To the fans’ delight, former San Diego Padres’ outfielder Eric Owens gave it all on the field every day.
Throughout the history of the San Diego Padres, some players contributed massively despite a short career with the franchise.
In a time of deep sorrow for the franchise, Eric Owens brought joy to the fan base. After the 1998 season, several key Padres’ players were not retained despite the fact the franchise made it to its second World Series in the organization’s history. Kevin Brown, Ken Caminiti, and Steve Finley all left via free agency. The fan base was in shambles.
Once again, ownership was in flux, resulting in budget cuts when it came to the team on the field. The 1999 roster would be overhauled, and several new players were brought in to battle for key positions on the team in the spring. A minor addition (at the time) was the signing of a soon-to-be 28-year-old journeyman player named Eric Owens. He spent the past four years going up and down between the major leagues and minor league for the Reds and Brewers.
Owens was a free agent for less than two months before Kevin Towers, and the Padres came calling. For the flexible baseball player, he knew he needed a shot. When you reach a certain age in the game, you realize the opportunities are few and far between. Owens knew he didn’t have much time, and there were reasons why he chose San Diego to try to make a mark in the game. “I saw where Quilvio Veras was hurt, and Ken Caminiti was gone. I was coming off a good year as I won the batting title in Venezuela that winter (Owens also recorded a .876 OPS n Triple-A for Milwaukee). I had some outfield experience and infield experience, so it was a place that I thought I could make the team out of spring. As a minor-league free-agent, I was trying to find my niche to get into the big leagues,” Owens said in a conversation last week.
The winter of that 98-99 season provided reflection for Eric Owens. The mental aspect of the game was something he needed to master. Headed to Arizona in the spring of 1999, Owens had no idea what was in store for him in Padres camp. He just knew he did not want to go back home. “The irony of it was I left Virginia, packed up my Tahoe, and told my parents I wasn’t coming back,” Owens said seriously. This was a pivotal moment in his playing career, and he knew it. “That was the thing. You spend six years in the minor leagues, and you wonder if you are a Four-A player or a big-league player,” Owens said with a serious tone to his voice.
Upon reaching camp, he was handed jersey N0. 74. The outfielder wondered if he made a mistake signing in San Diego as his number seemed like he was trying out for the Chargers. “It was a lot of pressure on my shoulders,” Owens admitted. There was no time to work on things in camp. He needed to make an impression, and that is exactly what the outfielder did. A new start with fresh coaching is exactly what Eric Owens needed in this time of his career. “Once I got to spring training, Bruce Bochy, Merv Rettenmund, Rob Picciolo, Tim Flannery, Davey Lopes… they just brought me in.,” Owens said fondly. “It starts with his attitude and the way he plays the game,” Davey Lopes said about Owens in a 2000 interview. Owens reminisced about the group and how they took to his style of play. The group of coaches noticed right away that he put forth great effort on the field.
Despite the lineman-esque number on his back, Owens went on to hit .466 (27-for-48) in 1999 spring camp, turning heads in the Padres’ front office. “He pretty much forced us into a decision to find a way to get him on the ballclub,” Kevin Towers said in a June 2000 interview for Padres Magazine. The Padres needed to get him in the lineup and ride his hot hand. But he would not start immediately for the team. It took time for Owens to make his way into the lineup daily.
Luckily for the Padres, Owens proved to be extremely versatile with the glove. Growing up in the Reds’ organization as a middle infielder, Owens eventually was forced out of his natural area. Bret Boone and Pokey Reese both came with high regards as prospects, so he learned to play the outfield and third base. By the time he tried out for the Padres in 1999, Owens showed the ability to play every position on the diamond except for pitcher and catcher.
