Commentary

For McOwen, the hits keep on comin'

Originally Published: July 9, 2009
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Three or four of Jamie McOwen's buddies back in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., are staying up late these days, listening to minor league baseball from California through the speakers of their computer. As far as South Florida nightlife goes, it probably doesn't measure up to club-hopping in South Beach, but it's all for a good cause.

Their buddy, a left-handed-hitting outfielder for the High Desert Mavericks, a 23-year-old who wasn't considered much of a prospect by the Seattle Mariners six weeks ago, is continuing his tour through the grimier parts of California, spraying enough hits in his wake to get noticed.

In the top of the first inning last night in San Jose -- far and away the jewel of the California League -- McOwen slapped a 3-2 pitch past the mound, and San Jose Giants shortstop Skyler Stromsmoe dived to his left and threw from his knees, too late to get McOwen.

Less than five minutes into the game, on a ball that wouldn't have dented a pat of butter, McOwen's hitting streak had grown to 45 games.

[+] EnlargeJamie McOwen
Steve Saenz, Team PhotographerHow to deal with a streak? Don't ignore it. Oh, and keep on hitting. Jamie McOwen shows the way.

And as soon as the game ended, he knew what he would find on his phone. Along with messages from his family back home in Fort Lauderdale, there would be a text from his buddies, telling him, "We toasted you tonight."

The streak is starting to get a lot of attention, in places beyond Modesto and Adelanto. Hit in 45 straight games, and people will find you, no matter who you are, where you are or what level you play. The California League is "high-A," and the San Jose Giants prove it with three first-round draft picks, including super-prospect Buster Posey, in their starting lineup.

The Mavericks aren't used to staring down the long barrel of the national media. They aren't really built to handle an onslaught. Alex Freedman, who broadcasts the Mavs' games to Adelanto and to McOwen's buddies back home, also handles media requests and lists "account executive" on his business card. Since Tuesday morning, he has fielded calls from The Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Times, a Seattle sports-radio station and ESPN.

"I feel like Jamie's personal assistant," Freedman says. "Every day, I have to go up to him and say, 'OK, this is what we need to do today.'"

And, in turn, McOwen goes to manager Jim Horner and tells him, "I'm sorry, but I think they want to talk to you, too."

The apology is unnecessary.

"What else would I rather talk about?" Horner asks.

Tuesday was a tough day, though. McOwen got up at 6 a.m. -- roughly five hours earlier than normal -- for an interview with "First Take" on ESPN. He got through it, but Horner says, "He was so happy when he found out it was going to be over the phone. I think he's a little afraid of cameras."

McOwen was a sixth-round pick in '07 out of Florida International University. He's a former English major whose bio lists "an emphasis in literary theory." He wrote that as a joke -- "I took one class in Lit Theory and thought it would be funny to put it in there" -- with no idea that he would be asked about it on national television.

"Now I'm like, 'Why did I do that?'" he says.

After the early morning interview, McOwen and his teammates hopped into a bus for the six-hour ride from Adelanto (one of those SoCal nowhere places that boasts its proximity to other places) to San Jose, then played with a 43-game hitting streak on the line.

He was 0-for-4 and tired when he came to the plate in the ninth inning. The Mavs were losing 12-2, and when he got into the box, he saw all of his teammates on the dugout railing, cheering him on. Properly energized, he drizzled a broken-bat single through the infield, and the dugout erupted.

Hitting coach Tommy Cruz says, "Every time he gets a hit, it's like the World Series over there."

"That was big," McOwen says. "It's a good feeling to get it in the last at-bat, because it shows you can handle the pressure."

Judging by appearances, McOwen is feeling about as much pressure as a dog sleeping under the porch. When the streak reached 20, he started talking about it. He found out the Cal League record was 35, set by Chris Davis, and he told his teammates he was going to hunt it down and make it his own. It's a testament to McOwen's nature -- he's a curly-haired kid who looks like he's 23 going on 12 -- that nobody found it arrogant or threatening.

"I just figured I'd talk about it and loosen everybody up," he says. "I didn't want everybody to think they couldn't talk about it."

He's saved his streak seven times in his last at-bat, three times down to his last strike. He's hitting .398 during the streak and has more triples (5) than home runs (3). The streak is the longest in the minors since 1955, when Waco's Ramon Mejias reached 55 games. McOwen has hit safely in a ridiculous 62 of 70 games this season, and his manager says, "His consistency is amazing. And if you were to pick out a guy who has the personality to do this, it would be Jamie. He's a great teammate. He definitely didn't treat it like a no-hitter or anything."

About a week ago, McOwen got called out on a close play at first base when he tried to bunt for a hit. He thought he was safe; and as he ran out to right field after the inning, he said to the ump, "You don't want to end it, do you?"

The ump laughed, raised his palms to the sky and said, "What can I say? I had you out."

McOwen got a hit his next at-bat.

In the minor leagues, the next day's starting pitchers scout the games from the stands behind home plate. The other day, Mavs pitcher Jacob Wild, one of McOwen's good friends, sat with the Rancho Cucamonga starter, who said, "If I get him out the first at-bat, I'm just going to walk him the rest of the game." Wild convinced him that was the coward's way out, and McOwen got a hit in his third at-bat the next night.

[+] EnlargeJamie McOwen
Steve Saenz, Team PhotographerOne key to the streak: McOwen's new spread stance, suggested by Mavericks hitting coach Tommy Cruz.

Short of hitting 40 or 50 home runs, it seems a 45-game hitting streak (and counting) would be the best way for a marginal prospect to become far less marginal. Horner says he gets e-mails every morning from the Mariners' mother ship informing him of McOwen's streak.

"I know they're watching," Horner says. "I'm here, you know, and I'm still getting the e-mails telling me how he's doing."

McOwen says he's heard nothing of a pending promotion to Double-A when the streak ends. (You can't carry a streak with you to another level.)

"They have a lot of good prospects at Double-A, so I doubt it," he says. "And if it is true, I wouldn't want to know about it."

There are fundamental reasons McOwen, who hit .263 last year, is hitting .355 with a 45-game hitting streak and 53 RBIs on just five home runs. He's a line-drive hitter who uses the whole field. After striking out in his second at-bat Wednesday night -- "strikeout No. 2 on the Kelly Moore K Board" for those of you scoring at home -- he sent a soft liner to left for his second hit in the fifth. You watch him hit and realize one thing: There are a lot of empty spaces out there where a ball can land before someone catches it.

"Everyone's a prospect for me, but he's really opened some eyes," Cruz says. "They know about him now, and that makes it more special for him."

A few days before the streak started on May 10, Cruz convinced McOwen to spread his stance and eliminate his stride as a means of reducing the amount of movement in his swing. With his line of vision staying on the same plane and his hands getting through the zone quicker, McOwen started the streak the day after he started the new stance.

"He's been a different guy," Horner says. "He doesn't hit many homers, but he's country strong. I can't tell you those line drives won't be over the fence in a couple of years."

It's tougher to remain consistent with all the Class A variables -- bus rides, mediocre hotels, inconsistent pitchers, incessant in-game promotions -- but McOwen is keeping it going by refusing to pretend it isn't. People are noticing, inside the organization and out. His name is getting out there.

And he's wearing it lightly, more like wings than a weighted vest.

"Every day's a dream," he says. "Every one of us at this level wakes up every morning hoping we can start something special. I've been doing that for six weeks now. It's been great. I'm not going to lose any hair over it."

And so what if his buddies back home are losing sleep over it? Hey, we all make choices, and McOwen promises to let them sleep all winter.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com