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Star south of border

Hart High graduate making a name for himself in Mexican baseball league

Posted: February 17, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 17, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Former Major League Baseball player Jerry Owens wears his uniform for the Hermosillo Naranjeros.

 

Hermosillo, Mexico, loves Jerry Owens.

It’s obvious from a country away.

Facebook eliminates borders, and people from the capital of the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora made it clear in their social media postings that he was the darling of their Naranjeros — the professional baseball team in the Mexican Pacific League.

They posted photos of him, with him. They talked about him and how much they adored the 1999 Hart High graduate and former The Master’s College baseball star.

“It was almost like the whole stadium in unison would chant (his name),” says former Major Leaguer Daryle Ward, who was a teammate of Owens’ with the Naranjeros. “He was almost like a god in Mexico. I don’t like to use that term, but he was more of like a rock star. ... Every female wanted to talk to him, have a picture with him, and guys as well. He was almost like the only guy on the team.”

Owens won the league’s batting title, the Naranjeros won the league’s championship, and his career was resurrected.

This time two years ago, the Valencia resident, who celebrated his 33rd birthday Sunday, was broken.

Crossroads

Two years ago, Jerry Owens’ baseball career was on life support.

His marriage was ending.

His life was at a crossroads.

For a man who has credited faith for much of his success, he admits that he began to question God.

“Two years ago this time — it’s all in perspective and I’m very blessed and there are a lot of people worse off — but two years ago I was at my lowest point in my life,” Owens says.

In July 2005, The Signal chose Owens as the 20th greatest athlete of all time.

By that time, he had been a three-sport star athlete at Hart High School, a wide receiver for the UCLA Bruins football team, a star baseball player at The Master’s College, the highest baseball draft pick ever out of the school at 57th overall in 2003, and a rising star in baseball’s minor leagues.

In 2006, he made his Major League debut with the Chicago White Sox and by 2009, he played parts of four seasons with the team.

But in April 2010, he had a second major surgery to repair his rotator cuff and glenoid labrum in his left shoulder — his throwing shoulder.

It was a significant blow to his career.

One more shot

Owens’ legs have always defined who he is as an athlete.

His long strides and speed have always given him a leg up — so to speak. His ability to hit made for a combination irresistible for professional baseball.

He still had those attributes.

So to stay in the game, Owens tried to throw right-handed.

After that short-lived experiment and with Major League teams now passing on him, Owens looked for a new direction.

He was back in the Santa Clarita Valley coaching basketball with former Los Angeles Laker and The Master’s College legend Mike Penberthy.

He got certified as a personal trainer.

However, it wasn’t fulfilling.

“I was at the gym with a friend of mine one day and he asked me a simple question: ‘Why are you going to retire from baseball?’” Owens recalls. “I didn’t have a legitimate answer for him. I had excuses.

“He kind of brought to my attention, ‘You have three less years of wear and tear on your body. You’re 31, but your body is like 28.’”

“God was telling me to give it one more shot,” Owens says.

Owens got back into baseball shape, and in October 2012 former Boston Red Sox manager Butch Hobson gave him a call.

Hobson was managing the Lancaster (Penn.) Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic League — a league unaffiliated with Major League Baseball, but still stocked full of talent and former big leaguers.

He asked Owens to play for his Lancaster team.

‘Community guy’

In 2013, Owens won the league’s batting title with a .341 batting average — some .030 points higher than anyone else in the league or a Grand Canyon-sized gap in non-baseball terms.

Then he got an invite to play in the Mexican Winter League for the Naranjeros — or as Owens calls them “the New York Yankees of the Mexican League.”

The league is unique in that contracts are month to month.

If you don’t perform, you’re gone.

Owens performed daily.

The passion for the game and the baseball culture were something he hadn’t experienced before.

The Estadio Sonora, home of the Naranjeros, packs roughly one-third of what an average Major League stadium holds, but the fans were loud, knowledgeable and constant.

The fans took to Owens like he was a member of The Beatles during the British Invasion of America in the 1960s.
“He’s a great guy,” says Ward, who also played with Owens in Lancaster. “Really, really friendly with the public. He signs autographs and is a very good community guy off the field. He’s the type of person you want someone to talk to (less fortunate) people.

“I know when we were in Lancaster he was the first one with his hand raised (for community events). He was always going to hospitals, getting up early in the morning, sacrificing sleep to talk to kids.”

Expectations

Owens says he remembers hitting a triple during a Naranjeros game and he could hear the 15,000 fans chanting his name.

The team’s public relations director told Owens he had never before heard an ovation for a foreign player like it.

Owens ended up winning the Mexican Pacific League batting title with an average of .361 — .025 higher than the next best average.

And his team played in the MPL championship — that league’s World Series.

The series against Mayos de Navojoa went the maximum seven games.

The Naranjeros trailed 2-1 going into the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 7 before exploding for seven runs and taking an 8-2 lead.

The lead was cut to 8-3 in the top of the ninth inning and Owens was in center field with two outs.

With all his athletic success, he had never been on the field in a championship game before.

He was on the sidelines with a broken leg when his Hart football team won the 1998 CIF-Southern Section Division III championship.

“There were two strikes on the hitter. The guy swings and misses,” Owens recalls of the Jan. 29 game at Estadio Sonora. “I took a quick second and paused. ‘Did this really happen?’ The fans flooded the field. I didn’t get to my teammates. The fans came and got us.

“From where I was a year ago to where I am now, playing baseball again, I couldn’t have drawn it any better,” Owens says. “That’s a tribute to God. God blew my expectations out of the water.”

Give it his all

Jerry Owens is back home today in Valencia with his 3-year-old daughter Maya — a little girl he says couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

When he was low, she was his light.

Now he is climbing back and she still provides that light.

He’s waiting for the phone to ring.

Maybe a Major League team will give him a chance again.

Maybe a Major League team won’t.

Ward, an 11-year Major Leaguer who last played with the Chicago Cubs in 2008, says he doesn’t look at Owens’ age as a deterrent to teams looking for someone who could use his value.

“He’s got plenty of baseball in him,” Ward says. “If you can play the game, you should be on the field. The guy won batting titles. I think it’s just a matter of persistence.

“I believe as long as he’s willing to give it his all, which I knowhe is, he’s got a really good shot at being in affiliated ball and being back in the big leagues.” 

He has some options.

A Mexican summer league team near Cancun is interested.

And Hermosillo loves Owens in the winter.

If there’s one thing that this once nearly broken man proved in the last year, it’s that he’s still got it.

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