Monday, April 10, 2006
Updated: April 15, 2:21 PM ET
The Simple Life
By Buster Olney
There's no way the driver just said what you think he said. Maybe you didn't hear right. Mississippi pine trees are flashing by at 60 mph, you feel like you're on a roller coaster on two paved lanes and you're white-knuckling the door handle. Maybe your senses are just overloaded. You ask from the backseat: Say again? "Ten years," Roy Oswalt says, again. He glances into the rearview mirror. "My goal is to play 10 years, and then I'll figure out what to do after that." You try to block out the onrushing trees and do the math. The Astros righthander is five years into his career, he's 28 and he's talking about the possibility of walking away from baseball at age 33. This isn't quite Sandy Koufax forecasting early retirement. Not yet, anyway. Oswalt has racked up back-to-back 20-win seasons, and his career winning percentage is .680. He propelled himself into the national consciousness last fall by blowing away the Cardinals in Game 6 of the NLCS.
"Millions of viewers might have learned who Roy Oswalt was that night," says catcher Brad Ausmus, "but there's not a guy in the National League who didn't know how good he was before that." A guy this good talking about walking away in five years? When he might be making $15 million a year on the foundation of a Hall of Fame career? C'mon. Oswalt's eyes are back on the road, looking past the cracked windshield of his SUV. "Some people play for a chance to get into the Hall of Fame," he says flatly. "I'm playing for the competition of it."
You might have been tempted to dismiss his words, but you've already spent half a winter morning loitering in Oswalt's hometown of Weir, population 500 or so. It's pronounced where, which is ironic; 156 miles south of Memphis, 259 miles north of Gulfport, Weir is in the middle of nowhere. There is no pretension here, no social climbing. Not enough people for that.
Oswalt drives. You're along for the ride, and you're wondering: Five more years?
He shows you the house on the hill, the place he and wife Nicole built within a few miles of where they grew up, where they're raising their 1-year-old daughter, Arlee Faith. You're four hours from the Gulf Coast and trees are down all over because of Hurricane Katrina; at the foot of the curling slope, the mud is cracked and thick from flash flooding.
This is land that Oswalt's grandfather once owned and worked. Houston Oswalt was a logger, 5'5" in his stocking feet. He leaned into a chain saw until he was 78 years old, until his son Billy convinced him it was time to stop. No problem. Houston Oswalt started growing watermelons. Twenty acres of watermelons.
Most farmers are loyal to one brand of tractor. Houston Oswalt was an International man, plowing and planting, but a tractor is useless for weeding fields of watermelons, so Houston hoed his 20 acres by hand. Roy and older brother Brian worked for him in the summers; they'd start out in the morning, hoeing quickly, and, by god, their grandfather, slow and steady and relentless, would invariably catch up by the afternoon. The Oswalts loaded the watermelons onto a cart and sold them from a roadside stand, underneath an oak tree, right over there on Route 413.
Now Roy Oswalt is installing a lake behind the house on the hill, and he stands in boots and camouflage pants on an embankment and describes the engineering required, the degree of slope, the drainage. You're wondering where the water is, and he's talking geometry; he and a friend have worked all this out. This is not some rich guy paying somebody else to drop a large body of water behind his house. You realize he's doing the work.
Astros owner Drayton McLane learned Oswalt was hands-on the first time they met. McLane makes it his practice to talk with every player on his team, to elicit some slice of each man's character. With Oswalt, he was blunt. "What is your goal?" the owner asked.
"I want to own a bulldozer," Oswalt replied.
Before Game 6, McLane approached Oswalt in the Astros' clubhouse. "Roy, I'll make a deal with you," he said. "If you win the game tonight, I'll buy you a bulldozer." Oswalt lurched to his feet: "Deal!" Oswalt blew away Albert Pujols with a 95 mph fastball in the first, held St. Louis to three hits and a run over seven innings, and as he finished his work and walked toward the dugout, a thought echoed in his brain: That bulldozer's mine.
They changed the name of the town 90 years ago. It used to be called the Village of Weir, but that was when the area was flush with timberfed business. Now there's the Weir Café and a pharmacy, and not much else. Pam Bradberry, the city clerk, works in the front half of the 50-foot-wide town hall-she'll leave a note on the door if she has to step out for a few minutes.
