How on earth did a Blue Jay coach end up as my neighbour in Durham?
OWENS: If you had asked me three years ago if I could see myself living east of Toronto or even Ontario, or so much as Canada I would have thought it was crazy and never considered it an option. I’ve lived in Arizona for over 15 years and have gotten used to the hot summers and back drop of red rocks and cacti. I travelled much over the past 25 years and always considered Arizona “home” as much as it could be given my busy schedule.
In 2014, I was a rover with the Dodgers and I got a phone call from a guy named Alex Anthropolis. He had been tipped by Brook Jacoby with the Blue Jays that I had recently played a lead role in developing some all-star players such as Mike Trout, Corey Seager, Mark Trumbo, Dee Gordon, to name a few. They were looking for special pedigree with vast experience to become the first ever assistant hitting coach with the Blue Jays. I was excited with the possibility to be the first in this role and to represent the only MLB team for all of Canada. It was a no brainer.
"I had to find a short-term rental near the Roger’s Centre. Someone gave me the name of a local realtor to help me find a suitable place. That’s when I met Christine Denty (now Christine Owens). We arranged an appointment to look at a suitable place. That evening it was raining literally sideways and we had to sit tight at a local watering hole until it let up.
Christine was worried about her hair and driving home wet and gross (lady problems), so we patiently waited for the rain to subside, all the while getting to know each other a little better. When the season finally started we had kept in touch and found ourselves communicating more and more.
She was the only person I got a chance to know well here in Canada. I started inviting her to games (she had hated baseball) and she reluctantly went, so she could spend time with me after the game. As time went on we became an “official” couple (according to the Jays) and Christine was now travelling with myself and the Jays during the 2015 playoffs, and now loving baseball. The organization of players, sports anchors, behind the scenes staff, (which we called the “Jays family”) knew there was something special going on and that this Canadian girl wasn’t a fly by night relationship. To that I certainly agreed and proposed to my Canadian girl on December 3rd, 2015 after the season ended. With that came the realization that I was not returning to Arizona any time soon. This is a sacrifice that I am reminded of each cold winter… but I do love it here, the people, the lush forests, and my new extended family and friends.
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Why did you decide not to work for another MLB team after the 2016 season?
OWENS: There are a few reasons. This is not to say that this possibility is not a real consideration. I loved my time coaching the big leagues and I don’t see myself completely retiring the thought. I still get lots of calls and converse with MLB coaches and players about talent and games often. Right now, I get to wake up in my own bed, day after day. It doesn’t sound like much to the average person. But for me I never had this luxury. It as always hotels, short term rentals, eating dinners out, up and go again and again. I am not living out of a suitcase anymore. I can set goals personally, and professionally (and achieve them) which before felt next to impossible.
So, to that I say, unless something is BIG enough to pull me away from what I am now enjoying, I am staying here in Durham Region.
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Who was the most interesting Jays player to work with?
OWENS: Edwin Encarnacion. He was the quiet assassin, the leader of the clubhouse. Players respected Edwin, and such was a man of few words. He was able to predict what the pitcher was going to throw and execute his swing within milliseconds to hit the ball with force and accuracy. Something you can’t teach in a day or week or year. People would ask how he did it and the answer could only come from him. Even though he had such an intimidating demeanor, he managed to be the jokester in the lockerroom, playing pranks on teammates constantly. No one ever got one up on Edwin. He was the alpha.
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As an MLB coach, what trait did rookies portray that was a sign they were destined for the big leagues?
OWENS: To answer this, I need to highlight the guys that have already succeeded in the big leagues: Kevin Pillar, Ryan Goins, Devin Travis … They all had something I label as “positive mental attitude”. Proven mental toughness, the ability to adjust in their swings and plays, and playing for the team not for themselves. When one plays in a sport where failure is a common outcome it is hard to pick yourself up repeatedly. The inner voice inside sends negative messages which impacts the ability to constantly improve. If an individual can overcome this baseball habit of becoming frustrated and throwing in the” mental towel”, they can get better, even good enough for the big leagues. Pillar, Goins, and Travis have become expert at tuning out the negativity and reverting to the positive messages that got them to be better and stronger.
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Is there baseball talent here in Durham?
OWENS: I am surprised at how much talent I come across through my EO’s Elite Mentorship program. This program was born last year, and hand picks talent seen on the fields and local community.
I limit my program to 20 kids at a time in the calendar year. I nickname my kids “mentors” so that they can own their potential and feel like the superstars that they are. These kids range from ages 10-17. These youth show promise, to why I have selected them to be in my program. It all starts and ends with the swing. If they latch on to my no-nonsense coaching and become consistent hitters, they can make it in baseball.
Unless a kid decides to be a pitcher, the most important skill is to be able to hit a 90 MPH fastball, in the right direction. Without that skill the likelihood to make the big leagues is bleak. The other skills are taught but focus is obviously on what scouts look for which is hitting.
These kids here in Durham are strong, versatile and big! I have 15-year old’s looking me eye to eye. A hockey physique has come into play a few times as strength comes from their legs, which is the primary area of the body power comes from to hit a ball high and far.
Hockey is not a necessary skill to be a good ball player but seems to give a built-in advantage that others need to attain on their own. You won’t find this is the States as much as you do here.
Canada has a unique sports culture and as I tap more and more into the potential of baseball talent, I feel there are hidden athletes looking to be coached and propelled into the big leagues.
One of my prodigies that I coach at Everest Academy in Vaughan, Ajax’s own Denzel Clarke, had just been scouted for the Canadian Olympic baseball team.
This tells me I’m doing something right with the talent here in Durham … hence in 2017 launching my annual EO’s Summer Baseball Camp at Iroquois parks.
This camp allows me to connect with players of all skill ranges. I hope to inspire youth to gain authentic MLB taught skills just like they do in the big leagues, but at varying levels for age and skill.
This camp is my baby and so long as I can fill this camp every year, I can have the Durham Region as my hub to serve as a Canadian resource for baseball talent for many years to come.