What Fowler also has wasted is his amazing right arm. At one time it was a rifle, a flame-throwing catapult. During his first stint in prison, at the Georgia Training and Development Center in Buford, Fowler got a chance to go to an Atlanta Braves game as a trustee with Billy Shaw, a guard who also coached the prison baseball team. When they returned to Buford, Fowler told Shaw that he had a better fastball than anybody he had seen that night, and Shaw couldn't disagree. Fowler had a slider and an overhand curve in addition to what's reputed to have been a 95-mph heater.
"Fast? Oh, yes sir!" says Shaw, who is now deputy warden, when he's asked about Fowler's arm. "Our team barnstormed all over the state back in 1966 and '67, playing Georgia Southern and a lot of semipro teams. We never lost but a couple of games, and Leroy pitched them all."
The Cardinals and the Dodgers expressed interest in Fowler and told him to call when he was released. Then, just four days before he was to be paroled, Fowler, who was 20 at the time, escaped with one of his buddies. Why? "I was young and stupid," says Fowler, realizing even as he speaks that what he did extends beyond stupidity to self-destruction.
Fowler and his pal stole a prison officer's car and drove to Atlanta, where they watched a Braves game. Six months later Fowler was recaptured, but he escaped again in 1971. This time he went to a Cincinnati Reds try-out in Marietta, Ga., where he used a false name and took his turn with the other pitching hopefuls. Fowler says now of the scouts, "I think they were interested in me. I got to bringin' it pretty hard. I pitched three innings, and they asked me to come back the next day." Unfortunately, somebody in the stands who had seen him pitch on the prison team, recognized him, and Fowler ducked out, left town and didn't return.
A year later, he was recaptured after taking a blast from a policeman's shotgun in the right arm. He was in the prison hospital for six days before undergoing surgery, and, as he lay there, Fowler asked himself if he was a failure because of fate or bad luck or ignorance or maybe because his arm was an arbitrary gift that made him hope for more than he deserved.
The injury cost him the use of his little finger and caused nerve damage in the ring finger. He rehabilitated the arm as well as he could, but he was through as a prospect. A prospect needs it all. Fowler is now a star on the inmate Softball team, a power hitter with a really good arm and one of those sad stories nobody wants to hear.
Sometimes Fowler thinks liquor may have been his undoing. "There's a lot of alcoholism in my family," he says, "and my granddaddy put a capful of liquor in my hand when I was six or seven. I believe if I had sought professional help for my drinking, I'd be in the major leagues."
He hangs his head meekly; his left eye is strangely bloodshot.
"Baseball is a game I dearly love," Fowler says. "I'd rather play the game than eat, even when I'm hungry. Our softball team practices three, maybe four times a week, and we're out playing pickup games every day during yard call. I get there about 4:30 and sometimes I'll stay out till eight. I don't even come in for dinner."
He knows, of course, that he can always make up for the missed meal with a big breakfast the next morning. Indeed, the burden of having to prove himself is gone for Fowler, as it is for most athletes in prison. And after you've talked to enough of these guys, you realize that the fear of having to deliver the goods on the outside is probably more terrifying than losing their talent behind bars.