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By Lindsay Lennon

For David Owens ’90, one of his earliest memories is watching a 1973 World Series game between the New York Mets and Oakland A’s on TV—and playing wiffleball afterward.

“It was always baseball, baseball, baseball,” recalls Owens, a native of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “Growing up in New York City, we played wherever we could—between cars, in the schoolyards, in Central Park.”

Now, as the founder and director of operations for the New York Grays youth baseball organization in the Bronx, Owens is shepherding some of the city’s most promising players down the same roads he traveled as a scholar-athlete.

The New York Grays boys baseball team pose for a group shot in blue uniforms
Owens (far left) with the team at a 2017 tournament.

His winning approach: education is the destination, and baseball is the path.

Over the past 17 years, Owens says, every youth who has gone through the entire Grays program (beginning at age 13 and staying through high school) has matriculated to college, including several at Ivy League universities. More than a dozen Grays have been selected in the Major League drafts—including current New York Yankees centerfielder Harrison Bader and Kansas City Royals pitcher Jose Cuas.

Owens routinely takes Grays players on academic recruiting visits across the country, including frequent trips to the Hill. (Big Red outfielder Elijah Diaz ’23 is a former Gray from the Bronx.) At tournaments, he comes prepared with not just his players’ stats, but also their GPAs and SAT scores.

David Owens performing standup comic on a stage with a spotlight on him
Owens’s varied career path includes a foray into standup comedy in NYC and Las Vegas.

“You can be great on the field, but the coach is going to ask me about your grades,” says Owens. “So I tell my boys, ‘academics first,’ and I let them appreciate the synergy between athletics and academics.”

Kevin Martir was a teenager when he met Owens, after Martir’s travel league merged with the Grays.

He attended the University of Maryland and played for teams within the Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers organizations, and he’s now a minor league hitting coach for the Yankees.

“To this day, I still call him any time I need any kind of guidance,” says Martir, who notes that Owens even helped him open his first bank account. “He was a part of the community that helped shape the man I am today.”

Off the field, Owens stresses collegiality; he has a strict “no bashing” rule, and at tournaments he encourages players to socialize with their opponents during meals. He reminds them to respect quiet hours when staying in hotels, often a first-time experience for them.

A family visiting Cornell University
Owens (center) on the Hill with former Grays player Elijah Diaz ’23 (in red) and members of Diaz’s family.

Many Grays players—the majority of whom are of Dominican or other Hispanic heritage—hail from New York’s most underserved neighborhoods, like Martir and Cuas of East New York.

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Others, like Bader—who grew up in Bronxville in Westchester County, and was coached by Owens at Horace Mann prep school before joining the Grays—come from far more privileged communities.

I let them appreciate the synergy between athletics and academics.

“A lot of Dominican kids do not hang out with prep school kids from the Upper East Side, but in my program, they do,” says Owens. “It’s amazing how the common denominator is baseball.”

Bader says his time with the Grays helped expand his worldview beyond his affluent, predominantly white neighborhood.

The camaraderie he formed with teammates from around the city gave him a sense of common ground when he went on to play for other ball clubs—and, now, for the legendary Bronx Bombers.

“At its base, it’s about finding the best baseball players who can use the game to better their lives however they see fit,” Bader says of the Grays, which he also lauded when the New York Times profiled him in 2022.

“It’s a decision, every day, to help kids grow up and become something; there are a lot of pieces to that, but it wouldn’t be possible without David as the glue. He has cultivated a real community.”

A baseball coach with his back to the camera speaks to his team of boys
Coaching a practice in the Bronx.

Before matriculating at Cornell, Owens graduated from the McBurney School in Manhattan, an all-boys academy whose famous alumni include Ted Koppel and Henry Winkler. His parents—his mom was a teacher; his dad played pro basketball for the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards)—placed a high premium on education.

A pitcher and outfielder for Big Red from 1986–88, Owens went on to four years in the pros—playing for independent teams across the U.S. and spending two winters with a league in the Dominican Republic—before returning to NYC to work as a member of the American Stock Exchange.

He has cultivated a real community.

New York Yankee Harrison Bader

Owens admits he had no master plan when he founded the Grays organization in 2006. In fact, he hadn’t been involved in baseball in over a decade; he was working in real estate, had taken musical performance courses at Julliard, and briefly enjoyed a side gig as a standup comic.

But when a high school buddy needed a coach for his son’s team, Owens headed to the Bronx and “put them through the wringer, training them like little professionals.”

The Big Red baseball team at Cornell University in 1986.
Owens (front and center, wearing sunglasses) with the Big Red baseball team.

Nearly two decades later, he still relishes the regular updates he gets from Grays alumni: marriages, master’s degrees, newborns, new jobs, and—for a select few—playing professional baseball.

“Most of the stuff we teach them has nothing to do with baseball, and that’s why we turn out such outstanding, successful young men,” Owens observes. “I tell them, don’t worry about whether you get drafted. Worry about when you’re 65 or 70, and you ask yourself: did you have a good life?”

All photos provided.

Published April 28, 2023


  1. Eliot Schuman, Class of 1975

    I am the head coach of the Cornell Mock Trial Team and serve on a volunteer basis. My model is the same as yours: the skills I teach are those that can be used as life lessons: respect your adversary, learn and get to know your opponents, prepare for trial and when you think you have finished preparing, prepare again. And rely on your teammates. As in life, you can’t do it all on your own.
    I get the same emails from my kids about the degrees they get and the jobs they have obtained. We are an extraordinary diverse group, some from underserved communities. And they know how to be the face of Cornell when we travel and stay at hotels.
    Of course they uplift me as much or more than I uplift them. I just turned 70 and plan to keep coaching.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Michelle, Class of 1994

    lovely article, thank you

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