The car rides from game to game were practically courses in culture for Henry Owens.
His father, Mike, would pile him and his friends in and drive them up and down the West Coast.
“When you’re driving your kid across the state to baseball tournaments all points north and south, you spend a lot of time in the car,” Mike said.
For all the miles they logged, they had to listen to something. Mike tried to bring his son up on the music he grew up listening to — the Smiths, R.E.M., some early U2. He was into early rap like N.W.A., Run DMC, and Public Enemy, so he tried to open Henry’s ear to Chuck D.
“I used to play that for him all the time,” Mike said.
He tested the waters with some Bob Dylan. He’d meet Henry halfway with Kings of Leon or Death Cab for Cutie. He pushed his limits with some classical.
“That failed miserably,” Mike said. “A little Beethoven. I would play that in the car and the kids would only let me have it for so much.”
Pitching was always the destination, and Mike saw all the signs in his son early.
“As a young boy, I knew he had something,” Mike said. “He’s tall, he’s lefthanded, and he just threw so hard as a youngster.”
But on the way there, Mike never let Henry stop being a person.
Henry was around 11 when he first seriously picked up a baseball. He was 14 when his father put a guitar in his hands, and he took to both naturally.
Mike knew the promise his son had as a baseball player, but he wanted his son to soak up all corners of culture, too.
To this day — even as he’s shot to the top of the list of Red Sox pitching prospects, effortlessly weaving together mind-boggling dominant performances at Double A Portland and creating stratospheric amounts of hype and expectations for himself — Owens still plays the guitar.
It’s a small way of making sure there’s always a clear line between Henry Owens the pitcher and Henry Owens the person.
“Ever since I’ve been drafted and even having success in the young career that I’ve had so far, my parents have both made sure that I know that I’m a human being before I’m a baseball player and I kind of live by that rule,” Owens said. “I abide by it. So I’m kind of just sticking with that right now and see where it takes me.”
When Owens, 21, opened the season with a six-inning no-hitter against Reading, then followed it up with 6⅔ scoreless innings against Trenton, piling up 18 strikeouts over the two starts, he saw the outsized expectations and the brightened spotlight coming.
But he refused to let it overwhelm him.
“I try my hardest to stay humble,” Owens said. “Sometimes it’s tough with guys coming to interview me and telling you how you’re doing compared to last year and what people expect you to do this year and how you’re exceeding expectations, but I think the main focus in my head is there’s still development here in the minor leagues.
“I’m not in The Show yet and the end goal is to help however I can to win games for Boston and eventually win the World Series.
“So I just know that every day I come in the ballpark there’s still something I can do to get better.”
The streaks, the ERA, the strikeouts, the prospect rankings, the hype — they’re all distractions, Sea Dogs pitching coach Bob Kipper said.
“Distractions are always going to be there, it’s how you manage the distractions,” Kipper said. “Do you allow the distractions to come in and consume you, to affect the way you work or the way you perform? Or do you have a way of being able to keep the distractions out there so you can focus on doing your work and doing it right and doing it well?”
For all the numbers he’s piled up, he doesn’t let himself get tangled up in them.
“The trap in baseball is to pay attention to numbers and then to define or attach your identity to those numbers,” Kipper said. “That’s not who you are.”
Of all the starts Owens has made this season, the one that left him feeling the most fulfilled was in early June against Erie.
It wasn’t that he held the Seawolves scoreless and racked up six strikeouts. It was that he pitched a career-high eight innings.
“I’ve just been really focused on trying to go deeper into ballgames,” Owens said. “I think my first two years, I only went six or seven a handful of times, if that. Now this year, I’m able to kind of hear the seventh-inning stretch when I’m out on the mound. So hopefully I’ll start hearing ‘Sweet Caroline’ a little more.”
His goals aren’t tied to statistics.
“He’s very grounded,” said Portland manager Billy McMillon. “He understands it. I think that being a focus for him — eight innings — I think he’s thinking, ‘When I get to the big leagues, I want to go deep into ballgames.’ And if he can do that here, he’s at least positioned himself that if he’s efficient on any given night, then he can go eight, nine innings. So I think that’s where that focus is.”
Fastballs and goofballs
The Snapchat screen name scribbled on the whiteboard in the Sea Dogs clubhouse belongs to McMillon.
The app is generally targeted at teenage girls and college kids, not necessarily 42-year-old managers, but his players put him up to it.
