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.