Through the first 31 games of the 1999 season, he only recorded 10 hits in 45 at-bats. A .522 OPS through May 1o was not going to cut it, and there was fear inside the outfielder that his baseball career would be over. On the 11th of May, Owens started a home game against the Marlins and went 2-for-3 with a walk. He started the next night and went 2-for-4 in the final game of the homestand. Bruce Bochy penciled Ownes into the first two games of the team’s upcoming road trip in Cincinnati. The outfielder responded by going 4-for-7 in the two games, scoring four runs for the Friars. By May 29, his OPS was at .806, and the Padres found a way to get him in the lineup daily. That first year with the Padres, Owens played first, second, and third base plus each outfield spot. He was a sparkplug and a versatile one at that.
Tony Gwynn was a huge influence on Eric Owens. The duo spent hours on end in the batting cage and the video room going over details. Gwynn enjoyed Owens’ style of play and had no problem sharing information with him. “Tony Gwynn took me under his wing. It all clicked for some reason. It all worked out, and that’s the best I have ever hit in my life,” Owens recollected about his time with the future Hall-of-Famer. There is no doubt that having Tony Gwynn on your side is a huge bonus. Owens devoured the information Gwynn fed him. “I felt like I couldn’t get out. It just kept pumping my confidence,” Owens said.
In speaking about Mr. Padre, Owens shared this story. “I will never forget. I had #74 in spring training of 1999. I made the team and was talking to the clubhouse guys about a new number. The clubby was asking what number I wanted, and Tony walks in and tells me to get the lowest number possible so that you know you are a big leaguer. It made sense to me, and I think I ended up with number three that year,” Owens said with a laugh.
There was a pause after telling the story. You could sense that Gwynn meant a lot to the outfielder. Tony Gwynn was incredibly good to Eric Owens during his career in San Diego. The two would sit on plane rides, and Gwynn would go over the pitchers the two would face in the next series. Gwynn was an advanced scout, a friend, and so much more. “He talked about what pitchers are doing. He would talk to me about what they would try to do with me. He was an advanced scout and cutting-edge in video technology. If he were playing nowadays, he may hit .500 because of the information he would have,” Owens said with a chuckle. The two had similar swings though Owens was right-handed and Gwynn, left-handed in the box. They both hit the ball inside out and used the opposite field well.
Owens states that Gwynn loved his swing. The two would study videos on their approach and explore other aspects of the art of hitting. “He started showing me videos and things like that- about my approach. My mental approach to the game, more than anything,” Owens said. The mental side of the game is huge, which has really stuck with the native of Virginia. “What an amazing human being he was,” Owens lastly said about his former teammate and mentor.
Mentally it took a while for Eric Owens to advance. He described how frustrated it would be hitting .320-.350 in the minor leagues and then play in the majors and struggle to hit .200 at the plate. Owens would dominate in the winter leagues as well (winning a batting title in Venezuela) but could never find his stride at the major league level. “The mental side of the game is the biggest side. I played six years of winter ball in Venezuela and hit .350 in Triple-A, but I would get to the big leagues and hit .200. It took me a little longer to figure out the mental side of the game. Being able to control what you can control is the biggest thing. You need to take care of today instead of worrying about tomorrow,” Owens said. The younger players that Owens currently mentors struggle with this aspect of the game. It is his goal to help them better understand baseball so that they can get the most out of the abilities.
If there is one memory of Eric Owens, it is his hustle.
He played the game like his hair was on fire, and the fans appreciated the fact that he busted his butt on every play. Whether it was diving in the outfield for a ball out of his reach or throwing his body recklessly on the ground trying to beat out an infield single, he showed tremendous heart. In speaking about how and why he played the game in this manner for the Padres, he made it quite clear. “After being up and down to the big leagues, 10, 12, 13 times- I was in a mindset and in a zone that I was leaving it all on the field each day. If I was going to be sent back down, I was not going to be shy or timid on the field,” Owens proudly said.
His style of play was infectious. The outfielders’ teammates respected his play. The fans adored it, and he remembers them all fondly.”The fans there were just so good to me. They took me in—the dirty t-shirt night giveaway. I could not have anyone do anything better for me than that. Just the appreciation for the way I played and all the accolades there,” Owens said with a proud tone to his voice. Eric Owens was finding his stride in America’s Finest City. He felt at home.
