BILOXI, Miss. -- Kaleb Bowman, a long-haired and compactly built right-handed reliever who pitches from various arm slots, is in the midst of his debut Minor League season. The now-26-year-old, a member of the Milwaukee Brewers organization, began the year with High-A Wisconsin, and after six weeks, was called up
BILOXI, Miss. -- Kaleb Bowman, a long-haired and compactly built right-handed reliever who pitches from various arm slots, is in the midst of his debut Minor League season. The now-26-year-old, a member of the Milwaukee Brewers organization, began the year with High-A Wisconsin, and after six weeks, was called up to Double-A Biloxi. That rapid promotion was an outlier within his self-motivated and unpredictable professional baseball journey, which, until the Brewers signed him, took place almost entirely outside the United States.
Bowman's international travels began in 2019 when, following a standout collegiate career at Appalachian State, he was skipped over in the MLB Draft and then failed to receive any offers in its wake. This disappointing and all-too-common circumstance didn't mark the end of his playing days so much as signal a new beginning. Lacking a Minor League ladder to climb, Bowman built his own, with rungs progressing from Canada to Australia to Germany to independent ball.
Recounting his unorthodox route to affiliated ball, Bowman speaks rapidly and enthusiastically, exuding an "It was meant to be" sense of acceptance as well as profound gratitude for the experiences he's had and the people he met along the way.
"I had a couple workouts right after the  Draft and was supposed to sign a deal. It fell through," he said prior to a Shuckers game last month. "I knew baseball wasn't done. I wanted to keep playing, and I knew I was healthy and continuing to get better each year. So let's see what I can do. A buddy of mine that had played one season in Prague, Czech Republic, told me about a website called Baseball Jobs Overseas. ... I made a profile, and within a couple days, I was getting offers left and right from teams all over Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. So it was, 'OK, sweet. So there's baseball out there.' I knew there was but I didn't know the extent of it."
Bowman's first destination was the East Coast of Canada, playing for the Fredericton Royals of the New Brunswick Senior League. He spent a couple months there in the late summer before moving on to Surfers Paradise of the Greater Brisbane Winter League for the 2019-20 season.
"It was exactly what you'd expect from a town called Surfers Paradise. It was right on the beach, beautiful weather," Bowman said. "It was kind of like a glorified men's league, and this is where I really learned that baseball is different. We were playing twice a week, so what'd I do? I found a job. My host family owned a cabinet shop, so I did deliveries for them traveling all around the Gold Coast and a little down into New South Wales, delivering cabinets for great pay. My mornings would start at 4 or 5 and then I'd be done by 1. Go to the beach, surf. I'd throw on the beach, throw somewhere with a buddy. This and that, but just made amazing connections out there and parlayed it into a really good season. Won Pitcher of the Year out there."
Then COVID hit. Bowman returned home to Percyville, Virginia, in June 2020 and did what he could under the circumstances. He worked out, posted videos of himself on social media and pursued whatever other avenues he could to get signed by a Major League organization. Nothing panned out. Bowman's response?
"OK, my life is still great. Let's go play somewhere else."
Somewhere else this time around was Regensburg, Germany, where he took the mound for Guggenberger Legionäre of the German Bundesliga. Bowman's home ballpark was Armin-Wolf-Arena, one of Europe's premier facilities -- it hosted a World Baseball Classic qualifier last September. Bowman, perhaps fueled in part by the Bavarian food he quickly came to love, once again won Pitcher of the Year honors. Upon his return home, he helped run a local baseball facility, found it rewarding to work with special needs youth and trained as much as he could. But once again, no stateside baseball offers materialized.
"Man, hey, God's still good, the Lord's still good and I'm blessed," he said. "So let's go back to Europe. Why not, right? Had another great year [in Regensburg], won MVP and Pitcher of the Year.
"And it's way different," he continued. "You're playing Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday, so all week I'm just training. So I went really big into it, but also had a great time. Flew to Greece for 10 days and I went to Austria, Switzerland and Italy. We had Spring Training in Italy.
"The experiences I had were just incredible. But it was also, I found the love of the game. I mean, I never fell out of love with the game. But I found true love. Because these guys are playing for free. It's a hobby for them. They work 9-5 jobs Monday through Friday and come play on the weekends. I was one of the only guys fortunate to get paid, because the imports [foreign players] get paid."
Bowman returned home from Germany early in 2022 because he was in talks with a "certain MLB affiliate." That fell through, but a subsequent tweet showcasing his skills caught the attention of North Carolina's Gastonia Honey Hunters of the independent Atlantic League. He arrived there at the start of September, did well over the course of several outings and then finally got the call he'd been waiting for.
"[Brewers scouting special assistant] Bryan Gale asked if I wanted to sign with the Brewers. And I was obviously stoked and couldn't believe it," said Bowman. "It was a full circle moment, being able to finally get back to the States and play again. It was an awesome opportunity to play with the Honey Hunters, to leverage myself to get here again and be seen."
Bowman has appeared in 26 games this season, evenly split between High-A Wisconsin and Biloxi. He's had his ups and downs, as is to be expected, compiling a 5.87 ERA and striking out 36 batters over 30 2/3 innings.
"It's all learning, right?" he said. "It's because, hey, I'm getting challenged a little bit more now. So I gotta learn how to get a little bit better, a little bit better, a little bit better. One percent better each day. I couldn't be more thankful for where I'm at now."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.