You pull into Oswalt's old high school, the Weir Attendance Center, perhaps the largest building in the county that doesn't house farm equipment. The Attendance Center didn't have a baseball team when Oswalt arrived, but his father, Billy, offered to clear the pines for a ball field and the school district took him up on it.
Billy Oswalt played softball for hours on the weekends. When Roy was a kid, he tagged along, playing ball either with his dad's friends or with his older brother. He was always the smallest one. His pitching mechanics were homemade, constructed out of a little brother's desperation to keep up.
Because he was so slightly built, he had to use everything he had to propel the baseball-arm, legs, soul.
Young Roy had seen enough to know that most pitchers start their delivery with one foot parallel to the rubber. This made no sense to him. He was trying to drive himself toward the batter, like a sprinter breaking out of the blocks. Sprinters, he thought, don't plant their feet parallel to the starting line; their feet are pointed forward.
So that's how Oswalt designed his pitching mechanics, with his back foot, his right foot, angled slightly forward. He raises his left foot, pauses slightly, then hurls his body at the batter, more like a javelin-tosser than a sprinter in the end. Nobody else in the majors uses mechanics like these, and no pitching coach would teach them unless he was considering a change of profession. But batters have confessed that Oswalt's motion can be unnerving, this wiry sixfooter leaping at them like a mugger. He throws 95, and the ball ambushes them. "I can't think of anyone who can keep the ball on a low-line trajectory as well as Roy does," says Roger Clemens. "Good plane with late life. Nice combo."
One of Billy's softball teammates showed the kid how to grip a curveball, and he still holds it the same way. For some reason, he can't throw it hard, no more than 72 to 75 mph. Turns out this is extraordinarily good fortune, because now the velocity differential between his fastball and curve is vicious, and the contrast makes the curve look like he's attached parachutes to the ball. Hitters are often caught guessing somewhere in between.
It took Oswalt years to master this craft, of course. He wanted to go to Mississippi State, but the school wasn't interested. So he attended a local community college, and after one season the Astros took him in the 23rd round of the 1996 draft. His father and grandfather worked in lumber, and that's what he'd expected to do. Maybe I can make a little bit of money off baseball and see how it goes, he thought. In the minors, for the first time in his life, he struggled to pitch late into games. "These boys up here," he told his father, "they don't swing like they do back home."
You head north on Route 413, moving fast.
You make a right turn into the driveway of his parents' home. On the other side of 413, there's a pond. "When we were kids, we tried throwing rocks from here to there," Oswalt says. "I could do it. I never understood why nobody else could."
Go figure. The pond is 100 yards away.
His arm went bad in the minor leagues. The Astros tinkered with his mechanics, tried to change the position of his foot, and he started to get sore in his shoulder, bad enough that he began taking painkillers on his own. When he went home for the off-season in the fall of 1999, his arm was killing him. One day, as he worked underneath the hood of his truck, standing on a metal bucket, he reached for the spark plug wires and electricity surged through him. He jerked himself away from the truck, fell to the ground and, after catching his breath, he lifted his arm. No pain.
Doctors told Oswalt the shock had loosened an impingement in his shoulder. He'd gotten a break, and he intended to take advantage of it. There would be no more messing with his mechanics. "I'm going to do it the way I want to," he told his father.
He knows the Astros have found him to be difficult at times, stubborn. "That's one of those goodbad traits," says GM Tim Purpura, who ran the club's farm system as Oswalt ascended. "It can mean some real hardheadedness, but it also can mean not giving in, being a tough competitor."
Oswalt competes off the mound, too. A few seasons back, he and Wade Miller would pass the time during games by pitching pumpkin seeds from the dugout. Inevitably, they'd wind up in a war of distance flicking, and one day Oswalt flicked the mother of all pumpkin-seed flicks. It landed on the mound, right next to the foot of pitcher Shane Reynolds, who almost balked. Then-manager Jimy Williams glared at the two young pitchers and Oswalt thought fast: He stared at Miller. Williams stared at Miller. Convicted, without a trial.
Going into the 2004 season, Williams wanted to arrange his catching schedule to ensure rest for Ausmus. Clemens, he decided, needed to work with Ausmus because of a complicated set of signs. Andy Pettitte needed Ausmus because the veteran lefty prefers that the catcher do most of the heavy mental lifting. Williams determined that Oswalt would be the guy who pitched to backup Raul Chavez. Oswalt always pitched his own game anyway.
