Eric Owens is finding it increasingly difficult to have a
peaceful breakfast in the San Diego area. "I'll be sitting in
Starbucks, and people will come up and ask, 'Where's your eye
black?'" says the Padres outfielder, whose use of the
glare-reducing grease for every game--day and night--has become
his trademark. "I have to tell them, 'Hey, I don't wear that
stuff at 8 a.m.'"
Not that Owens, 29, who as recently as 1998 was struggling to
stick in the majors for more than the proverbial cup of coffee,
is complaining. In signing with the Padres as a minor league
free agent before the '99 season, Owens joined his fourth
organization in nine months, but he has finally found a home as
San Diego's leadoff hitter and most versatile outfielder. Owens
has locked up an every-day spot in the lineup with a
team-leading .345 average, 48 runs and 18 steals. His aggressive
play--witness his sprawling, inning-ending catch with the bases
loaded that helped preserve an 8-7 win over the Padres on June
18--has also made him a favorite at Qualcomm Stadium, where some
fans are smearing their cheekbones with eye black. "You have to
like the way he plays," says manager Bruce Bochy. "His uniform's
a mess by the bottom of the first; he's got scabs and bruises
all over him."
Owens spent six years hustling to prove himself to the Reds, who
drafted him in the fourth round in 1992 after his junior season
at Ferrum (Va.) College. He progressed through the Cincinnati
system as an infielder and, with the Indianapolis Indians in
'95, was MVP of the Triple A American Association. He spent the
next two years bouncing between Cincy and Indianapolis. By the
end of '97 he had made nine round trips between the minors and
the bigs and hit .220 in 264 major league at bats.
The following March the Reds sent him to the Marlins for a minor
league pitcher; four days later Florida sold him to Milwaukee.
He hit .125 in 40 at bats for the Brewers, who released him
after the season. In December 1998 the Padres invited him to
camp as a nonroster player. "They put his locker on what we call
Nonroster Row," says rightfielder Tony Gwynn. "He was down there
next to Garth Brooks."
Owens had a stellar spring and by mid-May had wormed his way
into the lineup because he could play all outfield positions and
everywhere in the infield save shortstop. What's more, he was
fearless on the base paths and in the field. He finished 1999
with a .266 average and 33 stolen bases.
Still, the Padres, unconvinced that Owens could handle the
leadoff spot full time, traded for Pirates outfielder Al Martin
in February and made Owens their fourth outfielder. "That kind
of gave me a sick feeling," says Owens, "but Bochy told me in
camp I was going to get a chance to play somehow."
Owens got his chance when Gwynn sat out a few games in April
after being hit by a pitch, and he responded with a .375 average
and a .423 on-base percentage for the month. In San Diego's
outfield rotation--along with Gwynn, Martin and Ruben
Rivera--Owens is the only one in the lineup virtually every day.
"It doesn't matter if I go 0 for 4 once in a while," he says.
"The only time I have to look at the lineup card is to see where
I'm playing in the outfield."
And which wall he'll be crashing into.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN F. GRIESHOP