The Conductor: After working on the railroad, Phil McCowen engineers future with Mesa baseball progr
Phil McCowen comes to Colorado Mesa University baseball practice each day simply because that’s where he wants to be each day.
He has been a part of the CMU baseball coaching staff since long before any of the other coaches, but he’s never been paid for his time. He doesn’t want the paycheck.
The California native, who once had big league aspirations, moved to Grand Junction with his wife in 1978 to work for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
McCowen met Dave Mantlo while working for the railroad. They worked in the caboose. Mantlo was already involved with the Grand Mesa Little League at the time.
“He said, you know, if you’re not doing anything and since you don’t have kids, why don’t you help me at Grand Mesa Little League,’” McCowen said. “I was there five years. Dave and I coached the senior league.”
In 1984, McCowen and Mantlo were asked to play a charity softball game with other dignitaries against the Denver Broncos and John Elway, McCowen said.
One of the other dignitaries was then-Mesa State baseball coach Byron Wiehe. McCowen met Wiehe and chatted. A few months later, Diana McCowen took a college course from Wiehe.
“Byron wanted to know if I would come out for practice,” McCowen said. “That’s how it all got started.
“I love railroad. It’s a great job. Yeah, I miss baseball, but I didn’t think about doing it until this happened.”
McCowen came and started helping out. Wiehe made him the outfielders coach and first base coach. At one point, Wiehe talked to McCowen about getting paid, but McCowen refused.
“I told him I got a job. Plus, I’m not going to be able to be here every day,” McCowen said. “I don’t care about the money. I got my own job. I’d be tickled to death to throw (batting practice) and be a part of the program.”
McCowen has continued to coach outfielders since.
He’s worked under three coaches, including current coach Chris Hanks, whom he met when Hanks played for the College of Southern Idaho in the Junior College World Series.
“I’ve known him since my sophomore year at Southern Idaho when we took batting practice here for the Junior College World Series,” Hanks said. “I still remember he and Tex (Tolman) would run the field. I remember Tex and Phil having a grill here cooking hot dogs and hamburgers. They would ask us if we wanted a hot dog or hamburger. We were like, ‘No thanks, we’re going to play a game.’”
Whether it was Wiehe, Joe Giarratano or Hanks, the coaches have accommodated McCowen’s work schedule.
“If someone has that strong kind of passion to be around the kids and to help out, especially volunteer, I certainly wouldn’t want to send them away,” Hanks said. “Now, if we gave it a few months and it wasn’t working out, that would be another story, but obviously it’s worked out just fine. Somebody in that capacity, you give it a chance.
“The tough thing about coaching baseball is there is a lot of batting practice to throw and a lot of fungoes to hit.”
McCowen keeps his rules simple for the players — hustle, don’t lie and hit the cutoff man.
“He cares so much about our group of outfielders,” senior captain Austin Kaiser said. “He wants nothing but for us to succeed. That’s the kind of attitude he brings. He’s a genuine guy.
“He’s a very approachable guy. I respect him as a coach, but he’s also a friend of mine.”
Hanks said McCowen is a good sounding board for the players, whether it’s baseball- or life-related.
“Kids feel comfortable going to him and talking about a variety of things,” Hanks said. “I probably as a coach offend a kid from time to time. Phil has a way of talking to kids that doesn’t put them on the offensive.”
McCowen retired from the railroad in 2010 and hasn’t missed a baseball practice since. He even travels for road trips.
“Since he retired, he’s here every day now,” Hanks said. “He works with the outfielders. He bonds with those kids. He loves being out here. He loves throwing batting practice and hitting fungoes. I think he enjoys being around the kids.
“He’ll go all day (throwing bp).”
McCowen has become such a fixture with the baseball program, former players are surprised to see him still coaching at his age.
“We had an alumni that played here in the early ‘90s. I haven’t seen him in years,” Hanks said. “He came out here the other day a couple weeks ago. ‘Phil! You’re still here?’
“Anytime you have someone that volunteers that much time over that many years, (he) probably has a passion for it. In our situation, you can never have too much help. He doesn’t ever step on anyone’s toes. If he thinks he’s stepping on another coaches’ toes, he’ll ask first.”
Hanks may be grateful for McCowen’s willingness to volunteer, but McCowen may be more thankful for the opportunity.
“My wife has been very gracious to let me do this (coach),” he said. “She knows how important it is for me to do this. She knows this is a passion for me. I thank her, my mom and dad for steering me in the right direction.”
Diana has also allowed him to spend a lot of his free time working on another hobby — a model train set in the basement of their home.
“My dad loved railroads,” McCowen said. “He grew up in an era where the steam engine was dominant before steam engines came. He always liked how the steam engine worked.”
“My dad bought me a little train set to go around the Christmas tree,” McCowen said. “My dad and I had a hobby together.”
He was building a 1,500-square-foot model train set in his basement that includes several locomotives and cars he built and painted.
“It’s a love of the hobby,” McCowen said. “I treat it as a hobby. It takes a long time. It will always be a work in progress. There are a lot of different aspects to it.”