His most memorable moment as a Padre is the steal of home plate that took place against the Reds and Brett Tomko in 1999. The scrappy Owens endeared himself to the San Diego Padres’ fans in a straight steal of home. “I about choked on my chewing-bubble gum on that play. I looked over at Tim Flannery and told him I think I could make it. He told me to go ahead. I knew Bruce Bochy didn’t know about it. So it was me and Tim Flannery sitting out there. I was thinking in my head, what if I trip? I am going to be sent back down. I took one more pitch and Flannery told me- what are you still doing here? I was like- alright. I am doing it right now,” Owens said with a laugh. That play set the tone for him in his career with the Padres. The hustle, the heart. It was infectious.
Enjoy this video of Eric Owens. For those younger Padres fans, this is not a show. This is the style of play he brought every night.
I gave everything I had, every single day that I could put a uniform on.
Despite an excellent 2000 season for the Padres, in which Owens hit .293 and stole 29 bags for the Padres in 145 games, he was traded to the Florida Marlins as spring camp broke in Peoria. The Padres jumped at an opportunity to acquire 25-year-old outfielder Mark Kotsay, a former first-round pick.
Matt Clement and Eric Owens were packaged and sent east. The trade was a shock to Padres fans and even more so to Owens. “I got a phone call on the way from spring training from Kevin Towers. He called and told me they may be trading me. I was like, WHAT?!?! It was a shock because it was so late in spring training. He told me to hold on, and he would get right back to me. Towers called back, and Bruce Bochy was on speakerphone with him. They told me how much they appreciated me and how hard I played. They wished me the best,” Owens said somberly.
That was a long drive for Owens. He was startled by the news but content with the fact another team wanted him so badly. Still, his heart ached for the team, which gave him the opportunity to flourish. “My biggest disappointment was being traded from there. I felt at home there (San Diego). All the fans, seeing the eyeblack and all that. You start to realize as a professional athlete that you are making a difference in kids and other people’s life. It’s a business. It was very humbling. I knew I was embedded in the San Diego community, but I wasn’t Tony Gwynn,” Owens said.
The trade to the Marlins was difficult for Owens. Showing his value in a new city to new teammates was an arduous task. “The most difficult thing was trying to prove myself. It took me a while to get that mojo back. With very few fans at the games, it was a totally different atmosphere than I was used to in San Diego,” Owens said with a sigh. He played two productive years in Miami and one more with the Angels in 2003. The 2004 season found Owens in Triple-A for the Tigers. He never made it back to the majors and walked away from the game, as a player, after the season at the age of 33.
The right-handed hitter spent time in the Dodgers organization as a coach and also spent time in Toronto with the Blue Jays as a hitting coach. He currently resides in Whitby, Ontario, Canada, and dedicates his time to young players. Teenagers with the ambition to play in the States in college and beyond. “I love what I do with these kids. I feel like I am making a difference here in Whitby. The biggest thing for me is to make a difference in these kid’s careers and in their lives. Baseball is like everyday life, and sometimes you need thick skin to make it through the day,” Owens said.
Eric Owens finds comfort in working with these kids and shaping their mental aspect for the game. This is a man who has seen both the ups and downs of the game. If you are looking for more information on what Eric currently does, here is the link. EObaseball.com
The fan base in San Diego left an impression on Eric Owens. Though he has spent time in several other organizations as a coach and player, San Diego’s fans are a fond memory indeed. “They are so loyal. They want a winner. You could tell the people care. They would back you and support you. There were never really fans that booed you when you did bad. They would applaud you and try to pick you up. Those fans in San Diego do not get as much credit as they should,” Owens explained.
His message to the fans is short and sweet. “Thank you so much for taking me in back in those days. Thank you for appreciating the way that I played. It is the biggest compliment that you can get for people to respect and enjoy the way you played the game. I went out and played for the San Diego community and felt every fan was behind me. You can move mountains with that many people behind you,” Owens explained emotionally. In his short time with the Padres, this scrappy outfield indeed moved mountains for a franchise’s fan base that was eager for happiness. Padres fans will always remember him.