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Faith and family come first for Reds' Owings
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
By Joshua Cooley

CINCINNATI (BP)--Here are a few fun facts about Micah Owings:

He spent his first 15 years in a small log cabin on a mountain in north Georgia. He was homeschooled for five years and raised cows, horses and pigs. He calls “The Chicken Capital of the World” home. He is also a starting pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.

No … seriously.

As major leaguers’ unique backgrounds go, Owings’ is certainly high on the list. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander is just as familiar with the fetid stench of trailing a chicken truck as he is the first-pitch hitting tendencies of Lance Berkman. Of course, the former comes with the territory when you grow up in Gainesville, Ga., which boasts a massive poultry-processing industry.

“Some places you go, it absolutely stinks,” Owings said. “But the good thing is you know you’re getting fresh chicken.”

True enough.

Yet in the midst of Owings’ atypical childhood, there was rarely a doubt that he would one day crack a big league roster. It was really just a question of whether he’d make it as a pitcher or hitter.

As it turns out, he’s done both.

After two mediocre years with the Arizona Diamondbacks (14-17 record, 4.97 ERA combined), Owings, 26, won the Reds’ No. 5 starting spot in spring training. And while most National League teams hope their pitchers can simply advance a runner at the plate, Owings provides an impressive amount of pop. As one of the game’s best-hitting pitchers, he sports a .315 career batting average in 130 at-bats.

“I take pride in both,” he said. “I’ve never been able to pick one over the other.”

Owings grew up in a strong Christian family in Cumming, Ga. (pop. 4,220), less than an hour north of Atlanta in proximity, but worlds away in virtually every other category. His father, Jim, built the small log cabin in the mid-1970s next to his in-laws’ home on a mountainous plot of land three miles off the nearest highway. There, Micah – the fourth of five children – and his close-knit siblings enjoyed a youthful, bucolic utopia. Tire swings, a horse arena, a pool, basketball and volleyball courts – you name it, the Owings kids had them all at one point or another on the 25-acre slice of heaven they shared with their grandparents.

The Owings family certainly wasn’t rich. But the kids didn’t know the difference, thanks to their parents’ efforts. One year, Jim sold a keepsake ring so his children wouldn’t go without gifts on Christmas. He and his wife, Danise, turned the log cabin’s cramped quarters into a blessing, like when all the kids would excitedly pile on their bed to hear Bible stories. The family eventually moved to more-suburban Gainesville, but the log-cabin memories run deep.

“We grew up together as a family,” said Micah, who became a Christian around age 10 after hearing former major leaguer Brett Butler speak at Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga. “My parents were the best I can imagine. They taught the family values – how to be a person of character.”

From early on, Micah was also a person of remarkable baseball skills. He arrived at Georgia Tech in 2002 after a wildly successful career at Gainesville High School, where he fell one career home run short (69) of tying current Detroit Lions quarterback Drew Henson’s national prep record. In two seasons at Georgia Tech and one at Tulane, he earned a bevy of national awards, including two second-team All-Americas, and led Tulane to the 2005 College World Series. He also helped Team USA win a silver medal at the 2003 Pan American Games.

In July 2005, after spurning two previous teams who had drafted him (Rockies, 2002; Cubs, 2004), Owings signed with the Diamondbacks, who selected him in the third round. He was in the majors by April 2007 and finished his rookie year 8-8 with a 4.30 ERA in 27 starts.

“Arizona picked me and gave me an opportunity for three years,” he said. “They told me they’d move me fast [through their farm system], and they did that.”

Expectations were high for 2008, especially when Owings started 4-0 with a 2.42 ERA, but he was derailed by a slight tear in his right shoulder muscle, which wasn’t diagnosed until August. On July 29, after he went 2-9 in his next 18 appearances, Arizona optioned him to Tucson and eventually traded him on Sept. 12 to Cincinnati, where he didn’t toe the rubber again before the season ended.

Still, Owings’ trials are miniscule compared to those of some of his siblings. Abi, 28, was a victim of attempted rape in 2003, and Jon Mark, 24, has suffered two major injuries – a life-threatening ruptured spleen in 2004 and a broken jaw in 2006 – while playing in the Atlanta Braves’ farm system. Kind of puts things in perspective.

“Everything has happened for a reason,” Micah said. “I’m grateful to Arizona for everything they did. I could get traded again tomorrow. I’m just grateful. I’m going to help Cincinnati do the best we can this year.”

Whether that is primarily with his arm or bat is the million-dollar question. Owings (1-3) lost his first two starts this season, but on April 26 he earned his first win since May 25, 2008, by holding Atlanta to one run in seven innings. True to form, he collected two hits in the game.

In 2007, he won the National League Silver Slugger Award after hitting .333 with a .683 slugging percentage, four home runs and 15 RBI in 60 at-bats. And last season, he batted .304 with two game-winning hits, including a 10th-inning double against the Diamondbacks a day after they traded him.

“I want to endure and be a 200-inning guy,” Owings said. “And from the plate, I want to continue to work and get better. It’ll take care of itself. Shoot, I’ve got to catch [2008 Silver Slugger winner Carlos] Zambrano and get that award.”

Owings’ talents are no less impressive off the field. While with Arizona, he visited sick children in the hospital and shared his testimony during the Diamondbacks’ “Faith Days.” In the offseason, he helps out with his sisters’ counseling organizations and hosts an outreach breakfast through his family-owned Ozone Sports Academy.

“He is one of the most incredible men I’ve ever met in my life,” his sister, Abi, said. “I’m so blessed to have such a wise younger brother, and I think of him as older because he’s so wise and protective. I don’t know anyone else like him.”

In January 2007, Owings took a short missions trip to Aguascalientes, Mexico, with Diamondbacks chaplain Brian Hommel and current Orioles catcher Chad Moeller. For four days, they performed baseball clinics for 75 to 100 kids a day and spread the gospel in dirt-poor villages.

“It opened him up a bit to see what it means to be a follower of Christ and how he can use his gifts to connect people to Jesus,” Hommel said. “He saw the responsibility that comes with that.”

Owings has come a long way from the log-cabin days. But then again, not really. His faith and his family – the things he learned to treasure most on that Georgia mountainside – still come first in his life. He is building a home near Gainesville, a short drive from where his parents and siblings live, and joins them at Browns Bridge Community Church in Cumming during the offseason.

Owings knows that too whom much is given, much is required.

“God has always placed it on my heart to reach out to the needy, to orphans and widows,” he said. “I’m trying to work with a couple charities and foundations in the area and see where I can help.”

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