By Trey Williams
There are days when managing baseball is for the birds, but it takes more than a publicity-stunted loss to Jennie Finch to ruffle Jeremy Owens’ feathers.
Owens, a Science Hill Hall of Famer, is in his first season managing the independent Atlantic League’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. The eventful debut season has included a loss to Finch – a glamorous Olympic softball player and a celebrity manager for the Bridgeport Bluefish in a 3-1 win on May 29 against Owens’ Blue Crabs.
“She whooped my hind-end that day, beat me three to one,” Owens said. “I was hoping I would make SportsCenter because I let Jennie Finch beat me. … My pitching coach (Bill Bliss) knew her from the past and he wanted to take out the lineup card. So I let him do that – and that keeps me in good graces with my wife.”
The Bluefish have previously used former big leaguers Pete Rose and Paul O’Neill in the same managerial role.
“I believe Roger Clemens comes there in early July, maybe, and does the same thing,” said Owens, who noted Finch giving an inspirational talk about dedication. “And she did coach third for, like, two innings. … It was interesting, you know, going up against her.”
The Atlantic League generates interest. Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson was one of the Blue Crabs’ original owners. The league’s alumni include Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Ruben Sierra and Tim Raines.
Popular enough to turn up on billboards around Waldorf, Owens is essentially the president of Crustacean Nation. He began playing there in 2008.
“For me, there might’ve been just one person in the stands that never got to see the game played the way I thought it ought to be played, and that’s the way I went about it,” Owens said. “And I was always blessed with speed and always had a knack for knowing where the ball was gonna end up landing. That was my strength: defense.
Former Boston Red Sox third baseman and manager Butch Hobson was the South Maryland manager when Owens arrived. A 31-year-old outfielder that’d reached Triple-A in the Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays organizations, Owens hit it off with Hobson right away. Not only had Owens played the game hard while running down enough balls in center field to be touted by Baseball America, he’d also played football in high school and had caught multiple Southern Conference football coaches’ eyes while helping Science Hill reach the state quarterfinals as a hard-hitting safety.
Hobson, who played football and baseball at Alabama when Bear Bryant was the football coach, asked Owens what he planned to do after his playing career concluded. And before long, he made Owens a player/coach.
“I had no idea I’d be a manager this fast and I’m a coach today because of Butch Hobson,” the 39-year-old Owens said. “He’s a great man.”
Hobson, who now manages the Atlantic League’s Lancaster Barnstormers, fell from grace after a drug arrest in ‘96.
“He has a great testimony,” Owens said. “And just the way he goes about his business and how he helps players find themselves to continue their career or just help them along is fabulous.”
Owens resides in Jonesborough in the offseason. He gives lessons at RBI Tri-Cities, where the likes of 2010 Atlantic Sun Player of the Year Paul Hoilman and Texas Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark can often be found.
Helping baseball players of all ages make strides is what fuels Owens. The Blue Crabs’ Steve Lombardozzi was recently signed by the Washington Nationals.
“Steve Lombardozzi is one of the most professional guys I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet on the field and off the field,” Owens said. “He’s just a great person; never takes anything for granted. Numerous times he’d come to me and thank me for allowing him to come to play. I’d say, ‘Steve, it’s a privilege to watch you.’
“When he got picked up I said, ‘I never thought I’d ever meet someone that played the game harder than I did, and I think I finally have.’ He’s a spark plug. You’ll see him in the big leagues by the end of the year.”
Owens seemed like a good bet to reach the majors. He hit 244 career home runs and stole 399 bases while playing everywhere from Portland, Ore. to Portland, Me.
He stole 67 bases in Single-A in 1999. He reached Triple-A with Boston (Pawtucket), San Diego (Portland) and Tampa Bay (Durham). It looked like the Rays might promote him to Tampa when Carl Crawford got hurt in 2008. But Owens said they understandably opted to promote a Durham Bulls teammate that was making five times the money Owens was getting paid.
“I didn’t make a lot of adjustments,” Owens said. “I was a streaky hitter. Some series I was the best guy on the field and other series I was a given out.”
San Diego drafted Owens in the eighth round out of Middle Tennessee State in 1998.
“They told me I was going somewhere from rounds five to 10,” Owens said. “Coach (Steve) Peterson said, ‘You might as well just go to the lake and go fishing.’ Well, I woke up and cleaned the house and sat by the phone all day long just waiting for the phone call.”
Owens had brushes with greatness.
“I hit a two-seam fastball deep (off Mark Mulder),” he said. “I went 3-for-4 on Orel Hershiser in the California League with a home run, a double and a single. That was a pretty cool night. I mean he was on a rehab assignment, working on throwing strikes and get-me-over breaking balls. … But I have that bat in storage and I’ll give it to one of my kids one of these days.”
Owens was actually placed on the active roster for games last week due to roster attrition. He’d only pinch-run if absolutely necessary – a boy of summer once more.
“Did I know I was gonna play baseball for this long? No,” Owens said. “I just knew I enjoyed it. Baseball’s been very good to me. It’s a privilege. This is my 19th year in the game, and it’s just a joy. …
“I guess they think a lot of me and I think a lot of the organization. It’s an honor to be able to take the reins of this team. … I’m the fifth manager. Two of them have moved on to get jobs in affiliated ball to continue their career, and that’s what this league’s about. I’m not done yet.”