Down the right field line, by themselves, Dale Cowser and Sid Holland watched their sons play a game of baseball. It was late, a Sunday night championship game in a 10-and-under tournament. Their boys, Colton and Korey, were 9 but playing up an age.

So many weekends were spent this way, at a diamond somewhere in the Houston area to watch their sons. And, as the hours ticked by, conversations largely stuck to benign observations of players and performances, but on this night it was different.

Holland, a former minor league baseball player who works with professionals as a private hitting coach, turned to his friend: “Dale, of all these kids on the Barracudas, who has a chance to be special?”

The question took Dale by surprise. “I mean, I’m just a dad; you’re the baseball guy,” he thought. But Dale played along, naming a player here or there. He had no shortage of options when looking out on a field full of future MLB draft picks — including Colton Cowser, the Orioles’ breakout rookie outfielder.

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He didn’t name his own son, the gangly child whom onlookers occasionally joked resembled a baby giraffe learning to run.

“Dale,” Holland said, “Colton has a chance to be special.”

Then came his request.

“Let me start working with him in my shop a little bit,” Holland said.

Again, Dale Cowser didn’t know immediately how to respond. For one, Holland didn’t usually work with kids as young as Colton. His typical clientele started at 12, and Proway Baseball Academy — the warehouse and batting cages tucked in the suburbs northwest of Houston — more commonly attracted major leaguers than preteens.

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But Colton Cowser was different. A few weeks earlier, at a game in Clear Lake, Texas, he timed up each of his lanky limbs for a perfect swing. He rounded the bases having just cleared the 240-foot center field fence.

“I just got done coaching in the minor leagues, so you can kind of tell when somebody has something, right?” Holland said. “I’ve been around the game my whole life; I played in the minor leagues. So I just kind of saw it. I’m like, ‘Man, you know, a 9-year-old is not supposed to hit a ball like this.’”

Holland could say the same about Cowser in every step of his development, through high school and college and the minor leagues. And now Cowser is a regular for the Orioles, fresh off an American League Rookie of the Month Award.

No one, not even Cowser’s father, knows Cowser’s swing better than Holland. They’ve worked together since Cowser joined the Barracudas (a local select team) at 7, and by 9 Cowser was at Proway for weekly hitting sessions. At the shop, as they call it, Cowser rubbed shoulders with Houston Astros players who treated him as a peer. Above all, there was Holland, whose expertise helped lead Cowser through a pivotal offseason and toward a monster beginning of the season.

Even now, during the grind of everyday playing time for Baltimore, Holland is a near-daily sounding board for Cowser — a voice pivotal in prodding Cowser to the heights of an .910 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. It’s a relationship built on trust, a relationship reinforced by experience and, through it, Holland helped Cowser shrug off bad habits and return to the fundamentals they forged throughout his life in Houston.

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“Not only is he a hitting coach,” Cowser said, “it’s like family. He and his wife are like second parents to me.”

In 2022, Colton Cowser is pictured with Sid Holland and Korey Holland (right). The Holland and Cowser families have been close for more than a decade. (Photo courtesy Anna Cowser)
In 2022, Colton Cowser is pictured with Sid Holland and Korey Holland (right). The Holland and Cowser families have been close for more than a decade. (Photo courtesy Anna Cowser)

A kid among big leaguers

Time morphs in the mind of a kid, so when Cowser says he felt as though he had been at the shop for four hours, he knows it’s likely an exaggeration. But, however long he was there, Korey Holland and Cowser had time to set up a game.

Cowser’s brother, Ty, was working in the next cage over with Sid Holland. That allowed for creativity to take over in their cage. Colton and Korey were the same age, around 9, still early in their baseball development. It was late one night, with the shop empty apart from Hollands and Cowsers.

If Sid Holland is a second father, then Korey Holland is Cowser’s second brother.

They set up a batting tee, then dispersed various objects around the cage — a bucket, a lid, an L-screen — and picked up their bats. For each object they hit off the tee, they’d earn points.

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They were goofing off. But, in keeping themselves occupied, they practiced the technique that Sid Holland reinforced in the cage next door.

When Dale Cowser heard Holland’s request to train Colton, he left it up to his son. He and Anna Cowser wouldn’t be the parents to force Colton in any particular direction, and even as Colton’s baseball career began gathering momentum, he was still a multisport athlete who split his time based on seasons.

But Colton Cowser wanted to be there, and Holland made it accessible for a kid with a short attention span. Individual sessions lasted only about 30 minutes when Cowser was young, leaving plenty of time for other interests or shenanigans with Korey Holland.

Being around the shop had additional benefits, too. At any point, they might witness a hitting session with Astros or Houston-area players such as Chris Young, Carl Crawford, Michael Bourn and Jason Bourgeois.

“The players saw them as my kids,” Sid Holland said. “They were all really good to those guys.”

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Moments like those gave a glimpse of what could be, even though Cowser didn’t fill out his frame during his teenage years. He was still the wiry kid Holland first took notice of with the Barracudas, but as Cowser’s swing mechanics improved over the years, the sound off his bat more and more mirrored that of the pros hitting near him — it didn’t matter that he didn’t look like them yet.

And, on a Barracudas team that included Ty Madden (a first-round pick of the Detroit Tigers), Dru Baker (fourth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays) and Korey Holland (14th rounder of the Cleveland Guardians), Cowser began to set himself apart.

