First and foremost, a heartfelt thanks goes out to AN veteran Margie Kahn for her magical transcribing skills that made it possible for me to publish my three interviews so soon after they were conducted. I sat down with Jharel Cotton on Sunday, March 10th, to reflect on an interesting life that began in the Virgin Islands and has taken him to Tommy John surgery and, hopefully, back.
Nico: I’m really interested in learning about the Virgin Islands. I can’t imagine. I’ve never been there and I imagine that it is just very, very different from the US. So I was hoping through you to give readers a taste of what is it like and what was it like being born there?
Cotton: Well, first of all, beautiful, crystal-clear waters, white sand beaches, coconut trees and palm trees, all those beautiful things. People are fantastic, food is amazing, culture is great. Our taste for food is amazing. A lot of tourists go down there, that’s our biggest economy right now is the tourism, so we get maybe five or six cruise ships per day, sometimes, in St. Thomas.
I was originally raised in Tortola, which is British Virgin Islands, and we have some pretty cool things over there as well. As you know, the guy who owns Virgin Mobile, he lives close to the island of Virgin Gordo. I think he has his own island, and he brings a ton of people down there to his island. It’s paradise. It’s fantastic. Growing up there was amazing. As a kid I used to surf. I was initially a beach bum.
Nico: What do the kids do all day in summer when they’re not in school?
Cotton: Some of the kids work. Most of the kids go to the beach, they fish, they jump off the bridge...mostly just go swimming, that’s what they do. It’s not a big, big island so we don’t have that much things to do, so either we go to the beach, we go party at nighttime, or just hang out at home.
Nico: What does “party” mean? It probably means something family oriented.
Cotton: So, party like guys who are between the ages of 12 going to 18, we have a dance. So we go to a venue, there’s no alcohol, it’s just strictly like high school kids, and we just go out and have a big dance and meet new people, and that’s about it.
Nico: I’m imaging that the lifestyle is more laid back and relaxed. America is kinda known for “go go go!”
Cotton: Yeah, it’s very laid back. Like I said, it’s a very small island so there’s not too much going on. So all you gotta do is just chill and have a good time, go to the beach, have a good time on Friday night at a venue, and that’s it. There’s not a lot going on.
Nico: And is it one of those things like everybody knows everybody?
Cotton: I would say it’s over 50,000 people on the island, so it’s hard to know everyone, but I would say St. Thomas is about two major high schools, four private schools, and probably like 10 elementary schools, so on and so forth, two junior high schools. So if you go to each of them, you would know everyone in school.
Nico: Would it be fair to assume that all, or many, of the 50,000 follow your career pretty closely?
Cotton: Yeah, the ones who are invested in baseball on the island, yes, they do. I have a lot of fans back there from coaches, teammates, teachers that followed me growing up most of my life. And of course I’m big in the papers down there, so if anyone reads the paper they see me and knew who I am.
Nico: How old were you when you came over to the states?
Cotton: I was 16 years old. So at the age of 16 I was playing my final summer league in St. Thomas and one of my coaches approached me, like “Hey, there’s an opportunity in Virginia, do you want to take it and go for high school baseball for your senior year?” I was like “Yeah, sure. I want to go to Virginia. I feel like it’s gonna be different. I’ll meet a lot more people, it’s a lot bigger. And plus it gets cold, so you have all four seasons, so I’ll probably see snow for the first time.”
So when he told me that, I was on board 100% on board. So I went to Virginia, Newport News, Virginia, at age 16, and played my final high school career there, and while I was at Virginia we won states. My first year then we won, my high school won the state tournament, so it was a milestone that you accomplished.
Nico: What was the adjustment like from Virgin Islands to Virginia? It’s a little different.
Cotton: Yes, because it’s a bigger place. In St. Thomas we wore school uniforms. In the states you wear whatever you want. Some of the kids would go to school in pajamas and stuff like that. So I had to get used to that.
And school times were different. School times were shorter, a lot more kids were driving to school, and it was just, I liked it, I loved it a lot. It was different and it was cool. I met a lot more people, it was a different culture, and the school loved us because we were different. We had the accent, we were from the Virgin Islands. Everyone knew we were from the Virgin Islands and they wanted to meet us and talk to us because we had pretty cool accents.
Nico: You actually don’t have much of an accent now.
Cotton: I do when I talk to my family. After so long I’ve learned how to talk.
Nico: But with your friends do you have to actually make your accent...?
Cotton: No, actually it’s normal for me now. I can talk this way and then, of course, if I talk to my family and stuff like that I (revert) to my island accent.
Nico: Interesting. So what do you miss most about the Virgin Islands, and what do you miss the least?
Cotton: What I miss most is the beautiful beaches and the sand. You can’t find that in the US. The water down there is pristine, it’s beautiful. What I miss least is that it’s a small island so you can’t do too much. I love being in a big place because I like to drive and stuff like that, I like to go to different places. Our island is 9 miles long so from end to end it’s 9 miles, and the width is 2 miles. So now I live in Michigan, and for me to go from where I live to Lake Michigan is about 200 miles. So I like to drive and just relax and just check out the scenery and the trees, the outdoor species in the United States. That’s what I like.
