Jharel Cotton started in the Virgin Islands and ended his 2016 season in Oakland. (Minda Haas Kuhlmann/Flickr)

Jharel Cotton started in the Virgin Islands and ended his 2016 season in Oakland. (Minda Haas Kuhlmann/Flickr)

The winding road that led Jharel Cotton to the Oakland A’s

OAKLAND — Phil Forbes still remembers the moment he met Jharel Cotton.

It was the beginning of the 2008 school year — only months before Cotton would join his Menchville High School baseball team — a team that would win the state championship and which both USA Today and Baseball America would dub the best in the nation.

“All the sudden, this young [player] walked up to the fence and said, ‘My name is so-and-so.’ And I said, ‘Oh, nice to meet you,’” recalled Forbes, who was coaching a fall ball game at the time.

The coach already knew about Cotton — the new kid — and Cotton already knew about Forbes’ local powerhouse.

“We heard that Menchville was the best high school in town, so me and my buddy went over to that school to watch them play,” Cotton explained. “And I introduced myself to like the best guy on their team and the coach Phil Forbes and we started talking.”

Cotton was a long way from home.

Born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Cotton had moved to Newport News, Virginia, as a 16-year-old. Living with the parents of his hometown little league coach, Cotton had arrived in Newport News on the eve of his senior season with the hopes of improving his chances of getting noticed by top college programs and pro scouts.

The Virgin Islands are no baseball hotbed. When the right-hander debuted with the Oakland Athletics by throwing six innings of one-run, two-hit ball, Cotton became just the second active big leaguer to call the island home.

The 24-year-old credits his stepfather for starting him off on his path to the Coliseum.

“It was crazy,” Cotton said. “I was watching TV one day [with my brother] and he was like, ‘Hey, go outside and do something constructive.’”

Cotton and his brother Jamaine, who spent five years pitching in the Houston Astros minor league system, headed down to the park where they saw some friends playing ball. Cotton wanted in.

“That’s when it took off,” said Cotton, as he sat in front of his locker in the A’s clubhouse. “I started playing when I was seven years old and I continued to play until now.”

On Menchville’s loaded squad, which included four players who would be drafted and nine who would go on to play college baseball, Cotton was a middle reliever and outfielder. As Forbes tells it, Cotton had an impressive bat, contributing a key hit in the state championship.

“He always said he was going to make it to the big time and he wasn’t cocky or anything,” Forbes said. “He just was Jharel Cotton: a nice, respectable young man. And kind of laid back like he is now and took command when he got out on the mound.”

His changeup, which acts like a screwball and baffled the Los Angels Angels in his first MLB showing, was a major help.

“What was great about him is that offspeed pitch that made batter’s ankles and knees just knock and dance up at the home plate,” Forbes said.

The problem was that Cotton’s fastball sat in the 86 to 89 mph range.

“The pro scouts we had look [and] the DI scouts — because I had quite a few looking at our kids,” Forbes said,“they just said, ‘Well, he’s got to get up to 94, 95 before he’s going to be big-time money talk.’”

Cotton ultimately landed at Miami-Dade College, where he would join a pitching staff that included future San Francisco Giants reliever Derek Law.

“His dream was to be at the University of Miami,” Forbes said. “ And he felt if he could get close as he could to it where he could be seen there — because he had other offers — that’s why he went there. His dream was University of Miami baseball.”

After spending a couple of seasons at Miami-Dade, the New York Mets came calling in the 28th round of the 2011 draft, but Cotton opted to pitch for East Carolina University for a season.

In 2012, the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the 20th round, and after climbing all the way to Triple-A, Cotton was one of three right-handers the A’s picked up in the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill deal in July.

Forbes remembers his former outfielder and sometime reliever as a star on and off the field.

“Let me tell you something about this young man,” Forbes said. “He still has a half a dozen teachers that on Mother’s Day he texts them and wishes them happy Mother’s Day. Now you tell me how many kids after they’ve been out of as long as he has who still do that?”

Cotton visited Forbes in Newport News last Christmas and has become a favorite of the coach’s grandson who idolizes the A’s starter.

“He’s what you’d want your son to be everyday in life,” Forbes said. “He just makes you feel good and makes you happy.”

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