Here's what ahitter is up against. Not so much a 97-mph fastball, or even a confoundingcurve, the one that limps over the plate about an All-Star break after he'salready slapped at it. He's trying to outlast the sort of guy who will spend 40days--the better part of an entire off-season--in pursuit of a single deer,Moby Dick--style, never backing down, never suffering a single self-doubt, juststaring holes into the batter, rearing back and firing. ¬∂ Roy Oswalt won theBig Buck contest in Weir, Miss., so many years in a row, they just stoppedhaving it. It wasn't fair. Most of all, he had the advantage of time. He'd comehome from his summer job, starting pitcher for the Houston Astros, and spendweeks scouting the 1,000-acre hunting property he owns with his brother, Brian,in Kosciusko, 20 miles southwest of Weir. He'd identify deer paths, set upmotion-sensor cameras, study the photos, settle on likely targets. The guyshe'd hunt with, loggers like his dad, Billy Joe, could hardly invest so muchprep time. Anyway, who is so weirdly disciplined that he can stand in a blindand watch one trophy after another pass by, waiting for that one buck that willshame all others? ¬∂ This past hunting season, though, was a test even forOswalt, who'd just turned 28 and was settling into major league stardom. He'dwon 20 games for the second straight year, even pitched the wild-card Astrosinto the World Series. Making good on a promise, the team's owner, DraytonMcLane, had delivered to him a Caterpillar D6N XL bulldozer, a mass ofhydraulics normally associated with the construction of interstate highways.Oswalt, infatuated with heavy equipment after having worked many summers forhis dad's logging outfit (operating knuckle booms and whatnot), wasunderstandably taken with the 35,000 pounds of yellow iron on his property."Most people have the D5s," he says, patting the treads on hishouse-sized, $200,000 machine. This kind of generalization might actually applyin central Mississippi, believe it or not. In any case, Oswalt has the morepowerful model. So he drained his eight-acre lake (outworking a beaver who keptpacking mud into the drain), restored parts of it with his bulldozer beforerefilling and restocking it, and carved an intricate network of roads throughhis piney plot.
Still, he did notneglect the hunt. Anyone who knows Oswalt, whether in his Fried Green Tomatoestown of Weir (pop. 555) or at his workplace in the National League, is aware ofhis frightful resolve. Teammate Craig Biggio remembers Oswalt"scuffling" in 2002, his second year with the Astros. (Though Oswaltwon 19 games, they didn't seem to come as effortlessly as in his 14-3 rookieseason.) "Then he started doing his homework, studying reports andtendencies. Since then, he's been filthy."
For that matter,how did Oswalt, who last week reported to spring training with other Houstonpitchers and catchers, get to the major leagues, if not through outlandishpersistence? The 6-foot, 185-pound righthander is not given to introspectionand, in his country-boy way, denies all ambition. But a visit to the boys-onlyrumpus room above his substantial garage, where he likes to entertain visitorsto his 40-acre home site, gives away the truth. His truck, hunting-dog carrier,ATVs and full-blown gym are below. But upstairs, overlooking the man-made lakeand a small clearing to which deer are lured by a corn-spreader (just for thepleasure of watching them; he's a sportsman, not a butcher), is a collection ofbaseball memorabilia (including signed jerseys from Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryanand Curt Schilling) that speaks to a definite striving. He won't admit as much,but it's up there on his walls.
On a Houstonstaff that has had the more media-ready Clemens and Andy Pettitte, Oswalt hasbeen overlooked--to the extent that a pitcher who has won 83 games over hisfirst five seasons can be overlooked--far more often than he's been outpitched.He helped the Astros nail down the wild card by going 5-1 in his last sevenstarts of the regular season, then went a combined 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA asHouston beat the Atlanta Braves in the Division Series and the St. LouisCardinals in the NLCS. But if you hail from Weir (pronounced ware, and veryslowly), being overlooked is a geographical and sociological inevitability.You're going to have to be a little special, combative even, to overcomeit.
February 27, 2006
Weir has hadoutsized success in producing NFL players--at least five of them, includingAlvin McKinley of the Cleveland Browns, since 1975--but it has produced justone major leaguer. "Well," explains Oswalt, in his soft drawl, "wedidn't have a high school baseball team, for one thing." Weir is the kindof place where the high school kids (there were 31 in his class) would spendSaturday nights building bonfires or going mud riding. "You know, get yourgirl, load up the four-wheeler, hit some trails, see who gets stuck," hesays. Oswalt's girl, his 10th-grade sweetheart, Nicole, eventually became hiswife. (Their daughter, Arlee Faith, turns two this year.) The point is, Weirwas good for a nice wholesome upbringing but not for entry into the bigleagues.