Nico: It sounds like you are an outdoor, nature person.
Cotton: Yeah, I like to see different things. Of course, Arizona has its perks too, like mountains and stuff like that, the desert. I’d love to check out Flagstaff, but I’ve been to the Grand Canyon before and that was amazing for me to see. But I do complain a lot when I’m here because I’m so used to growing up seeing grass and trees, it was like a change being in Arizona.
Nico: Just turning to baseball, it’s really fortunate that you were discovered because you’re not huge in stature, you didn’t come from a known baseball place, and then you’ve never really been part of a huge scouting program. So what got you on the radar?
Cotton: So this guy, name of Dan, he owns the future stars organization in St. Thomas. So as I was living in Virginia, he contacted me and was like “Hey, I have an opportunity for you to go down to Miami Dade College to do a workout.” And when I went down to Miami Dade, I killed the workout. It was great. I did a great job and got a full ride to Miami Dade.
Since then, I have my sights on going to play college ball in South Miami where a lot of scouts are, stuff like that. So my first year in Miami, playing college ball, scouts would come around, and he said I wasn’t big in stature but I had a good arm, and I had my changeup, so they saw those two things and they were like, well, this kid has some talent. Then I came back to Virginia that summer and pitched in a collegiate summer league, Coastal Plains League, and I dominated the league, and that year I got an offer from East Carolina. But I opted to go back to Miami Dade to finish my second year. So I went back to Miami Dade and I started throwing harder, up to 95, and then I was on the radar.
And I got drafted in the 28th round by the Mets. I didn’t sign because I had my sights on going to a D-1 school to experience it. So I went to D-1, East Carolina, and I had a great year there. A lot of scouts saw me. But like you said, I wasn’t showing plus numbers they wanted to see to get in the top rounds. But they gave me an opportunity, the Dodgers did, I signed with the Dodgers, and I just made my way through the minor leagues to the Dodgers. As they say, quote unquote, I was a “sleeper” in the organization because of my changeup and my fastball was pretty high when I first got drafted, so that put me on the radar.
Nico: Now, I saw you start your last start in spring training last year, and you actually pitched pretty well. I didn’t know that you were probably pitching in a fair amount of pain. What was going on at that point?
Cotton: So last year, the game you saw was against the Giants. Yes, I was pitching in a lot of pain back then, but I was trying to fight through it because I didn’t know what it was, and I was telling myself maybe it might be like tendinitis or something like that, so I just pitched through it and “get treatment and it will get better...”
But after that game I was, like, there’s no way, I gotta get this checked out. And by getting it checked out I found out that I had a flexor strain and torn ligament. I thought I had a flexor strain but I didn’t know I had a torn ligament. So when I found out the news it was heartbreaking and, of course, my season ended. So, you know, I’m coming back right now, doing great, and I’m excited to be back with the team whenever I’m ready.
Nico: Can you say a little bit more about “heartbreaking”? Because I’ve never been through, and I will never be through, what actually happened to you.
Cotton: Well, so I went to the doctor’s office and he came into the room with the news, and he was, like, laughing a little bit — not laughing, but he was like smiling and shaking on my elbow. So I was, like, you know what, my elbow is fine, it’s just probably like a strain, like I was gonna get a cortisone shot and I’d be fine next week.
So he was shaking my elbow and asking me does this hurt? I’m like no. And he was like huh, that’s pretty weird, because like your ligament is torn. And I just, like, I wanted to cry. It was so bad because I’ve never, I’ve played since I was eight years old every single year, and this is the first year I didn’t play at all. So just by that news it was, like, I can’t play baseball for a year. It’s heartbreaking. I want to play baseball and I can’t because of injury.
Nico: So what was that year like? Because that’s the year that nobody hears about.
Cotton: Well, that’s the year I’m in the background, but I took that year to work on things I needed to work on, which is my mental strength, my body, perfecting my mobility and my range of my body and stuff like that. And I took the year off and I did that. I stretched a lot, I got my hips together, I got my brain together, and it was a blessing in disguise. I took the year off and I learned about baseball, I learned how to become a pitcher.
Nico: I always wonder, when you get back to throwing — you’ve been throwing now (for a couple weeks) — what it is like mentally as far as trusting that your elbow’s not gonna break?
Cotton: Well, so, when I first started my throwing program I was in a sock. I was doing sock throws. And I told myself, “My ligament is repaired, it’s fine, just throw. No matter if it hurts, just throw.” But you don’t want to baby it, and then when you’re ready to throw you do something wrong. You gotta get that out the way right now. So I had that mentality in my head and I just kept throwing, throwing. It felt great. And I just kept my mind at ease. The throwing program so far has been a breeze. I’ve had some nicks here and there, but I’ve found a way to get back into feeling good.
Nico: And what do you think is realistic as far as when, in your mind, you might be back on the big league mound?
Cotton: For me, “day by day” is the most I can say because I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow or the next day, so I’m just taking it day by day. The time frame they said in the paper is about June, July, so of course if I hit that time frame I’ll be excited. That’s gonna be a goal for me to reach. So far right now I’m just taking it day by day. If I feel good today, I feel good tomorrow, then that’s an A+ in my book.