When it's time to go home
Phillies starter Roy Oswalt had no choice but to put his family first
We learned that the personal reasons causing Roy Oswalt to leave the Phillies related to the tornado-induced devastation in and around his home county in Mississippi. I suppose I had the inroads to contact the entire Phillies organization from top down to get the inside scoop on what may have been going on with Oswalt after his last start on Tuesday, but in many ways the details aren't important. He had a family emergency that forced him to leave the team without much warning.
From the demeanor and history of Oswalt, leaving forcibly is probably the only way you can get him off the field. He is a bulldog, and that hasn't changed, even amongst the kennel of bulldogs they have in the Phillies rotation.
Allow me to quote John Oates, one half of my favorite band, Hall and Oates, when he was discussing the challenge of being on top of the music industry: "I didn't have time for everyday life." This story is nothing new. Players are consistently navigating a world in which they do not have time for much else but that 162-game schedule staring down at them.
The most typical way to deal with that reality is to sweep life under the rug until you need an SUV to get over it. Driven by the comfort and often the illusion that the riches of the sport can buy one's way through anything, they are stunned to petrifaction when the cumulate effect of that approach clogs all roads to a solution. And when it comes to interpersonal relationships and acts of nature, they can never be solved from a cash deposit only.
Baseball is a game of timelessness. It runs in all directions and wraps itself around us like a warm blanket. We don't often know whether that blanket is soothing us in front of the toasty fire or sealing our tomb to later be thrown into the blaze. It all depends on where you are in your career, how healthy you are or maybe how well you are playing that week.
In such a world, you do get lost for a while because of necessity. There is a game coming at you at a frenetic pace, so you give in to it, you let the wave take you to wherever you need to go, and the people in your life often need a surfboard and a life preserver to keep up because the ship is not turning around for anyone. The only way to stop the captain from cruising right into your personal-life iceberg is if you jump ship and fight the sharks, and the current, to swim ashore. Just to catch up with life itself.
But life on the cruise is all right. At Oswalt's level, he has the cushion to leave the team until he is ready to return. He has long been a high earner and he has some good years ahead of him in which he could gain more resources. He has an organization with the understanding and the flexibility to fill the void somehow. Not to mention a starting rotation of professionals who will step it up in his absence. The Phillies are a team that can wait and still win.
Life needed his time now. Oswalt witnessed the destruction from a similar storm last year, which wiped away the home he grew up in, and he wasn't about to sit on the sidelines this time with his immediate family in jeopardy. This moment reminds us that it doesn't matter what dream team you assemble in the offseason. You cannot account for life challenges that may have an impact on players. Injuries are always the more obvious example, but personal issues are always hovering around players, like the thunderstorm lurking over the Bermuda Triangle.
When we assess how a player will fare, rarely do we consider: Will his marriage disintegrate during the season? Will a family illness affect his performance? Will a bad business deal leak onto the field? Will he handle those bouts with depression in a way to channel into good team results? We can't control those elements, so we find the safety in the numbers and all their certainty, but you still come away with the understanding that you never know until something happens.
During my playing days, my quiet struggle revolved around the illness of my father, and despite that he was sick for about three full seasons of my career, I only missed one game -- that happened a short time before he finally passed away the last game of that third season.
In between was a tempest of emotions, from the guilt of watching my mother handle the team of doctors that was keeping my father alive to the distraction of wondering how he was doing on any given day. These days, most of us have cell phones on all day and all night, answering text messages and tweeting, but I had my phone on waiting for bad news from the ER or about the results of a surgery.
I suppose I could have left the team for personal reasons -- I certainly had cause and the room to do so -- but I was fortunate that my parents lived just up the turnpike from Philadelphia. I could get home in less than two hours, if I needed to do so. Oswalt isn't so fortunate.
A player knows when he is focused and when he is not. He also knows when a call from a family member or someone close to him is relaying special circumstances. And it is very difficult when that cold glass of ice water hits you, snapping you out of the self-absorbed tunnel vision that is required to be the best for seven-plus months straight. Once you leave the tour, you can't get back into that zone easily, especially when you are dealing with situations that need you to stay out of that zone for you to be of any help.
Toward the end of my father's illness, I was liberated. I had reached some level of acceptance that he was fighting the best he could and that I was doing the best I could to help. My numbers became only that, numbers. I learned that he was happy to at least be able to watch me on television for a three-game series, which was worth gold when it was an accomplishment for him to sit up in his bed. I couldn't be Superman and save his life, but what I was doing could enrich whatever life he had left. The last six weeks of his life (and the season), I hit close to .400, getting the peace that is maybe part of what Oswalt is seeking on his trip home.
To search for such a place takes introspection, an island that eludes all players at various times. The ability to let go and recognize what you cannot control goes against what we do day in and day out on the field. Pitches have command, hitters have discipline, managers are psychics, umpires are all-seeing. We are in a world of controlling the uncontrollable while in a vacuum every day we perform.
Soon enough, we will know as much as Oswalt wants us to know about what he is dealing with at this time. We may not know anything more than we know now. He may be gone a few days, gone a few weeks, but no matter how long he is gone he will still feel a lingering anxiety that anything can happen at any time, and that will affect him one way or another.
His relief of knowing his family is fine may be all he needs to get back into the zone to be a front-liner on a front-line team. However, many players take the unhealthy approach of pushing it all to the back of their minds with a splash of denial to perform how they are expected to perform -- not much different than when they have a nagging injury they will deal with in the offseason. In those scenarios, a player may be productive, even win a championship that earns him congratulations for having the toughness to overcome adversity, even though the cost of such of an approach may make his challenges away from the game almost insurmountable.
Jeffrey Loria, owner of the Marlins (then of the Expos) called me out on the field one day before a game after he read about my father's illness in the paper. He told me, "You have to know that whatever you are doing to handle your father's illness is the right thing. Whatever you need to do, do it. It is always the right answer."
Oswalt is trying to do the best he can as a father, a son, a family man. Fans may find out that when he comes back they will get the best of Oswalt on the field, too.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLBPAA (MLB Players Alumni Association). His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville