John and Sherri Owings sat in the stands of San Francisco’s AT&T Park three weeks ago watching their middle son Chris play in the fourth game of his Major League Baseball career.
As the rookie shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks stepped to the plate in the sixth inning, his parents were hoping Chris would do something he had not done in his six previous at-bats — get a hit.
Lining a sharp single to right field off Giants right-hander Matt Cain, Chris brought John and Sherri to their feet with a true feeling of joy and parental pride for what he had accomplished in reaching the sport’s highest level.
“It was emotional. That was his goal, and that was his dream, and nothing was going to get in his way. He’s just so focused,” said Sherri, who got teary-eyed over seeing Chris in an MLB uniform for the first time. She also will never forget how Arizona second baseman Aaron Hill hugged Chris after bringing out his cap and glove when the inning ended.
Raising three baseball-playing sons in the Gilbert area over the past 18 years, they understood what the accomplishment meant to Chris. But they also have developed a much greater understanding of how life can throw curve balls off the playing fields.
In the summer of 2012, their youngest son, Connor, couldn’t shake a virus as he prepared to start his freshman year at Coastal Carolina. When he was slow to recover from continuing fatigue and dehydration, they had routine medical tests done. They were stunned when doctors told them that one of Connor’s kidneys was half the size of the other one and basically non-functioning, which meant that it was taxing his good kidney.
In the five stages of chronic kidney disease, Connor was diagnosed as being in the fourth stage, which is considered severe. While his health has stabilized under the care of a nephrologist, he was placed on the transplant list this summer.
“We could be talking six months, we could be talking years,” John said.
The family has begun to go through the process of seeing which one might be able to serve as a potential donor. Sherri is being tested first since she is the same blood type as Connor. In the meantime, he continues to do what he has done his entire life — going to school and playing baseball.
Now a sophomore second baseman for the Chanticleers, Connor manages his medical issues with proper diet, hydration and rest, and although he still deals with anemia at times, he carries a full load in the classroom and on the playing field in fall practice.
Like his parents were there for Chris in San Francisco, they were there for Connor a year ago when he was in the hospital. They would spend long stretches of time with him to help take his mind off what was happening.
“They want the best for me. They want me to be as healthy as possible,” Connor said.
He looks at Sherri’s possible sacrifice of a kidney as proof positive of that.
“I know she wants more than anything to be a match,” he said. “It means a lot to me, more than she probably knows.”
Sherri said the family has navigated life’s ups and downs thanks in part to the warm small-town embrace of Gilbert, where all three sons — Kyle, Chris and Connor — helped turn the high school program into a baseball powerhouse. Kyle, a pitcher who finished his collegiate career at the College of Charleston, and Chris, who was a supplemental first-round draft pick by Arizona in the 2009 MLB draft, led the Indians to state championships in 2006 and 2008, while Connor did the same in 2012.
“It has been a good community for our family and a good place to raise kids,” Sherri said. “I’ll see people in the store, and they’re so excited for Christopher. But in the next breath, they say they’re praying for Connor.”
LOVE OF THE GAME
John and Sherri settled in Gilbert in the mid-1990s, when John’s job as a branch manager at Best Distributing, a roofing and exterior building materials company, brought him there. A few years later, Sherri went back to work as a teacher at Batesburg-Leesville Primary School, which serves pre-kindergarten through second grade.
They introduced their sons to sports because they grew up playing them. John, who was raised in a military family, played baseball at Baptist College, while Sherri, a Pennsylvania native, played softball and volleyball at Mercyhurst College. They met through Sherri’s brother, who played college baseball with John.
As the boys got older, the backyard Wiffle ball games turned into playing in recreational leagues before their obvious ability put them on the path to playing the higher levels of travel baseball and high school baseball. People used to tell John when they saw Sherri playing catch with one of the kids that they got their ability from her.
And although the boys played some other sports along the way — Connor even played high school football to be a little different from his brothers — they always gravitated back to their first love — baseball.
The sport provided a strong connectivity among them as they planned their family vacations — which included quite a few trips to MLB parks — around the boys’ playing schedule. Kyle, 23, and Chris, 22, played on the same teams in travel and school baseball because of their age similarity. Connor, 19, would tag along in his younger days.