"He's got this scowl on the mound, a little bit of a strut," says Ausmus. "He knows he's got the stuff to get anybody out. If the hitter gets a hit, Roy believes he made a mistake."
When Clemens and Pettitte pitch, they are in a competitive trance. But you can joke with Oswalt between innings, Ausmus says, and he'll tease you, show you he's not worried. Roy does not get nervous. At all.
In Game 2 of the NLCS, Oswalt faced Jim Edmonds in the fifth inning with two outs, runners on first and second, Astros up 2-0. Edmonds fouled off fastball after fastball. Full count, with Pujols looming in the on-deck circle. Ausmus jogged to the mound. Fearing a walk, Ausmus wanted Oswalt to keep throwing fastballs. Oswalt wanted to throw a slider. "Man, that's Pujols on deck," Ausmus said.
"I don't care," Oswalt replied.
"Fine," Ausmus said. Oswalt threw a slider and Edmonds was caught looking. Inning over.
You pull up to Billy Oswalt's job site. He's taking down timber, just as he's been doing his whole life, just as his father did. Houston Oswalt died six years ago, but he left his work ethic to his son.
Billy strides over to shake hands. He's 58 and he has the body of a 28-year-old. He has Roy's body, or rather, Roy has his. He also has a bright smile, an easy laugh. Logging can be dangerous work. Chain saws fragment, trees fall. A tumbling log once knocked the whirring saw out of Billy's hands and onto his right foot. Cut straight through his boot. Billy went home and wouldn't let Roy, then 6, see his injury. He got fixed up and went right back to work.
Back to work, always. Billy went with a few friends to St. Louis to see Roy pitch Game 6, and an hour after the night game he drove home, rolling in at 6:15 a.m. He was back in the woods at 8 a.m. sharp.
Billy goes back to his logging; break time is over. Roy pulls away, leaving the woodlot at Billy's mercy. "I could give him all the money in the world," Roy says of his dad, "and he'd still do this."
The pitcher made $5.9 million last year and he'll make $11 million this season. In Weir, that's like having all the money in the world. He hired a financial guy, then told him what investments to make. "Now he's beginning to understand," says Oswalt. The only way he'll lose his money is if the world stops valuing land or trees.
Oswalt loves baseball, but there are parts of baseball he can't stand. Like being away from Weir. Hours after the World Series ended, Oswalt drove home. "Ten years, I think," he says. "Ten years would be enough. I love the game, but the only way I'd stay longer is if I had a boy, and if I wanted to stay around long enough for him to see me pitch."
Oswalt brakes to a stop and a pickup truck, the words TOWN OF WEIR painted on the door, crosses his path. Oswalt knows the driver. Everybody knows everybody here. "Hey!" Oswalt shouts. "Get to work!" His friend does a double take, trying to figure out who's busting his chops, then smiles.
Oswalt turns right and stops at a gate, the entrance to a 1,000-acre spread he recently purchased. He's up by 6 a.m. every morning in the winter to work the property. Right near the front gate he used a post-hole digger and planted some trees, in the hope of obscuring the lot next to his, where there's a collection of junked cars.
Oswalt bumps along a wooded dirt road, points out another spot where he's laid in some fruit trees, crosses a small bridge. He turns into an open field a mile long and steers into the driveway of the onestory ranch house he calls his lodge. His place. When he walks away from the game, this is where he'll spend many of his waking hours. He wants to make this something of a personal hunting resort.
The Mississippi fish and game department is coming to stock the pond, and while he waits, Oswalt points out the places where deer have been moving. He knows because he's been tracking them-scouting them, really. He has mounted cameras on trees around the property, and when a buck or doe trips a sensor, the cameras flash. A large buck is around someplace, Oswalt says. He's studied its tendencies, the same way he's studied Albert Pujols'. There is competition here, every day.
A hammock hangs between two trees just to the west of the lodge, and Oswalt flops down, as he does every lunchtime in his days here. The winter sun is fighting through the treetops, but mostly Oswalt is in the shade, his feet higher in the hammock than his head. The only sound is the wind fighting through pine needles. His eyes close briefly. "It's peaceful here," he says, "like you're in your own place." You remember what he said: He'll play 10 years, and then he'll figure it out. But Roy Oswalt already knows what he wants, what he needs, and it's all right here. Five more years. Could he really walk away? Of course he could.