Billy Joe, aformer rec league softball player, had watched his son play Little League ball,though, and knew Roy might at least be a college-level pitcher. So hepetitioned the school board to start up a baseball program and used his ownequipment to clear a field. By Roy's sophomore year there was a school team."Had 14 games that first year," says Roy. "I pitched 12 ofthem."
A scout whoworked the central Mississippi area for the Baltimore Orioles, Kenny DuPont,was the only bird dog to visit Weir, and he loved the way Roy intimidatedbatters and owned the plate. "He was a dirtbag bulldog," says DuPont.But when the scout filed his report with the big club, what he heard back was,"Hmmm, 5'10", 150 pounds, throws 85--we're pretty much set in thatdepartment."
As it happened,DuPont became pitching coach at nearby Holmes Community College in 1996 andpersuaded Oswalt to join him there, if only to get a better shot at ascholarship to Mississippi State. In one year Oswalt grew two inches, added afew pounds and got his fastball up in the 95-mph range by just generallyworking his butt off. "It'd be raining out," says DuPont, now theteam's head coach, "and I'd look down on the field and there was Roy allalone, long tossing. He's once in a lifetime."
Mississippi Stateand the Astros came calling, the latter winning out with a $500,000 bonus. Butaside from the money, the team showed little faith in him. The Astros keptOswalt in Class A ball for three years; he felt doomed to a life of 10-hour busrides, maybe breaking through to work in a major league bullpen by the time hewas 28--or worse, because after that third season, in 1999, he returned to Weirnot only discouraged but also hurting, his shoulder so sore that he was takingseven Advil a day.
Which brings usto the Spark Plug Story, one of several yarns that Oswalt spins for hisdelighted teammates ("Did he tell you about fishing with dynamite?"Biggio asks. "For God's sakes!") This one, Oswalt swears, actuallyhappened. Seems that over the winter he was working on his hunting truck, aFord F150 he'd bought for $1,500, when he grabbed a bare spark plug wire andgot jolted across the garage. He reported it thus to his wife: "My truckdone shocked the fire out of me, and my arm don't hurt no more."
It was themiracle he needed. The next season, 2000, filling in on a one-shot assignmentat Double A Round Rock, he made an impression on the owner, who happened to beNolan Ryan, and was allowed to stay. Over the next 12 months, Oswalt made theOlympic team, advanced to Triple A and became a major leaguer. That, in anutshell, is the Spark Plug Story.
Life in the majorleagues, a land of big money (he's in the second year of a two-year, $17million contract) and modern medicine, has been a mixed bag for Oswalt. Thebatters pose little problem (he was seventh in the NL with a 2.94 ERA lastyear), and he's happy to average nearly 200 innings a year. But big cities,traffic--they flummox him. He stays close to the team hotel in New York forfear of getting lost. The life that baseball has made possible for him,however, from the grand house (of his own design, atop a knoll) to hisincreasing land holdings, is much appreciated. When he clinched the NationalLeague pennant for the Astros with seven innings of one-run ball against theCardinals, he hardly knew why he was happier, for the World Series or thebulldozer that had been promised him. Considering Houston was swept by theChicago White Sox, probably the latter. "Anyway, season's over, I'm thefirst one home," he says.
In fact, theoff-season is his real season. Whether it's making trails so he and his buddiescan get to the deer stands in their rugged golf carts or burning off underbrushto create more grass for his prey to eat, it's all about the hunt. This seasonwas peculiar in that he'd settled on a particular buck--he had 10 night-visionpictures of him--and for some reason would brook no substitute. Day after day,starting at dawn and then returning at dusk, Oswalt stood sentry in his pinewoods. After several weeks it began to feel personal, the way the buck, whichby then he had named Eight Ball, was eluding him. He let two much bigger onesgo by, size no longer the point. As the obsession took hold, Nicole advised himover dinner one night that he had "done lost his mind."
Then one Sunday,violating religious practice in his household but obeying his instinct, hegrabbed his rifle and went out in the soft rain. Time was running out, just twodays left in the hunting season. Desperate, Oswalt left his stand, crunchedalong a hardwood bottom and finally came upon Eight Ball, in all his antleredglory, who had been cleverly skirting Oswalt's stand all this time. The bucklooked up and barely had time to register a sigh of resignation before Oswalt,who, as they say, has good command, shot him through the throat.
"I don't likegetting beat," explains Oswalt, who will soon have Eight Ball mounted onthe wall in his office with the rest of his winners. That, in a nutshell, iswhat a hitter is up against.
The Orioles' scout loved the way ROY OWNED THE PLATEand intimidated hitters. But the big club told him, "Hmmm, 5'10", 150pounds, throws 85--we're pretty much set in that department."