Talking Sports with Don Laible

Pitching 16 professional seasons, and last in 2011 in the Mexican League, Josh Towers has an abundance of stories to share. It's the parts of playing summers in Syracuse that is especially telling.

Towers lives and works nearly 2,500 miles west of Syracuse.  As some Central New Yorkers are reveling with the onset of winter, the former Baltimore Orioles 1996 draft selection is surrounded by desert. Southeast of Las Vegas, in Nevada's Clark County, Towers remains busy with his post-baseball life as a licensed mortgage loan originator.

Towers, like most playing the game, moved around - a lot. 13 different teams, in all.  During his pursuit of reaching and remaining in Major league Baseball, four different seasons had stops ticketed for Syracuse. For Towers,43, his introduction to the "Salt City" was an interesting travel.

" It seems longer. A lot longer," Towers said during a recent telephone conversation of his nine seasons removed from working major and minor league mounds.  But, when you move around from organizations, it's 100 percent easier when you're familiar with the clubhouses."

In 2002, Towers split time with the Baltimore Orioles and their Triple-A affiliate Rochester in the International League.  With the Syracuse SkyChiefs as they were known at the time, Toronto's top farm club 90 miles east of Rochester, players on both squads became quite familiar with each other. The teams played against each other often.  So, when the 2003 baseball season rolled around, and Towers had high hopes of making the Blue Jays rotation, having a detour with the SkyChiefs was more routine than traumatic.

For Towers, who spent parts of three seasons (2000-2002) and won 11 games during his Rochester days, signing with Toronto was no accident.  Going 0-9 with the Rochester Red Wings and 0-3 when called-up to Baltimore in 2002, Towers went looking for a fresh start; to reboot his career.

Enter Blue Jays' general manager J.P. Riccardi.

"When the Orioles let me go after the 2002 season, my agent calls me, and says I can sign with Oakland, which would be closer to home (Ventura County, California).  I was ready to sign, then five minutes later my agent calls, and says there's a change in plans," says Towers, who made his MLB debut in a 7-1 home loss to Tampa Bay for manager Mike Hargrove's Orioles."

" J.P. wanted me.  He sent the contract over. Now, I'm with Toronto."

Coming from Port Hueneme (CA), surrounded by the city of Oxnard and the Pacific Ocean, joining a club north of the border and at times, colder weather than he was used to growing up, was challenging for Towers.  If an average of 54 degrees in April, and cloudy 50 percent of the time in Toronto sounds like something that has to gradually grow on a kid throwing baseballs for a living from California, then Syracuse is the right place to gear up for the major leagues.

" I hate the cold weather," explains Towers, who would go onto collecting 45 MLB victories during eight seasons of service.  " 115 degrees, I'm cool with that.  If you take out April, my record is above .500. As a pitcher, I found I couldn't throw as I wanted."

With an average temperature of 57 degrees during April in Syracuse, Towers had the perfect training grounds for Toronto, and many other northeast cities that Toronto traveled to.  A memory of suiting up at then seven-year-old  P&C Stadium (currently NBT Bank Stadium) that haunts Towers came during his last stint with Syracuse in 2009.

"The only time I was hurt was when I pulled an oblique muscle because it was so cold," offers Towers.

Remaining focused in wanting to be successful on the MLB level, putting in his work on the Triple-A level, for Towers, was equally essential.  Having people believe in you, and invest in your dream is special.  Names from his days pitching on Syracuse's Northside begin to pop, as Towers goes down memory lane. Two of his former managers lead the way.

" Omar  (Omar Malave '03) was great, and Pevey (Marty Pevey '04) was one of the best I ever played for.  The way people (Malave and Pevey) touch your life doing their jobs is amazing.

Towers labels his Syracuse/Toronto rosters as having "a ton of studs". Jayson Werth and Reed Johnson are at the top of the list.  Werth, who came up in the Orioles' organization as a catcher , was Towers' teammate, first in 1998 with the Eastern League's Bowie (MD) Baysox.  Johnson, who went on to have a very productive 14-year MLB career, was with Towers in Syracuse , for the 2003 season. Doug Linton, a 37-year-old pitching veteran  during the 2003 season is labeled by Towers as a "genius" who unselfishly helped him become a better pro.

People associated with the SkyChiefs, not in uniform, also remain special to Towers.  From the front office during his days of making the Syracuse-Toronto shuttle are Wendy Shoen, her daughter Ariel, and the late executive vice-president and COO Tex Simone.

"They were fantastic people. I have photos taken with Tex in my opposing uniform," Towers said.

While in the minors, like so many other players looking to reach and remain on an MLB roster, Towers is thankful for the many people who teamed with him during the journey.

" Even when you make good money, you want to you are careful.  The  Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (West Willow Street) was always on my list. Going to the mall (Destiny USA) was popular for me, too," Towers explains.

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Being with the SkyChiefs (Syracuse returned to their original name of Chiefs for the 2007 season through 2018) was a time Towers says prepared him well to play in the major leagues.  He points to cities in the IL as Louisville (Cincinnati Triple-A affiliate) where top accommodations reminded him of the next step he needed to reach.

A quick return to Syracuse during the 2009 season, when the club was the top affiliate of the Washington Nationals, Towers would see his career change as he may have always hoped for, but few have attained.

One appearance for the Chiefs, a total of one and two-thirds inning pitched, and Towers wouldn't throw again in a Syracuse uniform.  Injured, the Nationals dispatched him to Florida for rehab.

" I asked them (Washington) to release me. I wanted to let them off the hook. I could read in-between the lines. While I was getting healthy, I was watching their roster moves," remembers Towers.  "I signed with the Yankees. I had the best year of my life with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre."

Then in August, the phone call from Yankees general manager Brian Cashman came.

Towers was being called-up. But, he tells of trying to convince Cashman not to do so.

" I really didn't want to go. I was in a good place. But, he (Cashman) said the right things, and I finished the year in the big leagues."

Two appearances in pinstripes, and a World Series ring is what Towers has to remember for his days playing home games in the Bronx.

Adam Lind, Kevin Cash, Kevin Barker, Alex Rios, and Erik Kratz, all with extended tenure on the MLB level, are part of the Syracuse teammate memories Towers cherishes. More than a decade has passed since Towers has made a run to Destiny USA or had an order to-go from Dinosaur Bar-B-Que but the taste that Syracuse baseball and all that comes with it remains fresh.

Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley.  He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com.