SIOUX CITY – After a preseason camp that always lasts somewhere shy of two weeks, one of Sioux City Explorers Manager Steve Montgomery’s player personnel decisions rested more than anything, probably, on the defensive polish John Nogowski showed at first base.
Nogowski’s main competition was a 29-year-old guy named Alan Ahmady, whose 92 RBIs as a sophomore for national champion Fresno State fell one shy of Florida State’s Buster Posey for NCAA Division I honors in 2008.
Ahmady, though, had seen injuries and other misfortunes derail his baseball career for the last four years. And he wound up losing out to another of those Florida State Seminoles, who’ve won more games than any other major college program since the turn of the century.
Nogowski, an All-ACC performer for FSU in 2014, is just 24 and was coming here straight from a very respectable three-year stint in the Oakland Athletics’ farm system.
The choice was rather easy long before Montgomery started realizing just how well Nogowski could also hit the ball.
So, it was at least a bit of a pleasant surprise when the newcomer from Tallahassee rarely dipped below a .400 batting average as the first one-third of the Explorers’ 100-game season played out.
Sunday night, having completed his 34th game with an American Association-leading .402 percentage, the least surprising development of all was the purchase of Nogowski’s contract by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Hate ‘em as much as you will fellow Cubs fans, but the Cardinals have a history of identifying talent better than just about any franchise in baseball. So, this opportunity is an especially meaningful compliment to the son of two former sports writers who’ve both taken the cure and found real jobs.
Much as it impacts the Explorers’ quest for a third consecutive postseason playoff bid, it’s also another feather in the cap of Montgomery, who has very likely moved more players into affiliated ball the last three years than any of his league rivals.
I’ve heard tales, incidentally, that some of those rivals steer scouts in the X’s direction just to avoid losing some of their own star performers. Finger pointing, of course, is now a national pastime.
There’s nothing fishy at all about Nogowski’s new opportunity. Accepting the Cardinals’ offer after a four-game series ended Sunday in Kansas City, he rode the team bus back to Sioux City in order to pick up his possessions and his 2012 Ford F-150 pickup truck.
“Any time you’re swing a bat at a .402 clip, you’re doing some unbelievable things,’’ said Montgomery. “That’s definitely going to be missed. We’re happy for John at earning an opportunity.
“Does it stink for the Sioux City Explorers in the short term? Absolutely. There’s not another 4-hole hitter lying around out there. But in the long run, you did what’s right by the kid and you did what’s right by what you told him to get him here.’’
Nogowski’s plan was to head back toward Kansas City and beyond, reporting to the Cardinals’ Class AA Springfield, Mo., affiliate. Come what may, he had plenty of compliments to shower on his Sioux City teammates and his brief stint with the X’s.
“Any time you have big leaguers around you, you want to kind of be like a sponge,’’ he said, referring to the three Explorers with major league experience. “Especially being one of the younger guys on the team. There’s just so much experience, you don’t have a choice but to learn.
“Talking about my at-bats with Nate (Samson) and Tony (Campana) and (Josh) Vitters and guys like that, I can’t say enough about just how welcoming those guys were and how willing they were to kind of reach out to me and share with me. I think that was an absolutely huge part of why I was able to be successful.’’
Samson, the Explorers’ first-ever league MVP a year ago, is sitting second to Nogowski in the Association batting race with a .380 average. If he isn’t also picked up and can maintain that position at season’s end, he’ll claim the honors for which Nogowski will ultimately lack the at-bats to qualify.
“I think it’s in good hands with Nate,’’ said the five-year varsity baseball performer and three-time all-stater who played on two state championship teams at North Florida Christian. “You could put that guy in a big league lineup tomorrow and he’d fit right in. You’re not going to find a better teammate or a more professional hitter or a more professional infielder. I’d go to battle with him any day.
“It’s been an honor playing with him in every sense of the word. That’s going to be a guy I’m going to stay in touch with for the rest of my career and longer than that.’’
Having already been as high as Double-A with the Athletics, Nogowski earned plenty of respected for independent ball, seeing more and more how many worthy players are suiting up in the Association, keeping the dream alive.
“There’s a ton of talent in this league and a ton of talent on this team,’’ said a former multi-sport athlete who topped 1,000 career points for his prep basketball team. “I thought it was an absolute blast. It was really fun, the only goal being winning and putting the best lineup out there every day. You’re playing to win all 100 games.’’
John Nogowski, Sr., and his wife, Liz, I should note, met when they were both sports writers at a newspaper in Michigan. John Senior spent 30 years in the business, winding up at the Tallahassee Democrat, and he’s now a high school English teacher in a Tallahassee suburb. Liz drives 40 miles north each day to Bainbridge, Ga., where she handles real estate leases for Southwest Georgia Farm Credit.
Both parents are former athletes and both are avid baseball fans who’ve watched all of John’s game over the free internet video offered by the American Association.
Now, they’ll have to find another link. And, I hope they’ll eventually be able to watch their son on MLB.TV when they’re not there in person.