Roy Oswalt: A Change of Pace

After 13 grueling years in the majors, Roy Oswalt comes home to the things he loves most, the Mississippi outdoors and three baseball-playing daughters

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter

people_roy-oswaltBack when he was old, ROY OSWALT never doubted what he wanted to do once he got young again.

“I always knew what I’d do,” he says. “Manage land, work with the land, that kind of stuff.”

Today, Oswalt is a man in motion, farming on his 3,000-acre Triple A Ranch off Highway 792 near Camp Pratt, doing a little scouting work and helping reopen a restaurant in Starkville, where he is also building a new home. There are always turkey and deer to hunt, crappie to catch and, of course, there are the demands of three daughters, ages 3, 8 and 11. The divorced dad has a new girlfriend and three dogs, one of them a 12-week-old white Lab who needs attention, too.

“Lot of stuff going on,” he says, in his understated way. “I’m on the phone all the time, it seems like.”

He is not complaining.

“Yeah, I guess I do kind of feel young again,” the fit 38-year-old says.

To understand how a person can feel far younger than he did a few years ago, you have to consider the unique nature of Oswalt’s career path.

For 13 years, Oswalt was a major-league baseball player, and baseball is a young man’s game, especially if you are a pitcher.

In the surreal world of major-league baseball, the “oldest” players in any locker room are the pitchers, no matter how young they happen to be.

By the time a pitcher reaches his mid-30s, he is a relic, a perpetually aching, always in decline “old man” in a room full of ageless athletes. His body has betrayed him and for good reason: There are few things the human body is less poorly equipped to do than throw 100 to 120 pitches from 80 to 95 miles-per-hour every four days.

Other players maintain their athletic bodies well into their 30s. They are fit, trim, youthful.

Not so with pitchers, especially starting pitchers. They drag their aching bodies around the clubhouse for days before taking the mound every fourth day and spilling their energy, guts and guile onto the field for two-and-a-half hours. The monotonous routine of hurting and healing seems endless.

“You play 162 games in 180 days,” Oswalt says. “And half of them, you’re in a hotel, living out of suitcase for six months. You wake up in some hotel in the morning, you have to think for a minute, ‘Where am I?’ You’re just sitting there in a hotel with nothing to do until you go to the ballpark at 2 p.m. Then you’re there until 11, and it’s back to the hotel, and it starts all over.”

There is one more thing about baseball.

“Since I was a kid, it’s what I always wanted to do,” Oswalt says.

To say that Oswalt is understated is like Michelangelo admitting he could paint a little.

By all accounts, Oswalt’s is a remarkable story, one he isn’t reluctant to talk about, necessarily, but one he doesn’t seem to dwell on.

He grew up in Weir (pronounced “where”), a small town, the son of a logger.

He was a wiry, tough kid, a natural athlete, but scrawny.

“I think I was 5-foot-10 and weighed maybe 145 pounds my senior year in high school,” he says.

He was a pretty good football player, for his size.

But his real talent was throwing a baseball. The kid could flat-out fling it, regularly hitting 90 mph with his fastball.

One problem, though. Weir High School didn’t have a baseball team, at least it didn’t until Oswalt arrived. He is, quite possibly, the first player who can ever claim that a high school baseball team was created simply because he showed up. His dad mowed down the trees for Weir’s baseball team. The son mowed down batters.

He was still well off the radar of college and pro scouts, so after high school, he went to Holmes Community College. In his two years at Holmes, he grew three inches, gained 20 pounds of muscle and 5 mph on his fastball. In May of 1997, The Houston Astros selected him in the 23rd round of the draft. The 19-year-old signed his first contract, which included a $500,000 signing bonus.

Roy Oswalt and Smokey

Roy Oswalt and Smokey

The half-million-dollar bonus was high for a player selected so late in the draft, but is was apparent from the start that the Astros had made a good investment.