John and Sherri point to the dedication their sons needed to excel and the extra work they were willing to put into the game — not because they were pushed but because they enjoyed it so much. The sons credit their parents for offering the support they needed along the way, from passing along their baseball knowledge to making the financial and time commitment involved with travel teams to offering a sympathetic ear.
“I don’t think I’d be nearly where I am today or the type of person I am today without my parents,” Connor said. “They’ve always been there for me.”
They’re still there for all of their kids. All three continue to play baseball in different parts of the country, but John and Sherri try to catch every moment they can. They have traveled to college, minor league and major league games in the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama, Missouri, Indiana, Nevada, California and Washington state. They always make the Opening Days of wherever their sons are playing.
Kyle pitched for Spartanburg Methodist and College of Charleston before pitching one season in the Diamondbacks organization. This past season he pitched in the independent Frontier League and plans to do that again next year in the hope of catching on with another MLB organization.
“It’s meant a lot to have them there, especially looking up to them in the stands,” Kyle said. “Or you walk into the locker room after the game and have a text from them that says, ‘Good game.’ It’s just nice to know they’re behind everything we do no matter what it is.”
That’s what Chris found so meaningful about them watching him get his first hit in San Francisco.
“It’s kind of funny. We went to a lot of baseball games growing up as a family,” Chris said. “For them to come to a big league ballpark and watch me play, I thought that was pretty cool for me and for them.”
Gilbert High baseball coach Ashley Burnett witnessed the closeness of the family over a 10-year stretch from 2003-12, when the Owings kids rolled through his program. He called their selflessness as significant as the talent of the three players who all made it to the S.C. Select All-Star teams in their senior seasons.
“The entire family was just great for our baseball program,” Burnett said. “They did their canteen duty. When we did our fundraisers, they more than fulfilled their part. John and Sherri really were supporters of our entire program, not just their children. What they did off the field was as good as what the kids did on the field. They’re quality people, all five of them.”
REACHING THE TOP
Chris Owings’ arrival in the big leagues probably doesn’t come as a huge shock to people who follow the game closely. He started on the Gilbert varsity team as an eighth-grader and began making his mark in the travel ball ranks, first with the Carolina Lynx and then with the powerhouse Diamonds Devils program.
Kyle watched his younger brother compete with older, bigger players and more than hold his own over the years, especially during their high school days.
“We knew back then he was good,” Kyle said. “Seeing someone that young against players 17 and 18 years old, that was when you started to know that he was going to be special.”
College coaches and professional scouts quickly realized the same. The South Carolina coaches got a commitment from Chris, but as time passed, they realized that he would likely never make it to campus. John remembers a Perfect Game showcase in Florida where Chris performed so well that professional scouts and baseball agents started beating a path to his door.
“I knew then this must be real,” John said.
By the time the 2009 draft rolled around, Chris had jumped way up the boards of many teams. The Diamondbacks made him the 41st overall pick in the supplemental part of the first round. And while he thought about going to USC, where he likely would have ended up as the starting shortstop on the two national championship teams, he believed the $950,000 bonus offer and the commitment from the Diamondbacks was right for him.
“I’m still a huge Carolina fan. That’s where I wanted to go. I grew up going to football games and baseball games there,” Chris said. “But signing was a good opportunity for me, and I couldn’t turn it down. Everybody asks me all the time, ‘Do you regret it?’ I just feel like this is what I was meant to do. Everything has worked out the way it should have.”
He got on the fast track through the Arizona system, making league All-Star teams from rookie ball to Triple-A. He capped off his minor-league career this year with his best season, one that earned him a spot in the MLB Futures Game at the Mets’ Citi Field during the All-Star break. At Triple-A Reno, he batted .330 with 104 runs, 31 doubles, eight triples, 12 homers, 81 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases in 125 games, numbers that got him named the Pacific Coast League player of the year and the Diamondbacks’ minor league player of the year.
“I wouldn’t say I pictured all of this,” Chris said. “I had a good year and made the All-Star team. That was my goal. I was fortunate to get into the Futures Game. And then it kept going from there.”
