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FAN OF THE HOUSE / CHRIS ERSKINE

Roger Owens has pitched perfectly for Dodgers for 51 years

The vendor dispenses peanuts with a deadly accurate throwing arm, and wisecracks with a deadly accurate wit. His back story is worth knowing too.

September 03, 2009|CHRIS ERSKINE

Don't read this if you have one of those big, bleeding hearts. Don't read this if you're a sucker for an up-by-the-bootstraps story of guys who never give up, even if they have reason to. Roger Owens doesn't want your sympathy or your tears. Owens merely wants your money and your laughter.

And don't read this if you're one of those poisonous sorts who scoffs at inspirational Horatio Alger stuff. Owens doesn't need your cynicism. Owens wants your $5.50 and maybe a smile. The $5.50 pays his bills. The smile soothes his Vaudevillian soul.

For more than 50 years, Owens has been flinging peanuts to Dodgers fans, more than 4,000 games by his own estimate, firing wisecracks at wiseguys and making their girlfriends laugh. His kingdom, his stage, is the loge level between home and left field. Along with other baseball treasures -- Bill Veeck, Bob Uecker, Vin Scully -- he takes the game to a higher level: He makes happy people happier.

"I'm the only pitcher in the majors making less than $1 million a year," he jokes. "I work for peanuts."

He's certainly no secret, this master salesman. A ballpark requires a lot of folks to work the levers -- electricians, chefs, horticulturists. Vendors are probably the most public faces among these support troops, and Owens is their Koufax, their alpha hot dog.

He has peddled his wares and his corny jokes to Dodgers fans for 51 years, first in the Coliseum, then at Dodger Stadium. His trademark: a behind-the-back pitch he almost always throws for a strike. "I throw a fast nut, a curve nut and knuckle bag," he brags. Monday night, near as I could tell, the guy threw a perfect game.

"Last year I only missed two throws," he says. "Probably cost me the Cy Young."

Over the years, his skills and chutzpah have attracted outside work. The Bellagio flies him in for sports-themed Vegas events. He's visited Tokyo to pitch peanuts, and has appeared on TV and in movies. In 1977, Owens shelled a presidential inauguration (Jimmy Carter, of course).

"Where I get my power is in my wrist," he says, explaining the secret behind his snap throws. "For a senior citizen, I'll put a little arch on it. I even allow for wind conditions."

At 66, he seems a storybook character, all mirth, hijinks and hyperbole, the kind of creature ballparks attract like mice. About once every 10 years, he says, he snags a foul ball. "About 15 years ago, one landed in my peanut basket," he says.

It's not till you look at the back story, that you really appreciate the improbable tale of Roger Owens and his 4,000-plus games. The oldest of nine kids, he had the hardest of childhoods. Dad was a Baptist minister from Tulsa. Without a full-time congregation in L.A., Ross Owens worked any job he could. There was never enough food. Mom watered the milk, thinned the soup. Still, kids went to bed hungry.

Then things got worse.

When Roger was 10, his mother, Mary, suffered a mental breakdown. During her five years in an institution, the kids were sent to foster homes across Southern California, and never all together. Roger and a brother bounced between three homes, one almost a labor camp.

When his mother recovered and the kids reunited, Roger began selling soda at the Coliseum to make ends meet. The year: 1958, the Dodgers' first season here. Owens remembers Frank Sinatra and cronies asking the vendors to bring them cups of ice. The fluids they'd brought themselves.

Owens worked hard, moved to Dodger Stadium with the Dodgers and began to make a life for himself with a day sales job with a trucking line. But the bad breaks weren't over. In 1969, during National Guard training at Ft. Irwin, the driver of his vehicle fell asleep.

"I was flipped out of the Jeep like a slingshot," Owens recalls. "They couldn't get me out of the coma."

The military rushed him to San Diego, where a neurosurgeon saved his life with three major operations.

So that's the movie moment, the pivot point. This guy, born on Valentine's Day 1943, could've lost heart. He could've awakened from that coma and decided to live each day as if it were his last.

And that is exactly what Roger Daniel Owens has done.

His amazing story is chronicled in detail in "The Perfect Pitch," by Daniel S. Green, available at stadium souvenir stands and on the Web.

But the story isn't over, not even close. Tonight, for example, you'll see Owens back on the mound, the man with the golden arm working the loge, aisles 101 to 167.

The boy who grew up hungry in Eagle Rock and Compton now spends his evenings feeding the world.

"I have never seen him miss," says George Green, a season-ticket holder for three decades.

Why would he? He's the toughest Dodger of all.

--

chris.erskine@latimes.com

Erskine also writes the "Man of the House" column in Saturday's Home section.

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