It was 2009 when Mike Dowd and Kevin Rivers first became teammates at Franklin Pierce University, a small, Division 2 college in Rindge, New Hampshire that has earned its’ reputation as a baseball power under head coach Jayson King.
Then a junior, Rivers had already enjoyed two highly successful seasons with the Ravens and was looked to as one of the leaders heading into the season.
“It’s one of those things where you look up to the older guys, regardless of your role,” said Dowd, who, as a freshman, was pegged as the team’s starting catcher. “It was one year and done, but in that time he helped me form into the player I am now.”
After winning a third straight Northeast-10 title Rivers, a native of Bristol, Connecticut, went on to play some summer ball with the Danbury Westerners of the NECBL, when Seattle Mariners area scout Brian Nichols invited him to attend a showcase of top talent in New England.
Initially looked at as an opportunity to raise his draft stock heading into his senior season, Rivers instead raised eyebrows.
“I went and had a great day running, throwing from the outfield, and hitting,” said Rivers. “I did enough to impress Tom McNamara, the [Mariners] director of scouting, that they offered me a contract on the spot. It was the best feeling knowing all the hard work had paid off.”
After consulting with his parents and coach King, Rivers made the difficult decision to forgo his senior season at Franklin Pierce.
“When I first arrived in Arizona I was a little nervous, I wasn't sure what to expect,” said Rivers, who doubled in his second career at-bat. “But that soon subsided. I was also anxious get to work and learn more about myself as a player and the game as a whole.
“Andy Bottin, my manager in the Arizona League, was a huge help in my first season...teaching me about day-to-day routines, how to conduct yourself professionally...how to always be prepared for the mental aspect of the game and being able to learn from your mistakes and make adjustments mid-game.”
Meanwhile, back at Franklin Pierce, Dowd was putting on a showcase of his own, helping the Ravens to a couple of 40+ win seasons while catching the attention of scouts who considered him a strong draft option.
One of those scouts was Nichols who had Dowd participate in pre-draft workouts with the Mariners prior to the 2011 draft.
“Going in [to the draft] I thought it was probably going to be Seattle who was going to take me,” said Dowd, who had also worked out for the New York Mets. “Then they took two catchers early [in the 4th and 5th rounds], and things changed.”
But the Mariners proved their commitment to Dowd by selecting the East Bridgewater native in the 12th round, sending him immediately to the Short Season-A Everett AquaSox to begin his career where he hit .228 and gunned down 23 runners in 45 games.
Dowd started the 2012 season with the Class-A Clinton LumberKings while Rivers began his campaign with the High-A High Desert Mavericks.
After struggling with a .224 average over 47 games, Rivers would be sent down to Clinton, reuniting the former Ravens.
Rivers would right the ship, hitting .287 the rest of the way, and Dowd was putting his best foot forward both behind and at the plate, throwing out 47% of would-be base stealers while batting .294.
The duo would prove their worth before the season was said-and-done and 2013 saw them both arrive at High Desert in April, ready to make their names known.
Dowd started the season with a 15-game hitting streak and after hitting safely in 19 of his first 22 games, he received a promotion to Double-A Jackson.
Rivers also had a blazing stick to start the season, knocking 18 hits over his first 10 games, and although a promotion would not come during the season, it turned out to be a blessing as he was able to log 128 games and put forth a stellar line of batting statistics.
While tearing up California League pitching Rivers became a Top 10 staple in average (.297 – T8th), slugging (.515 – 6th), OPS (.896 – 7th), hits (144 – 8th), doubles (36 – 2nd), home runs (20 – T7th), RBI (97 – 2nd), runs (92 – 6th) and walks (66 – 4th).
“I think the biggest thing for me this past season was being able to be an everyday player,” said Rivers. “I was able to get into a rhythm early in the season and maintain throughout.
“I was able to work with [hitting coach] Roy Howell, who played 10 years in the big leagues. We worked together almost every day on keeping my swing path short and consistent to the ball. Roy talked to me about only getting one good pitch to hit the entire at-bat or even game, so you don't want to miss your pitch and I was able to jump on balls early in the count and find some grass.”
Dowd didn’t enjoy the same success at the plate as Rivers when he jumped up to Jackson, but what he was able to do behind the plate was eye-popping.
He made 35 appearances as the Generals catcher and allowed only 6 passed balls while posting a .985 fielding percentage that was very brightly highlighted by an ability to throw out runners at a 56% clip.
“The jump [to Double-A] kind of put me in my place as a hitter,” said Dowd, who gunned down 20 of the 36 runners who attempted to steal on him. “So I made sure to continue working hard behind the plate to prove my value. I take pride in throwing guys out, calling a good game, blocking the plate.
“It’s good to be able to help your team in that way, especially when you are having a tough game at the plate. ”
Dowd would finish 2013 back down at High Desert alongside Rivers, and no worse for the wear, having learned a lot about himself and his abilities in the process.
The same can be said for Rivers, whose breakout campaign caught the eyes of many and provided him with a very solid foundation to build off of moving forward.
For both players, having that added comfort of an old friend and teammate by their side to grow with and learn from, has been monumental in the successes they have endured.
“It's been great watching Mike grow as a player,” said Rivers. “He is one of the best defensive catchers I have ever seen. He puts the work in and it shows.”
“It’s great to have that familiar face there,” said Dowd. “We stick together like family and we have each other’s back.”
A family forged on the frozen turf at Franklin Pierce during the early spring months of 2009 and a family that will never forget where it came from.
“It's been great exposure for the Franklin Pierce program,” said Rivers. “Coach King has done an unbelievable job at the school. He's been able to turn us into a nationally ranked team year and year out.
“His ability to bring players to Franklin Pierce, in the small town of Rindge, New Hampshire, and develop them into hardworking, focused, and dedicated players, is a testament to his knowledge and dedication to the game of baseball. He has brought the program to six College World Series and has seen 25 players get drafted and even more get signed.”
In 2013 there were 14 players in affiliated or independent baseball that were products of Franklin Pierce, a school with an enrollment of less than 2,500.
Since 2001 King and his staff have produced 39 players that have gone on to play professional baseball.
Dowd recently received a non-roster invite to participate in Seattle's Major League Spring Training next month.
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