- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Major League Baseball's 2000 draft will not go down as a memorable one, but it did include a few first-round keepers: Adrian Gonzalez, selected No. 1 overall by the then-Florida Marlins, is a four-time All-Star with 247 career home runs. Phillies second baseman Chase Utley might be a Hall of Fame lock if not for all his injuries, and Adam Wainwright showed lots of early promise in Atlanta that he has since fulfilled as a staff ace in St. Louis.
Tampa Bay outfielder Rocco Baldelli will be remembered as a classic "what if" story. He generated an early Joe DiMaggio comparison or two and was on his way to an impactful career when a series of medical setbacks prompted him to retire at 29 and move into the Rays' front office.
Toronto reliever Dustin McGowan, the 33rd overall pick in the 2000 draft, qualifies as the anti-Baldelli. By all rights, he should have retired three or four years ago and be playing with his kids or drinking an ice-cold lemonade on the porch right now. His presence on Toronto's 25-man roster says a lot about his perseverance, his pain threshold and the wonders of modern sports medicine.
Fourteen years after Toronto selected him out of Long County High School in Ludowici, Georgia, (population: 1,440), McGowan keeps plugging away at 32. His career 23-26 record and 4.57 ERA are considerably more impressive in light of the obstacles he has had to overcome to stay on the field. With three major shoulder surgeries, a knee surgery, plantar fasciitis, an oblique injury and Type 1 diabetes in his medical dossier, McGowan is the lead character in the baseball reality show, "Survivor: Rogers Centre."
"It shows he's got a lot of fight and no quit in him, and it shows his passion for the game," said Toronto closer Casey Janssen. "It would have been pretty easy at any one of those stretches to say, 'It's not in the cards,' and move on."
If McGowan serves as an inspiration to his teammates and other professional pitchers, it's strictly by accident. He's just a down-home Georgia kid who wasn't ready to leave baseball on anybody's terms other than his own.
"I've never quit at anything," McGowan said. "There were times I thought I might not be able get back, but it wasn't going to be for lack of trying. My whole thing was, as long as I could look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and know that I did everything I could, I would be fine. And it worked out for me."
No matter what he achieves moving forward, McGowan will never reach the heights predicted for him as a budding ace in the Toronto chain. After he struck out 99 hitters in 92 innings in his first two minor-league stops, Baseball America ranked him as Toronto's No. 4 prospect -- right between a young catcher named Jayson Werth and a fleet middle infielder by the name of Orlando Hudson. McGowan ascended to No. 1 on Toronto's prospect list in 2003 and appeared poised for a breakthrough the following season.
"McGowan has better stuff than Roy Halladay, the Cy Young Award winner whom he could join in Toronto's rotation soon," wrote BA, which projected him as a future front-of-the-rotation mainstay.
McGowan went 12-10 with a 4.08 ERA in 27 starts in 2007, but that's the closest he ever came to a full season in the majors. He tore his right rotator cuff in a start against Baltimore in July 2008, and the world suddenly came crashing down on his head. He missed the 2009 and 2010 seasons and returned in 2011 only to require a third surgery, which kept him out for all of 2012.
"I was like, 'Holy crap, what else bad can happen?' " McGowan said. "I almost wanted to go home and sit in a chair where nothing bad could happen to me. I got [the surgeries] out of the way and hopefully I won't have any more. I can't have too many more body parts left."
McGowan came closest to quitting after his second shoulder surgery, but persisted with the encouragement of his wife, Jilly. Improbable as it might be that he's still pitching, it's even more surprising that he's still with the team that drafted, signed and developed him.
"The organization stuck by him and gave him the opportunity, and that's helped him," said Toronto manager John Gibbons. "He's one of those guys you pull a little extra for because of the kind of individual he is. He's just a good old country boy."
Three years removed from his last shoulder operation, McGowan still has to tread cautiously. He uses an insulin pump to control his diabetes, and Gibbons is careful not to use him more than two days in a row. But the luxury of pitching in concentrated doses out of the bullpen has been a boon to McGowan's fastball, which still registers in the mid-90s. According to FanGraphs, his average heater topped out at 94.8 mph in 2008 and currently sits at 93.1.
Although the early sense of optimism in Toronto this season has been tempered by the team’s recent stretch of losing, McGowan hopes to be a contributor to the Blue Jays’ first playoff appearance since 1993. Opposing hitters are batting .130 (7-for-54) against him since he moved from the rotation to the bullpen in mid-May, and he has stranded 16 of the 17 runners he has inherited. Those numbers help explain why Gibbons is becoming more comfortable each day to call upon him in high-leverage situations.
If this is what lies in store for McGowan -- a relatively anonymous role as a middle reliever or setup man -- he's fine with it. Although it's tempting to reflect on his career and wonder what he might have achieved with even moderate health, McGowan looks back on his time in Toronto with a sense of pride in having endured.
"I don't like to think about 'what ifs,' " McGowan said. "I know things happen in this game and it's rare that a pitcher is never going to get hurt. I'm more proud of the fact that I've been able to make it back for a third time. That's pretty cool."
It has been a long, lonely road from prospect to injury magnet to relevant again. If Dustin McGowan weren't so grounded and humble, he might even be an inspiration to himself.