NEW YORK — Inside the quiet visitor’s locker room at Yankee Stadium, Dustin Fowler savored his last few moments of peace by thumbing through his phone.
Even three hours before first pitch, the former Yankees and current A’s outfielder wouldn’t be afforded anymore downtime, at least on this day. A New York-sized media contingent awaited Fowler in the dugout. About a dozen family members awaited him after batting practice. A sizeable chunk of the 43,093 in attendance on Friday evening at Yankee Stadium awaited his first at-bat, greeting him with a respectable ovation to cap off a bizarre homecoming.
The 23-year-old never took an at-bat as a Yankee. He didn’t make it through a full inning in his first major league start. And now, 316 days after his first start, Fowler finally earned his second.
This time, he opposed not only the Yankees, but the pitcher he was traded for.
“I wouldn’t have planned it this way,” Fowler said before the game, “but it’s perfect.”
He went 1 for 5 in his first game at Yankee Stadium—a 10–5 win for the A’s—which also accounted for Fowler’s first major league hit, appropriately enough, off Sonny Gray.
New York acquired Gray from the A’s for Fowler and a pair of minor leaguers on July 31 last season—the last day Fowler remembers stepping foot in Yankee Stadium before Friday. At the time he was rehabbing a gruesome knee injury sustained during the first inning of his big league debut about a month prior to the trade.
Fowler had to be carted off the field June 29 against the White Sox after he ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee crashing into the wall at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field. A return to the majors seemed “forever away.”
“When it happened I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back,” he said.
Had Fowler not reached the majors again, his career would’ve eerily mirrored that of Archibald Wright "Moonlight" Graham. The W.P. Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe and the 1989 film Field of Dreams popularized Graham’s one-game major league career with the 1905 New York Giants. He debuted on June 29, just as Fowler did, entering the game in the top of the ninth inning. Graham stood as the on-deck hitter when the top half of the inning ended, just as Fowler did in the first inning of his Yankee debut, and played the bottom of the ninth in right field. Never again did Graham appear in the major leagues.
Thankfully, Fowler put the comparison to rest by making his A’s debut on Wednesday. He pinch-hit in his first major league at-bat against the Astros, jamming a pop-up to second base.
“Not the way I wanted it to go,” Fowler remarked.
But don’t get anything twisted. He’s just happy to be here and relieved to get the first AB out of the way, even if it came 11 months later than he planned. That paved the way for what unfolded on Friday.
After receiving applause for his first at-bat, a strikeout in the second inning against Gray, the crowd stayed relatively quiet for Fowler’s remaining appearances. In the fourth he emerged again against Gray, this time lacing an 87-mph changeup into right centerfield for his first major league hit.
Collecting himself at first base, Fowler remained stoic as he removed his batting gloves and shin guard. He allowed himself a slight nod as A’s first base coach Al Pedrique grabbed his right shoulder. His long road to recovery culminated in one line drive that just barely scraped past the outstretched glove of second baseman Gleyber Torres. He’ll take it.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” Fowler said. “I enjoy every second I’m out here. I could’ve easily lost everything on that one play.”
A pool of reporters greeted Fowler after the game as he returned to the same locker that he began his day at. With a smile stretched across his face, he described the relief of getting his first big league hit out of the way—off the man he was traded for, no less.
With the bat and ball from that at-bat in his possession, Fowler is already looking forward to displaying them at home. But first, he’s got “hundreds” of messages to go through on his phone.
“It’ll be a long night for me,” Fowler said.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.