Nancy Bowden still remembers the garage sale where she spotted an old, cheap mitt.
It cost about a dollar, give or take 50 cents. The single mother of three seized the chance to buy the glove for her youngest child, Michael, who was 4 at the time.
“It was very worn,” she said with a laugh. “If it was a brand-new one, I don’t know if he would have taken to it as much. But it was already broken in, and that was it. We never even mentioned him doing anything else but play baseball.”
The glove led to games of catch, which led to T-ball, which led to travel teams and high school showcases with Bowden as a top prospect at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora. Theo Epstein and the Red Sox drafted him out of high school with the 47th overall pick in 2005, and Epstein brought him to the Cubs seven years later in a deal that sent Marlon Byrd to Boston.
Now 34, Bowden is not ready to close the book on his baseball career. He loves the game too much.
That is why Bowden signed to play independent ball this season with the Chicago Dogs of the American Association. This weekend marks the opening homestand for the Dogs, who play at Impact Field in Rosemont.
It’s a long way from the majors, but Bowden doesn’t mind.
“The game itself is still fun for me,” he said. “I love the game, I love competing and I love the challenge — physically and mentally. And I think I can still play.”
So does his manager, Butch Hobson, a former big-league third baseman and Red Sox skipper who quickly has come to admire Bowden for his work ethic and the example he sets for younger players on the team.
“Our No. 1 goal is to get guys back, either with an organization or maybe overseas somewhere, and our No. 2 job is to go out and win a championship,” Hobson said. “That’s the way we approach it. If I see scouts in the stands, I’m going to find them, and I’m going to say, ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘I’m looking for a starter.’ I’ll say, ‘Well, you need to watch Michael Bowden start. He’s throwing the ball very well. I think he could help somebody.’ ”
Highs and lows
Bowden was 21 when he made his major-league debut for Boston in a start against the White Sox.
Mark Buehrle was the opposing starting pitcher. The Sox’ lineup included A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, Alexei Ramirez and Ken Griffey Jr.
Yet the kid from Aurora was undeterred. He held the Sox to two runs in five innings, outdueling Buehrle to earn the victory.
“That was something else,” Bowden said. “At Fenway, playing against one of my hometown teams, with Griffey and Thome in the lineup. It’s just like, ‘This is crazy.’ ’’
He pitched in parts of five seasons for Boston, posting a 2-2 record with a 5.61 ERA in 39 games (two starts).
Then came the trade to the Cubs, where he went 0-0 with a 2.95 ERA in 30 relief appearances in 2012, followed by a 1-3 record with a 4.30 ERA in 34 relief appearances in 2013.
Bowden, who grew up a Cubs fan, savored having Wrigley Field as his workplace.
Next came stints with the Seibu Lions in Japan and the Doosan Bears in South Korea. He fired a no-hitter in 2016 with Doosan and helped the team win the KBO championship.
He tried to pitch through injuries the following season with Doosan. But when he came home at the end of the 2017 campaign, he did not even have the strength to make coffee or take a plate out of the cupboard.
That’s when he knew he needed shoulder surgery.
He sat out the 2018 season to recover. He tried a comeback in the Dodgers’ system in 2019, reaching Triple A, but never felt sharp.
Just as Bowden started feeling optimistic toward the end of 2019 and heading into 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“At the point when I had surgery, I thought it might be over for me,” Bowden said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to keep playing. So every day that I get out there and get better and keep playing this game, I’m just very blessed and very grateful for the opportunity.”
Right at home
On and off the field, Bowden’s role has changed since his days as an up-and-coming pitching prospect.
He’s a soft-spoken veteran now. More important, he’s a devoted husband to Markella and a proud father to their four children: 6½-year-old twins Micah and Nadia, 2½-year-old Sophia and 16-month-old James.
“They came to the game the other day, and they were all there,” Bowden said. “That was awesome. They haven’t seen me pitch in a long time. My twins were young in Korea, and those memories are fading, which is sad, but they got to see me pitch.
“I saw my son up there in the skybox crushing a hot dog.”
No ketchup, of course, at least if the Dogs have anything to say about it. And no pressure for Bowden as he bonds with his new teammates and looks forward to a summer at home.
“Where I’m at right now, I just want to see how things go,” Bowden said. “I think I’m going to continue to get better, and I’m hoping that I get some opportunities in the future. I still think I can play this game for a few more years and play at a very high level. With that being said, health is my main focus, and I’m not quite where I want to be yet. But I’m going to continue to get out there and pitch to get those repetitions, so I can continue to elevate my game.
“Yeah, I would love to go play for the Cubs again. I would love to play for the Sox. I actually would love to go back to Korea — I had a great experience there; it’s fun baseball; they treated my family well.
“But at this time in my life, I’m playing baseball kind of on my own terms. I’m out there having fun. I’m in a good position right now.”
Nancy Bowden said Michael’s joy was evident on his face when he took the mound for the first time with the Dogs.
“I told him the other day, ‘You’re living the dream,’ ’’ she said. “ ‘You’ve got a beautiful home, beautiful wife, beautiful kids.’ And he gets to be a part of them growing up. Every single part of them growing up.”
His baseball journey started at a garage sale, continued to the majors and took him around the world.
He doesn’t know how the story will end. He’s OK with that.
“He’s a consummate professional, a class act,” Hobson said. “He’s a tremendous person to have on the team, and the guy can pitch. He knows what he’s doing out there.”