The Baseball Game by G. Fitz
The Rueful Story of One Man’s Doomed Dreams
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” ~ Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Right before I hit my writer’s wall, I had planned to write a post about a story that I had read that really touched a nerve with me. It was the story of one man’s lost dreams and eventual suicide, and how all-too-often, people in the public eye, even in a minor way, are treated as commodities instead of people. It was the story of John C. Odom.
Normally, I do not peruse the sports news as admittedly, this particular area does not hold a lot of interest for me, but when I read the headline—”A Tragic End for Minor Leaguer Traded for Bats”—I knew that I had to read more. This story appeared on March 3 of this year in The San Luis Obispo and was picked up by the AP. Apparently, Odom, a minor league with a fast arm, was picked up by the the Loredo Broncos of the United League for the price of 10 baseball bats.
Odom was originally drafted by the Giants as a 44th round pick in 2003, but his inconsistent record caused the Giants to release him in the spring of 2008. The Calgary Vipers offered Odom a job, but because of a 1999 aggravated assault conviction, Odom was not eligible for entrance into Canada.
What followed was a proposition of such bizarre proportions, that it landed Odom with the unenviable title of “Bat Boy.” Jose Melendez, General Manager for the Laredo Broncos, proposed to Calgary President Pete Young that Laredo buy Odom’s contract for $1,000. Young supposedly said that “the Vipers didn’t do cash deals because they made the team look financially unstable.” What Young needed, he told Melendez, was bats, and he proposed releasing Odom for 10 Prairie Stick bats, double-dipped black, 34 inches long, model C243, at a cost of $665 each.
Odom, who only wanted to play, accepted the terms and drove to Laredo, Texas. What ensued was completely predictable: the theme music to Batman, catcalls of “Bat Man,” and “Bat Boy.”
“Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
There is a saying that “success is never final; failure is never fatal.” But in this particular instance, I must beg to disagree. It would take someone of tremendously strong constitution to withstand such verbal thrashings. Odom did not possess that constitution. Described by his college coach as more of an athlete with a musician’s heart, Odom at first claimed to be okay with the trade, but by June, Odom was visibly frayed. He went to Laredo Bronco’s manager Dan Schwam on June 10. According to Schwam, Odom came to him and said,”Skip, I’m going home. I just can’t take it. I’ve got some things to take care of. I’ve got to get my life straightened out.”
Within five months, Odom was dead. According to the medical examiner of Georgia, Odom’s death was an accidental overdose from heroin, methamphetamine, the stimulant benzylpiperazine and alcohol. A tattoo on Odom’s right elbow read “Poena Par Sapientia,” Latin for “Pain equals wisdom.” Odom was 26 years old. He died wearing his pain.
“One meets his destiny often in the road he takes to avoid it” ~ French Proverb
Odom’s teammates did not learn of his death until recently. Such had been his complete withdrawal from the limelight, and seemingly, from life itself.
The ten bats from the infamous trade? They have never been used and are currently in storage. The parties involved in the bat trade insist that it was not a publicity stunt and that it was not done to embarrass Odom.
But consider, at 26, after a shaky start, what young man or woman would not be embarrassed by such a publicized trade? For that matter, what 40-year-old would not be embarrassed? And how helpless would a person feel to know that his fate was no longer his own but instead, was due to 10 baseball bats?
I have to believe that someone, somewhere, at some point, had to stop and ask if this was the right thing to do. I cannot believe, wish not to believe, that the powers that ruled in this decision never had second thoughts on the soundness of such a move. If not, why not?
“What we call despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.” ~ George Eliot
I realize that athletes, in this country in particular, are treated as commodities. Hence the multi-million dollar contracts, the highly-publicized trades, the slaps on the wrist for infractions. The U.S. loves its athletes, but especially its good athletes. Its mega-stars.
But there is a whole other world that many people do not pay much attention to: the world filled with the less than stellar athletes.
Granted, the farming system is baseball’s tried and true method of finding its major league up-and-comers. But it is not a system that allows much room for those players who are different in some way, who do not fit the mold.
One of the best friends I ever had was a minor league player. He had an incredible arm and was blessed with agility and speed. Watching him play baseball was truly like watching poetry in motion, which I have often found to be the case when watching an athlete who is truly, naturally talented. Unfortunately, my friend blew out his rotator cuff and was no longer able to play. I know that that injury cost him in a number of ways, but most profoundly, emotionally, because playing baseball was such an innate part of who Alan was. To be unable to play, unable to fulfill a lifelong dream, was a bitter pill, especially for someone so imbued in the allure of the game.
It would probably be safe to assume that Odom, a player who began as a walk-on with a 90 mph fastball, felt that same allure. Certainly John Odom was not a perfect man or a perfect player. He had his demons. Some who knew him described him as having “black moods,” and an alleged substance abuse problem that he had conquered in the past. So is it any wonder that Odom drowned the “bat boy” persona with pills and alcohol?
Odom will enter the record books as the player who was traded for 10 bats: A man’s professional life equating to $6,650. If not for this heinous degrading of a man’s dignity, Odom’s life and subsequent death would likely have remained in obscurity, just one more cog in the machine.
“The pain of the mind is worse than the pain of the body” ~ Publius Syrus
Again, I do not purport to know a great deal about the major league. I always preferred college baseball. But I do know about sports and the inordinate amount of pressure that players have thrust upon them from an early age. Living right next to the neighborhood park, I can sit in my room on any weekend afternoon during baseball season and listen to parents yell horrible things at the players, at their own children, at other people’s children.
The verbal abuse hurled at these children is horrendous. I have heard a father chew his son out the entire way from the park to the car that was parked next to my house because the boy missed a ball. The boy could not possibly have been more than 8 years old.
What does this have to do with Odom? Who knows. I know very little about his family, his background, how he grew up and what kind of support he did or did not receive as a player in the pony leagues that exist in every neighborhood in America.
What I do know is that no one comes out better from being called names, whether that epithet is “you stupid boy,” “no-talent so and so,” or “here comes batman.” Baseball is the great American past time, but at times, the price paid for admission to the game is just too high.
If he were still alive, I think that John C. Odom might agree with me.
(Information for this article comes from the original article written by Ben Walker, AP baseball writer (http://www.sanluisobispo.com/346/story/639018.html).