1999 was a tough year for the San Diego Padres. Following their 1998 pennant-winning season, the offseason saw the team lose National League MVP Ken Caminiti, 50-homer man Greg Vaughn, Gold Glove center fielder Steve Finley, and 18-game winner Kevin Brown. To be fair, we knew Brown was only a one-year rental, but he was the best pitcher in the NL, and had just signed a long-term deal with the Dodgers. It hurt.
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The Padres, desperate for a little attention after losing nearly all of their best players, took country music legend Garth Brooks to Spring Training to indulge the superstar’s fantasy of playing major league baseball. And while Brooks may be considered a “Forgotten Friar”, this column is actually about the player who shared a locker with Brooks that Spring.
The season got off to a rocky start, and before April was over, the Padres were in last place, a half dozen games behind in the NL West. But one player was beginning to emerge as a fan favorite on this otherwise forgettable team. Outfielder Eric Owens, the man who shared that locker with Garth Brooks, was winning over the Friars faithful by approaching every game and every at-bat like it was the seventh game of the World Series.
Owens had come to the team by way of free agency, after spending three years with the Reds and one with the Brewers. In the Padres’ second game of the season, Owens entered the game as a defensive replacement in center field in the 7th inning, lined a single and stole second base. Two days later, he duplicated the feat.
The Padres were starting five-tool guy Ruben Rivera in center field. Despite Rivera’s massive talent, he is probably best remembered for stealing and selling teammate Derek Jeter’s glove and bat in 2002. But that hadn’t happened yet. At this point, Rivera was just another underachieving 5-star prospect.
So despite Owens’ effectiveness in his limited playing time, the young center fielder continued to impress when given the opportunity to play, finishing April with a .278 BA after collecting five hits in two starts at the end of the month. But it was his style of play that was garnering the most attention.
Owens was becoming known for his all-out hustle, always taking the extra base, frequently coming up from his head-first slides with a dirty or torn uniform. Words like “scrappy” and “fiery” started being tossed around.
Rivera, meanwhile, was hitting well under .200, and was not winning many fans with his personality either.
In mid-May, Owens was given four straight starts, and stroked two hits in each of the four games, raising his average to .305. Bruce Bochy, despite his great preference for always starting his “starters,” was being forced to find playing time for the reserve Owens, and he began getting starts at all three outfield positions.
One week after his 8-hits-in-4-games streak, Owens made his mark in Padres history. It was a Friday night game against Owens’ former team, the Reds, and I had the good fortune to be in the stands, with a seat just inside first base in the plaza section at the Q. I can still picture it as if it happened yesterday.
Owens was starting in left field that night, and had just hit a double off of Brett Tomko with Quilvio Veras on first, putting men on second and third. Veras scored and Owens moved to third on a pair of groundouts. And on a 2-1 count, I looked up the left field line and saw Owens breaking for home. I remember shouting “Oh my God, he’s stealing home!”
A few seconds and a cloud of dust later, the umpire waved his arms wildly in a “safe” gesture. Padres fans, who hadn’t had much to cheer about in the first seven weeks of the season, erupted in a way they hadn’t since the final game of the World Series the previous year. With one gutsy decision and a burst of speed, Eric Owens won the hearts of Padres fans everywhere.
Owens didn’t miss many starts for the rest of the season, and finished with 33 steals and a .266 average. The following year, 2000, was the best of Owens’ career. While the Padres were still harboring hopes of Rivera’s breakout in center, the less-talented but much more effective Owens was given the starting position in right field. During the season, he was moved all around the outfield, but no matter where he played, he produced, and fans loved him.
He hit .293 with 29 steals that year, but the highlight of the season was when the organization honored him with what was perhaps the greatest “player jersey” giveaway night ever. The Eric Owens giveaway t-shirt looked like Owens’ uniform usually looked, with dirt stains all over it. Padres fans wore it proudly.
Owens was shipped off to the Marlins following that season, as part of a five-player trade that brought Mark Kotsay to San Diego. Owens played another three years, but never quite matched the heights he reached in his two years as a Padre.
After his final season in the majors, Owens played another few years for independent teams and in the Mexican Leagues. The Angels hired him as a hitting instructor in 2007, and he is currently in the Dodgers system a minor league hitting coordinator.
But, for Padres fans, he will always be the player that stole home and came up smiling, dirty uniform and all.