By Trey Williams
Science Hill Hall of Famer Jeremy Owens has managed to make a career out of baseball.
Owens, a college prospect in baseball and football at Science Hill (class of ’95), spent 18 years roaming outfields everywhere from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine after playing at Middle Tennessee. He reached Triple-A with three organizations – the Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres and Tampa Rays – after being selected in the eighth round of the 1998 MLB Draft by San Diego.
He hit 244 home runs and stole 399 bases in the minors and independent leagues. Baseball America touted him as the best defensive outfielder in Boston’s system one year.
Not bad for a guy who was still wondering if he should play football in college when he was on a baseball visit to Middle Tennessee his senior season. He asked Middle Tennessee coach Steve Peterson what he thought about Owens playing football at MTSU.
“He just kind of giggled and just shook his head no,” Owens said Monday. “I don’t know if he was telling me I wasn’t good enough or if he was kind of foreshadowing what he thought I might be able to do one day (in baseball). After that visit, which was after the Jeff County football game, I was like, ‘Well, maybe football is not what I get to go do.’
“I think I made the right choice. I’ve enjoyed the ride in baseball and all the opportunities I’ve had.”
Owens was playing for San Diego’s high-A affiliate (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) when he went 3-for-3 off Orel Hershiser in a rehab start in 2000.
“I lacked a double to hit the cycle,” Owens said. “I’ve got the bat in my room leaning up against the wall. I look at it every once in a while just to kind of remind myself. It’s an old Rawlings M110 model.”
Owens could hit on a football field, too. He played on the ’94 Science Hill team that beat Dobyns-Bennett for the final time before the Indians won 19 straight in the series.
“Their opening series, I think, they had a fourth down and maybe not even a yard to go at about our 10- or 15-yard-line,” Owens says. “And we stopped them. We didn’t even wait to see the officials measure it. We ran off the field hitting each other in the heads like we didn’t have any sense. I’ve never felt so much excitement.”
Mike Turner, who went on to become the head coach at Carson-Newman, coached Owens his junior season when the Hilltoppers advanced to the quarterfinals.
“Jeremy Owens was tough, hard-nosed and he was never about himself,” Turner said. “He was some kind of strong safety. He had the range to cover and he could come up and really put it on somebody. His first love was baseball, but whether he was coming up on a run or breaking on a ball, he had great instincts on the football field.”
Turner would hand out hats for big hits delivered during games.
“Jeremy always had a locker full of hats,” Turner said with a proud smile.
Owens played baseball for Bob Dempsey at Science Hill. Dempsey fondly recalls a home run the 6-foot-1, 170-pounder launched against Daniel Boone.
“It was cold and the wind was howling, blowing in probably 20 or 25 miles an hour,” Dempsey said. “Jeremy just killed one. I bet on a calm day it would’ve gone over 400 feet. Greg Goulds still talks about how hard Jeremy hit that ball.”
Owens’ Hilltoppers teammates included Lance Torbett, Justin Kinch and Keith Jones.
“If Keith Jones had had an opportunity in pro ball I really believe he would’ve had some chances,” Owens said. “I say that because of how smart he was. He understood the game really well.”
Owens never got the opportunity to play in the majors, though he came close when he was playing for Tampa’s Triple-A Durham Bulls affiliate in 2007.
“Carl Crawford got hurt and it came down to myself or Dustan Mohr,” Owens said. “Well, Dustan Mohr was definitely making a lot of money in Triple-A and it made sense to take his money up. … I definitely was close to making it that ’07 year. That’s about as close I got.”
Owens played in the independent Atlantic League for the South Maryland Blue Grabs (Brooks Robinson was the owner) for nine years. He began playing under former Boston Red Sox player/manager Butch Hobson, who got Owens into coaching as the South Maryland player/hitting instructor. A year later, Owens was managing the Blue Crabs.
“Butch Hobson helped me get my feet wet in coaching,” Owens said. “It helped me tremendously. Managing is definitely tough. I managed against Butch. He’d call me daily. He always looked out for me.”
This summer, Owens will be the manager of the Appalachian League’s Elizabethton River Riders.
“Last year was great being the Elizabethton hitting coach,” Owens said. “Now, I get to run the show. I’m looking forward to it.
“I just enjoy influencing these kids. If I can just say one right thing to one kid and it makes a difference and allows them an extra opportunity beyond college, that’s all it’s about for me.”
Certainly, baseball offered Owens an adventuresome life.
“I saw a giant banana get chased by a gorilla during a rain delay in York, Pennsylvania,” Owens said. “I’ve got to see a lot of places – Alaska, Oregon, Maine. I remember going to watch a Utah Jazz game in Salt Lake City during my first year in Triple-A with San Diego.
“I don’t get caught up in ‘Man, I should’ve done this and I should’ve done that.’ I enjoyed my ride. I had probably more opportunities than about anybody in the game because I had some tools that stuck with me a long time. Unfortunately, the mental side of the game – making the right adjustments – kind of slowed me down. But I enjoyed it and it’s molded me into the man I am today.”