'Ace' had grace in M's joker days

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Al Cowens' death on March 11 passed with little notice — too little for a man who once finished as runner-up in the Most Valuable Player voting to Rod Carew, and carved his own mark of distinction in Seattle during a Mariners era that bears little resemblance to the M's current reign of on-field success and runaway popularity.

For friends and teammates of the man they called "Ace," Cowens' death at age 50 was a shock.

"In talking to guys like (Tampa Bay manager) Hal McRae, guys he played with, the biggest comment I got was, 'Hey, Al was just 50.' I'm 51, Hal's 55," said former Royals second baseman Frank White. "It's scary, man. One day, you're a world-class athlete, the next you're in your 50s and your body's breaking down. It just shows that health is the most important thing we all have."

Cowens' health had begun to fail him long before his death, which came at his home in Downey, Calif., of a heart attack. According to his wife of 30 years, Velma Cowens, Al had been diagnosed in 1999 with congestive heart failure, an illness that forced him to curtail his duties as a Los Angeles-area scout for the Kansas City Royals.

Dave Henderson, who along with Cowens and first Steve Henderson and then Phil Bradley comprised an airtight defensive outfield for the Mariners in the early 1980s, said he had an inkling that Cowens' health was deteriorating.

"I had talked to him about six weeks before," Henderson said. "He had been in and out of the hospital with a lot of internal organ problems. I think you could tell in his voice something was seriously wrong."

Randy Rogers of Seattle, Cowens' closest friend, said he talked to Al the day before he died. Rogers said that Cowens had been hospitalized recently for pneumonia, and that it was downhill for him after that.

"It was hard for him to shake," he said. "When I talked to him that Sunday, he said, 'I'm tired. I'm just tired.' I kind of got the feeling, he knew his time was going to come. Just the way we were talking. We had a very, very deep conversation."

Rogers had befriended Cowens during his Seattle tenure. Cowens served as the Mariners' regular right fielder for four seasons, from 1982-85, having his best season in 1982 when he hit .270 with 20 homers and 78 runs batted in. In 1986, however, he was squeezed out of a job by young outfielders Ivan Calderon and Danny Tartabull, and was released shortly after Chuck Cottier was fired as manager and replaced by Dick Williams.

"Al was adopted by my family up here," recalled Rogers. "I'd bring him to my house, introduced him to my parents. Mom automatically adopted him as her son. My mother was a pediatrician at Children's Hospital, and Al would go there all the time and donate his time with the kids. He was one of the best. He was all out for the kids, especially inner-city kids."

After the Mariners cut him loose, Cowens looked into playing in Japan, but it didn't work out. His career, it turned out, was over at age 35. White said that a recent settlement from baseball's collusion case helped the Cowenses purchase a home, and he was looking to get back into baseball.

"At the end of last year, he started feeling better," said Velma Cowens. "He started getting his strength back, breathing better. That's why we thought he was getting better."

The Cowenses had four children (Purvis, 30; Dante, 27; Trinetta, 23; and Rayvon, 17) and four grandchildren. "Al would get up every morning and play with his grandchildren," Velma said. "Then he would go to the batting cage and work with the high-school kids. He did that up to his death."

Both Rogers and Velma Cowens said that Al looked back fondly on his Seattle years. "He talked a lot about moving back to Seattle," Velma said. "He'd talk about how nice everything was, clean and green. Those were happy times for him."

Cowens' best year came in 1977, when he played in all 162 games for the Royals and hit .312 with 23 homers and 112 RBI. He won a Gold Glove and helped the George Brett-led Royals to the AL West title before they lost the second of three consecutive League Championship Series to the Yankees. That was also the year Carew flirted with .400 and wound up at .388, giving him a fairly narrow MVP edge over Cowens.

Some people felt Cowens was never quite the same after a serious beaning by White Sox pitcher Ed Farmer in 1979 that broke his jaw. The next year, while with Detroit, Cowens charged the mound on Farmer after a ground out, instigating a brawl that resulted in a one-week suspension for Cowens and assault charges against him filed by Farmer. Farmer dropped the charges later that year after Cowens apologized.

Carew was at Cowens' funeral, along with Brett, Lance Parrish and a handful of other baseball personnel. Around Florida and Arizona, many other former teammates are still trying to come to grips with the jarring news.

