For years in the 1950s and 60s, the small town of Ludowici in southeast Georgia was best known for its only stoplight. Local police had it rigged to snare unsuspecting vacationers on their way to Florida, making it turn red with the flick of a switch from inside the town barber shop.
The American Automobile Association received more complaints about the “Ludowici light” than any other stoplight in the country, Georgia governor Lester Maddox erected a billboard warning drivers about the trap, and Time magazine in 1970 declared Ludowici as “one of the last remaining speed traps in the country.”
The light’s still there, but the trap is no more.
The billboard’s gone, too, replaced by a small sign proclaiming Ludowici as the “Home of Dustin McGowan.”
“The town I’m from has only one light, and there’s not much going on there,” McGowan said, dismissing his status as a small-town celebrity.
The Marlins are looking at McGowan, 33, as a possible addition to the bullpen, a hard-throwing right-hander with a career checkered by a smorgasbord of injuries. Jose Urena is also being considered for a relief role.
“He’s a guy that’s been interesting in camp,” manager Don Mattingly said of McGowan. “I saw him a long time ago — in ’04 and ’05 with the Blue Jays. He had power stuff, and he’s still got that stuff.”
McGowan, a former first-round draft pick, was once regarded as the top prospect in the Toronto organization and became a member of a Blue Jays rotation that included Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett. He had his best season in 2007 when he went 12-10 in 27 starts.
Then came the injuries, so many that there is a three-year gap on his stat sheet in which he did not appear in a major-league game and a five-year span, from 2008-13, in which he pitched in only five. He had three surgeries on his shoulder and another on a knee.
“Health has always been a factor for me,” McGowan said.
At one point, McGowan thought his baseball career was finished.
“I would say after my second [shoulder surgery], my chances of coming back weren’t very good,” he said.
But McGowan kept at it, and when he finally worked his way back to the majors in 2013, his role changed from starter to reliever. But success wasn’t forthcoming and his struggles persisted. He went to spring training last year with the Dodgers, who eventually let him go before he ever threw a regular-season pitch for Los Angeles.
“He got hit pretty good last year in camp,” said Mattingly, who was managing the Dodgers at the time.
McGowan ended up with Philadelphia, making 14 appearances with the Phillies and going 1-2 with a hefty 6.94 ERA.
“I don’t think I ever lost the velocity,” McGowan explained. “The results at times I lost. Sometimes you struggle with that kind of stuff, and mentally it gets to you a little bit.”
Despite his underwhelming numbers, the Marlins came calling when the offseason rolled around.
“They were one of the first teams to call this offseason,” he said. “I thought it would be a good fit.”
The Marlins, thinking they might able to fix him, signed him to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training. So far, he’s looked impressive, like the McGowan of old.
Mattingly sees a big difference from last spring to this one.
“It’s the swings that guys are having off him,” Mattingly said. “Last year he was 95, 96 [mph], but guys were squaring him up all the time. This spring, there’s been a lot less of that.”
Until Wednesday, McGowan was having a successful spring, allowing only one run in 4 2/3 innings. But he gave up three runs in only two-thirds of an inning against the Cardinals on three hits, a walk and a hit batsman.
Mattingly described the outing as both “good and bad,” but noted he allowed McGowan to pitch to a left-handed hitter, Brandon Moss, who doubled in two runs. Mattingly said that had it been the regular season, he would have brought in a lefty to face Moss.
“Dustin specifically came here because he wanted to come here and make some changes,” Mattingly said. “They’ve made some small changes with him that have been pretty good.”
STANTON HITS HOMER
It took him most of spring training, but Giancarlo Stanton finally connected on his first home run, a solo shot to center off the Cardinals’ Trevor Rosenthal.
“It’s good to get on top of one,” Stanton said.
Not only was it Stanton’s first homer this spring, it was his first since June of last season —before he broke the hamate bone in his left hand.
It’s not like Stanton has had a ton of chances in spring training. He missed some time with a sore knee, and his at bat in the seventh inning was only his 17th this spring.
“I’m roughly where I’m at,” he said of his progress so far this spring. “I don’t necessarily need a certain amount of at bats, rather than a feel in spring.”