Griffey fallout caused former manager Don Wakamatsu to lose the team.
”I don’t know if you can say ‘lost the team.’ He was under a lot of pressure, too,” Rowland-Smith said. “He’s the manager, and when things go wrong, everyone is going to point fingers at someone. If that’s what’s going on, he’s the one who cops it. He was under a lot of pressure from that standpoint, and everyone was trying to figure out, what’s going wrong? It’s this and it’s that. Whether the team was lost or it wasn’t or whatever, it was a difficult time for everyone.”
Rowland-Smith signed a one-year, $725,000 with the Astros after being non-tendered by the Mariners, and will compete for their fifth starting job. He said he had some other opportunities but after doing some research decided Houston was the best place to revive his career.
“I just felt like here, from what I’d heard and they told me, they seemed excited to have me, so I felt like it was the best opportunity. I heard nothing but good things about (manager) Brad Mills and (pitching coach) Brad Arnsberg. I was excited about that.
“I’m not exactly going to be like Cliff Lee in the offseason. It’s not like it’s broadcast live every day where I’m going. I wanted to go somewhere where I had the best opportunity over anything else. I’m going to compete my butt off to make the rotation.”