"I had a long talk with him about a month ago, and he sounded good — kind of happy, healthy," said Steve Henderson, now a minor-league instructor with the Devil Rays. "He was trying to get back into baseball, and I was going to help him get back into scouting. It came across the TV the other day he had died, and it bothered me quite a bit.

"As far as I was concerned, you couldn't find a better person."

The two Hendus, Dave and Steve, were the players who stayed in closest contact with Cowens, according to Velma.

"He was a strong individual, always a leader," said Dave Henderson. "He wasn't your upper echelon player, but very steady. He was a pretty consistent, above-average player. We had a good time here. What he liked most was, he had a bunch of young kids, me included, he could teach, pass on the legacy of how to play the game right."

In an e-mail correspondence, former Mariner pitcher Roy Thomas recorded his memories of Cowens:


Good man

Funny laugh

Hated Lach's aerobics

Could play.

It's the last lineup card, that came a bit too soon.

Giant troubles

The Mariners tried hard this winter to sign free agent Jason Schmidt, offering him a contract comparable to the four-year, $30 million deal he eventually signed with the Giants. San Francisco was happy to get Schmidt, who was 7-1 for the Giants down the stretch last year, but so far his spring has been pretty much a disaster.

Schmidt has pitched just two innings in the Cactus League because of a strained right groin — an injury that Giants GM Brian Sabean suggested was the result of a lack of conditioning by Schmidt.

"What I fear is this is the residual effect of him not coming into camp in shape, or in as good of shape as he could have been or should have been," Sabean told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. "I don't know what kind of (conditioning) he had coming in, but I suspect that it's not what we were looking for, certainly not what he needs to do."

Schmidt was close to resuming pitching this week when he received word his mother was seriously ill in Portland. He flew to Portland on Wednesday. Schmidt won't pitch in regular-season games until at least mid-April, which means the Giants will likely start the season without a top starter and their cleanup hitter, Jeff Kent, who has a fractured wrist.

"Everybody's making a big deal about a good start," Manager Dusty Baker said. "Sure, I'd love to have a good start, but I'd rather have a great finish. I've seen teams win a whole bunch in the beginning and you can't find them in July or August, or, in the case of the A's last year, they got off to a poor start and ended up winning 100-something games."

Howe, and when?

Oakland GM Billy Beane got his contract extended from 2005 to 2008. So what about Art Howe, who has been runner-up for Manager of the Year three years in a row?

Howe's contract expires at the end of the year, and to his consternation, the A's have yet to exercise his option. In a perhaps related development, Beane this spring denied the Red Sox permission to interview A's bench coach Ken Macha after Joe Kerrigan was fired. Some have speculated that Macha is the heir apparent for Howe's job.

"I think Art has done a very, very good job on a year-to-year basis, considering where we started," A's owner Steve Schott told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I have no problem with the way Art's managed. ... But I think that's a decision that we will make as a group. And I'm not the one who makes all the calls."

Howe said of his contract, "I brought it up to them during the offseason, and I still do not have my option. ... But I'm happy for Billy. It's nice to get some security in this game."

When asked by the Chronicle if he was frustrated about his own situation, Howe said, "Yeah. I think it's fair to say that."

Operation Brain Shutdown

Derek Bell invoked a firestorm of criticism in Pittsburgh when he expressed surprise that he was competing for the Pirates' right-field job with Armando Rios and Craig Wilson, and told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he was going on "Operation Shutdown." Bell said the Pirates should trade or release him.

Bell was wide open to criticism because he hit just .173 with five homers and 13 RBI in 46 games last year after signing a two-year, $9.75 million contract. He was hitting just .148 this spring. He says now he's sorry for his remarks and worries about the reaction of Pirates fans if he's still around for the home opener at PNC Park on April 8.

"I'm scared to go back to Pittsburgh," Bell said. "Everybody is going to want to kill me."

Notes and quotes

• The Rangers have a potential problem at closer. Jeff Zimmerman has not pitched since March 6 because of elbow tendinitis. His return has been pushed back to tomorrow at the earliest. If Zimmerman, who has worked just three innings this spring and has yet to throw a slider, isn't ready for Opening Day, the Rangers will go with Jay Powell or John Rocker at closer.

• With Rocker and Carl Everett already in Texas, it's not surprising that Ruben Rivera is expected to land with the Rangers. GM John Hart and several Texas staffers, including the team psychologist, met with Rivera's agent, Fern Cuza, on Tuesday. The Rangers are contemplating signing Rivera, booted off the Yankees after stealing Derek Jeter's glove, to a minor-league contract because they are worried about the condition of Everett's knee. Gabe Kapler provides insurance in center, but he may be moved in a deal for pitching.