Sid Holland brought the Barracudas to a Perfect Game showcase tournament in Jupiter, Florida, when Cowser was a freshman in high school. The competition, which included some of the top high school baseball prospects in the country, offered Cowser and others their first look at high-level velocity.

Cowser barreled up a ball anyway, driving it into the gap for a one-hop, ground-rule double at a major league spring training stadium.

It was not the first or last time Holland would be left in awe at what Cowser could do. And it was only another snapshot that would fit into the mosaic of Cowser’s bright future, bringing him from Sam Houston State to the first round of the 2021 draft.

“He was a tall, gangly, goofy kid that just could never seem to put his body all in the right place all at the right time,” Holland said. “But when he did, you were like, ‘Oh, my.’”

On the night the Orioles drafted Colton Cowser in the first round in 2021, Sid Holland was there. Cowser calls Holland a second father. (Photo courtesy Anna Cowser)
On the night the Orioles drafted Colton Cowser in the first round in 2021, Sid Holland was there. Cowser calls Holland a second father. (Photo courtesy Anna Cowser)

Getting back to basics

From 35 feet away, Holland stood behind an L-screen and rifled in baseballs. He mixed speeds and pitch shapes, and while he doesn’t have the same velocity he used to, the shorter distance made his offerings “pretty nasty.”

If Cowser and others can hit off Holland’s live session batting practice offerings, they can hit in the big leagues. Holland is sure of it.

It was early January, not long before Cowser planned to head to Sarasota, Florida, for spring training. He made his major league debut the year before but didn’t stick — but Cowser knew what went wrong. He knew which changes to make, and he returned to Proway seeking the same cues that have helped him develop as a hitter since he met Holland nearly two decades earlier.

Holland threw the pitch. Cowser swung.

“It went, ‘Pow!’”

“He was like, ‘That is a home run, 100%, I got all of that,’” Holland remembered. “And from that moment on, I’m like, ‘He’s got it. He’s ready to go.’ You just knew he was gonna go to spring training and have a good camp.”

Cowser doesn’t consider his 26-game cameo in the majors last season as a failure, even if he hit .115 and returned to the minors midway through the year. Dale Cowser agrees. He can pick out the game in which his son’s fortunes turned, when a lineout against the New York Yankees prompted Colton Cowser to get away from the fundamentals honed with Holland — to see the ball deep, to use the opposite field to his advantage.

In all the years Dale has watched Colton play, Colton’s first introduction to High-A Aberdeen is the only time he scuffled as much as he did in July and August 2023. They learned something from Aberdeen, however.

“Watching him struggle in the big leagues, it was difficult, no doubt,” Dale Cowser said. “But I’ve also been a firm believer that if you fail, if you fail and struggle and don’t learn from it, then it’s a wasted opportunity.”

Instead, it was a growth opportunity.

Colton Cowser finished the season strong for the Norfolk Tides and played a role in winning the Triple-A championship, then returned to Houston. In an end-of-season meeting with Baltimore’s hitting coaches, Holland listened in to the feedback, then translated it into the verbiage they’ve used for much of Cowser’s life.

They wanted him to stand tall in the box with his shoulders square, not to shy away from pull-side power but not to get away from the up-the-middle and other-way approach that has made him great. Then, in batting sessions, Holland translated it all. “The overall terminology, scaling it back to very simple terms, to things that were kind of foundational building blocks of how I grew up hitting,” Cowser said.

Around the same time as Cowser’s no-doubter pronouncement at Proway, Sherman Johnson stood behind the cages and watched Holland and Cowser get to work. Johnson, the Orioles’ upper-level hitting coordinator, made the trip to Houston in an attempt to play catch-up. It isn’t unique for the Orioles to include a player’s hometown hitting coach in offseason work, but the longevity of Holland’s relationship with Cowser is.

Colton Cowser was the first American League Rookie of the Month this season. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“I think about who’s seen the most swings that Colton has ever taken, and it’s Sid,” Johnson said. “He’s seen it from 9 and 10 to now, and he gets to see how the swing has progressed from 9 years old all the way to pro ball, all the way to the big leagues.”

But it’s not just about his swing. Johnson wanted to learn what Holland says — or doesn’t say — to Cowser. He wanted to learn how Holland manages the mental side of Cowser’s game.

Doing so could prove the difference in helping Cowser get back on track in the middle of a game or pull him out of a slump.

In the cages, Cowser has the tendency to nitpick. If one swing feels off, he may stop the session to analyze what went wrong — and, in doing so, he can cause more harm than good. Holland learned this years ago, and to avoid a spiral of overanalysis, he throws the next pitch.

“I’ve had him since he was 7 years old. He’s like my son, so I can tell him to be quiet,” Holland said. “They kind of started to take that approach with him, ‘Just be quiet, man, and continue to hit.’ Don’t start tapping into, ‘What did I do wrong there?’ because you don’t do a whole lot wrong.”

Before Cowser left Houston for Sarasota, and before his bright spring training morphed into a brighter beginning to his first full season with the Orioles, Holland emphasized that Cowser didn’t need to be anything he wasn’t already. He could hit for pull-side power, but that has never been his focus. He can draw walks but can’t be passive.

“You belong here, so don’t look around thinking you don’t belong,” Holland said, before pointing out that baseball is the same game Cowser has played all his life. The only difference is the surroundings.

The ballparks are bigger in the majors.

He’s no longer in a suburb of Houston, playing a late-night game with his friends while Dale Cowser and Sid Holland stand down the right field line, talking. But that long-ago day, with the request from Holland to train Colton Cowser, set all of this in motion.

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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