Since arriving in Arizona on Sept. 3, he has shown that he should be there, although he admits it took him a little time to catch up with the speed of the game while playing in front of the biggest crowds of his life. He has primarily played shortstop with some time at second base, as the Diamondbacks try to decide where he fits into their plans next season.
In 47 at-bats through Wednesday, he’s batting .298 with four doubles and five RBIs.
Arizona manager Kirk Gibson likes what he has seen.
“He looks good He’s grown up. We’ve watched him mature. We’ve watched him come up through the organization. He’s impressed us,” Gibson told MLB.com. “The things he’s been working on, he’s implementing here. That’s what you look for. He’s got great hand-eye coordination. He’s got a little bit of sock. You can see he’s got bat speed. He runs decent. He stole a couple of bases, played solid defense — he’s done well.”
Chris hopes to make this September call-up the start of a long stay in the big leagues. He’s getting more comfortable each day.
“This is where you want to be. This is where I want to stay,” he said. “I feel like I was a little overwhelmed the first start I got. But I relaxed a little bit, just knowing it’s still a baseball game. You just take everything out of the equation and stay focused on what you’ve been doing your whole life.”
His brothers couldn’t be more excited for him. Both said watching him play in MLB games on television was a surreal experience.
“It’s been awesome to see him grow and to see the success that he’s had. He’s always had that drive,” Kyle said. “We knew that he’d get a chance, and it’s turned out to be sooner rather than later.”
Burnett calls Chris the best player — as well as the hardest-working — he has coached. He noticed something else, too.
“Chris learned to adapt and change, and his mental aspect is very strong. He pays attention and studies the game,” Burnett said. “When you get to that level, you have to do that. It can’t be all talent. There has to be a cognitive process going on.”
BOUNCING BACK STRONG
Connor Owings keeps plugging away. Ask about his fall practices, and he says they’re going well. He feels stronger this fall than he did a year ago after first being diagnosed, as he has learned to deal with effects of his kidney disease.
John and Sherri have appreciated how Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore has worked with Connor in a supportive way. Gilmore moved him to first base last season, when he started 21 games and played in 37, to alleviate some of the workout loads that go with being a middle infielder. As Connor has adjusted to his medical issues, he has gone back to second base for the upcoming season, where Gilmore expects him to contend for a starting spot.
“All you want to do is be helpful to him. He’s one of the finest kids that I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching,” Gilmore said. “His heart is so much into the baseball part, and he wants to be good so badly. He has worked so hard at it. Yet he never complains. I’ve never heard a negative word about how he has this issue and how he’s challenged by it.”
After playing this summer for Asheboro in the collegiate Coastal Plain League, Connor wants to focus on being one of the guys.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” he said. “If I stick with the plan and trust what’s going on in my life, I’ll be fine.”
His family also refuses to make a big production out of his situation, something that doesn’t surprise Burnett, who would gladly donate a kidney to Connor.
“To have something like that, especially at this age, is devastating. But in typical Owings fashion, they handle it and they move on. They don’t make a big deal about it,” Burnett said. “That’s the way Connor is approaching it, and that’s the way John and Sherri are approaching it.”
If possible, it has made the Owings even tighter.
“We’re pretty close as a family as it is, but having Connor going through this situation has been pretty crazy, especially with me being away last year,” Chris said. “But he’s a grinder and a strong kid.”
Kyle seconds that thought.
“The way he’s handled it is great for as young as he is, especially being able to still go to school and play ball. I’m proud of him,” Kyle said.
The Owings home sits on a dirt road tucked away in the western half of Lexington County. The den is filled with memorabilia from the playing careers of the three sons — from framed pictures to team jerseys to the baseball that Chris lined for his first MLB hit.
Kyle has returned home. He’s working at Shealy Electrical and helping with the Gilbert High baseball program. Chris returns this coming week after Arizona’s season ends, and he’ll continue to work out at Gilbert over the offseason while also making some speaking presentations. Connor will return home when Coastal Carolina breaks for the semester.
John and Sherri will get a break from staying up to watch late games on the West Coast. All of them will appreciate the normalcy that comes with being in one place together again, as the hectic days of the past year slow down for a short period.
“We have a strong faith base,” Sherri said. “We have great kids, and we’ve weathered through everything.”