“I’m not really familiar with it,” McMillon confessed. “But they keep sending me stuff, and I look at it on my phone and go, ‘Oh.’ ”
The person who typically floods McMillon’s phone is Owens.
“He’s the one that sends me the Snapchats,” McMillon said.
He’s also the one throwing the Frisbee around in the outfield or playing catch with McMillon’s son.
“I was joking with my son, ‘Man, you’re playing Frisbee with Henry Owens,’ ” McMillon said. “He doesn’t know it, but I know it’s kind of a big deal.”
He’s also the one plopping down with a plate of food in the middle of a table full of teammates and trading jokes.
“He’s a goofball, let me tell you,” Portland catcher Blake Swihart said. “If this was a classroom, he’d be the class clown. That’s for sure. He just brings life to the team with just his goofiness.”
From the time they got their driver’s licenses, Owens has been throwing to Swihart.
They met in 2010 when they played for USA Baseball’s Under-18 national team, and they’ve been simpatico ever since.
“They have a tremendous amount of respect and trust for each other,” McMillon said. “I don’t think I can remember a time when Henry’s shaken off Blake.”
It happens. But it’s not because they aren’t on the same frequency. It’s because they’re playing their own little head game with the batter.
“It’s literally gotten to a point where when he’s calling a game, if I’m shaking off, it’s to literally try and deceive the hitter,” Owens said.
Earlier this season, Owens had a no-hitter going against New Hampshire. The first three times through the lineup, he didn’t bother going to his curveball.
In the sixth inning, he had a batter in a hole with two strikes.
“I had the curveball grip in my hand,” Owens said. “And I was like, ‘All right, now’s the time to throw it.’ ”
Swihart hadn’t given Owens the two-finger sign for the curveball all night.
Owens looked up for the sign.
“He just goes, ‘Boom, two,’ ” Owens remembered.
They aren’t just on the same page, they’re on the same word in the same sentence.
“I just pretty much know what he wants when he wants it,” Swihart said. “It’s just the chemistry we have together. It’s been great just coming up together. I want him to succeed as much as he probably wants me to succeed. We want to be playing together one day in the big leagues. That’s the ultimate goal.’’
The thought’s crossed McMillon’s mind.
“It’s going to be neat because I can see that battery in Boston,” McMillon said. “I can see Henry pitching and Blake up there. And this is just my opinion, it could be sooner than anyone thinks.”
As much as he was struck by Owens’s natural ability, his physical gifts and his command on the mound, when Red Sox area scout Tom Battista saw Owens, what he noticed was his personality.
An associate scout put Owens on his radar when Owens was a freshman at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Calif.
He told Battista, “We really had to get this guy on our scout team. He’s really advanced and he’s really interesting.”
When Owens played, Battista paid attention not only to the way he pitched but to the way he carried himself.
“I was drawn to him right away,” he said. “Then I learned the important stuff, the character, and the makeup, the mental side, the ability to deal with failure. He had all of it.”
He had the ability to be relaxed but still fiercely competitive.
“He would go in the dugout and his hat would be turned around backward and he’d be clapping and putting his arms around his buddies in the dugout,” Battista said. “Then it’d be time to get on the mound and he’d just flip his hat forward and buckle down and he had concentration and he had focus and he has aptitude. He had another level.
“It’s like he knew he was going to do this for a living and he knew he had a job to do and he cared about it enough where he could change his mind-set. Then he would take care of business.”
Still in tune
Owens still riffs with his father but, “He’s way better than me as a guitar player, I can tell you that,” Mike said. “He’s darn good, man.’’
Every so often, Mike will send a song Henry’s way. Lately, he’s been pushing the Alabama Shakes. Every now and then, he’ll bug Henry and say, “Hey, give me a new band. Give me something to listen to.”
Last summer, when Henry was called up to Portland from Single A Salem, Mike made the trip to visit. Seeing Owens get one step closer to his goal was special.
They were years removed from the car rides up and down the West Coast, but somehow it was still the same. They walked around the city, checked out the small spots where live music seeped through the doors and into the streets.
There were nights when they found a spot and soaked up the sounds. Suddenly they were back in the car, enjoying the ride to their destination.
“It was kind of cool sitting with my son watching a live band in a little nightclub,” Mike said. “That was a thrill for me watching him bob his head to the music.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.