• Not only has Rickey Henderson made the Red Sox, but he will likely take over the leadoff job when he plays, moving Johnny Damon to second in the batting order. And after a strong spring, it looks like Carlos Baerga will stick with the Red Sox as well, getting considerable playing time at DH. Baerga, who didn't make the Mariners last year out of spring training, is in the best shape he's been in years, and also has value as a positive influence on Manny Ramirez.

• For those prepping for their Fantasy League draft, here's a hot tip — but keep it under your hat. If you have an opening at catcher, consider Detroit's Mike Rivera, who appears to have won the Tigers' job over Mitch Meluskey, Brandon Inge and Javier Cardona. Rivera hit 33 homers last season at Class AA.

• Toronto pitcher Luke Prokopec after working four scoreless innings against the Yankees: "To pitch against the Yankees, to get Derek Jeter out, to set down the Yanks 1-2-3 in the first, then sit in the dugout and watch Roger Clemens walk out to the mound, well, it's a pretty amazing reality when you think about it. Especially for me, an Aussie dude from Renmark, population 9,000. It's a long way from the bush to get here."

• Before a recent game with Colorado, Diamondbacks Manager Bob Brenly asked Rockies coach Rich Donnelly if Larry Walker was trying to win the Cactus League batting title by bunting. Brenly happened to be miked for the televised game, and Rockies Manager Buddy Bell was not amused. Brenly, who says he was joking, has attempted to call Bell to explain himself, but so far Bell hasn't returned the call.

• There's a statistic for everything these days, and here's an obscure but interesting one. According to Stats Inc., only three major-league players came through every time they were asked to sacrifice last year. Two were pitchers — Montreal's Javier Vazquez was 16 for 16 and Atlanta's Greg Maddux was 13 for 13. The non-pitcher was — drumroll, please — Colorado's Juan Pierre, at 14 of 14.

• Here's a progress report on the pitchers Seattle gave up in the Jeff Cirillo deal: Denny Stark has apparently been beaten out as the Rockies' No. 5 starter by rookie Jason Jennings. Left-hander Brian Fuentes has had a strong spring, so strong that the Rockies may keep three lefties in the bullpen — Fuentes, Kent Mercker and Dennys Reyes. That could make the third ex-Mariner, Jose Paniagua, expendable in a trade. The White Sox, Cubs, Tigers, Brewers, Mets and Marlins have all shown interest in Paniagua.

• Much like Kazu Sasaki in his early days with the Mariners, the Dodgers are having to learn about the different training methods of Japanese pitchers. The Dodgers had to rework their pitching schedule after new left-hander Kazuhisa Ishii threw 60 pitches in the bullpen Tuesday, three days after his previous start, then threw on the side again Wednesday. "That's the way he trained in Japan," said Dodgers pitching coach Jim Colborn, the Mariners' former Pacific Rim scout. "That's the way Japanese pitchers are used to conditioning."

• I don't know what to believe in the bizarre Jeff Kent story, but I do know this: if Kent really did fracture his wrist while washing his truck, as he claimed, you'd think his denials about the growing evidence he hurt himself in a motorcycle accident would be a lot stronger. Kent has been given numerous opportunities to refute the motorcycle story, but he talks around it every time. That's why the Giants are mulling their options, which include voiding his $6 million contract or docking his pay $33,000 for each game he misses. Motorcycle riding is forbidden in his contract.

Joey Hamilton came to Reds camp as a non-roster invitee, signed to a minor-league deal. Now he is their Opening Day starter, which says a lot about Hamilton's spring, but more about the Reds' pitching staff.

"I've gone from no shot to longshot to big shot," said Hamilton, signed by the Reds last August after Toronto released him.

• Mets Manager Bobby Valentine has an uncanny knack for rubbing people the wrong way. He even got the aggressively non-controversial Jimy Williams to speak out after Valentine criticized Houston's manager for the lineup he brought to Port St. Lucie for a road exhibition game. "I'll have second thoughts about taking people on road trips after looking at that (Houston) lineup," Valentine said. "What did they have, one starter, Daryle Ward?"

Responded Williams, "It's probably best that the next time we play the Mets and we go over there that I call Bobby up and give him our roster to make sure it's OK. He likes to take care of other people's team. Me, I'm just going to focus on mine."

Larry Stone can be reached at 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.