Down East's Spike Owen, on all things baseball

Spike Owen

Down East manager Spike Owen spent 13 years in the major leagues before his career as a skipper.


Sports Writer

Thursday, June 7, 2018

ZEBULON — There was once a time, in 1986, when a starting shortstop arose from the doldrums of a prolonged rebuild in Seattle to join one of the most notable teams in MLB history, in some ways for good reason, in one way for not.

These days, Spike Owen is the easygoing manager of the High-A Down East Wood Ducks, who were in Zebulon on Thursday for the last game of a three-game series with the Carolina Mudcats.

He’s coached in the minors since 2002, where the wins and losses matter a lot less than the increased zip on a prospect’s curveball or the fielding range of the affiliate’s future starting shortstop.

But life was much faster for him during that summer and fall 32 years ago, after an August 19 trade that sent him and Dave Henderson from the Mariners to the soon-to-be pennant-winning Boston Red Sox.

“First thing is, I was going overnight from last place to first place,” said Owen, talking before Thursday’s game at Five County Stadium — which, ironically, he would later be thrown out of for a reversed home run call — on a shaded bench near the visitor’s clubhouse.

Owen had been called up by the Mariners in the summer of 1983. They lost 102 games that year, and 88 over the next two years. When he got traded in ‘86, Seattle was 53-67; Boston was 71-48.

“Going into that atmosphere was eye-opening, I guess. Playing at Fenway and traveling to Fenway was something, but that being my own ballpark was pretty cool,” he said.

Of course, that season lives in infamy because of Bill Buckner’s grounder-between-the-legs hiccup in the ninth inning of a tied Game 6 that knotted the World Series against the Mets at 3-3. Owen was playing shortstop that night at Shea Stadium. He watched Ray Knight sucrry around the bases and score the game-winning run.

But oft ignored in that run for the Red Sox was the seven-game ALCS against the California Angels. Boston was down, 3-1, in the series and a pitch away from ending its season, when Henderson, the fellow former Mariner, hit a two-run home run to make the lead 6-5. The Angels would tie it in the ninth, but Boston won in extras, 7-6, and then boarded a plane home to Boston for games six and seven.

“I remember the clubhouse after that game — we had to fly back to Boston and still win two more ball games — the confidence in that locker room was something. It was confident anyway, but to win and get out of there the way we did, we had a pretty good feeling that we weren’t losing again. It came to be, but what a win to get us back to Boston and get us a shot,” he said.

“It’s kind of ironic that the same thing happened to us in the World Series. We’re one pitch away and in Game 6. Just didn’t happen.”

So, that ball that ping-ponged through Buckner’s legs, and the winnable Game 7 where the Sox were at one point ahead 3-0, were those part of the curse?

“No, there wasn’t anybody that was in on that,” Owen said. “That was so long ago. It was brought up a lot, trust me, but we didn’t ever buy into that.”

Owen was one of the bright spots in that series for the Sox, hitting .300 in 20 at-bats, including three base-knocks in that fatal sixth game.

“I was able to get some hits,” he said, “but I’d give all that back for the world championship.

I just remember after the game it was quiet. It was a really quiet locker room, which didn’t happen very often.”

Owen stuck with Boston for a 78-84 record in 1987 and an 89-73 1988 season where the Sox fired manager John McNamara, hired Joe Morgan, and won 19 of 20 after the All-Star break.

From there, he spent four years with the defunct Montreal Expos, another with the Yankees, and two more with the Angels to end his career after 13 seasons.

His favorite?

“I would have to say, it would probably shock you, but my four years in Montreal were some of the funnest times I had playing. Not a lot of people knew about us being in Montreal. We didn’t have the TV coverage we have now,” he said of the Expos, who played in the cavernous and outdated Olympic Stadium. “We never won the division but we had some really good teams. Probably the closest team as a whole that I’ve played on as far as the friendships. Why that is, I’m not sure, but I had a lot of fun.”

Owen went back to University of Texas after he retired to finish his degree, spent a few years out of the game, and started his minor league career managing in the Houston Astros’ system in 2002. For a year in 2016, he served as third base coach for the Rangers, the ball club he grew up 45 minutes from, and has been in Kinston for the last two seasons.

“It’s just about being around the game. I love the game. I got out for quite a while after I had retired professionally,” Owen said. “It didn’t take too long to decide I was ready to get back into pro ball.”