Oswalt progressed steadily through Houston’s minor-league system and made his major-league debut on May 6, 2001, against the Washington Nationals. He finished his rookie season with a 14-3 record and a 2.73 earned-run average, finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

Through the 2000s, he was regarded as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

In 13 seasons, he won 163 games and lost 102, finishing with a career 3.36 ERA. In 2004 and 2005 he posted back-to-back 20-win seasons after winning 19 games in 2002. He had nine double-digit win seasons, including seven straight to start his career. He was a two-time National League All-Star and won the Most Valuable Player Award in the Astros’ 2005 National League Championship Series win over St. Louis, winning two games.

Oswalt was traded to Philadelphia during the 2010 season, spending the final three years of his career with the Phillies, Rangers and Rockies.

Injuries and personal tragedy disrupted his last few years.

In 2012, he took a leave of absence from the Phillies to return to Weir after a devastating tornado destroyed his parents’ home. Back injuries also limited him in his final years. He made his last major-league appearance with the Rockies on Sept. 29, 2013.

Oswalt’s outstanding major-league career may never have happened were it not for a freak incident that turned an aching arm to something of a medical miracle.

“In 1999, I was pitching in Class A ball and my arm started to get sore,” he says. “It was really bothering me for about the last six weeks of the season, but I managed to get through the season. When I got back home, I had pretty much accepted the idea that I was going to have to have surgery.”

One day, as he was tinkering with an old truck he had bought to use for hunting trips, Oswalt says he noticed that the truck’s engine wasn’t running smoothly.

“I figured it had to be a bad spark plug or a spark plug wire,” he remembers. “So I got a bucket to stand on so I could reach the spark plug wires to see if one of the plugs or wires was bad.”

He made the mistake of grabbing one of the exposed wires with his right hand (his pitching arm, coincidentally) while standing on the metal bucket.

“I got shocked pretty bad,” he recalls. “It seemed like I had it in my hand for a minute. It was probably only for a few seconds, but it seemed like a minute before I could get off that bucket and get loose of that wire.”

Oswalt felt an odd sensation throughout his arm.

“Before, when I raised my arm about my shoulder, it really hurt,” he says. “But that night, when I raised my arm, it didn’t hurt.”

Oswalt theorizes that the electrical shock loosened calcium deposits in his shoulder, although that’s really just a guess.

“All I know is that my arm didn’t hurt anymore,” he says. “In fact, after that I never had arm trouble. It was just a fluke thing, I guess.”

For some players, life after baseball is a struggle. Finding fulfillment in the “real world” can be difficult, especially for players who have grown accustomed to the celebrity that accompanies being a big league player.

They miss the glamour, the adulation, the perks and privileges the game provides.

But Oswalt was never particularly interested in the trappings of success. In fact, he much preferred to avoid the spotlight.

“One of the best things that happened to me in Houston was when we got Roger and Andy,” Oswalt says.

Roger and Andy are pitchers Roger Clemons and Andy Pettite, who came to the Astros in 2004 from the New York Yankees. They were two of the most high-profile players in the game at the time.

“That was great for me,” Oswalt says. “The cameras went where they went, and I just did my thing and nobody seemed to notice. Nobody bothered me. Then, at the end of the season, somebody would say, ‘Hey, this other guy won 20 games this season.’ I won 20 games in 2004 and 2005 and the focus was always on Roger and Andy. Hey, I was good with that.”

Oswalt and his brother-in-law, David Jones of Starkville, fish on Oswalt’s private 150-acre lake.

Oswalt and his brother-in-law, David Jones of Starkville, fish on Oswalt’s private 150-acre lake.

Long before his hung up he spikes — in fact, throughout his baseball career — Oswalt knew what he wanted to do once his playing days were over: Go home to Mississippi and hunt, fish and farm.

“Every year when the season was over, I was back home as quick as I could get here,” he says. “After the last game, sometimes I’d drive all night just to get home.”

His days are now spent farming (cotton and soybeans), hunting (deer and turkey), catching crappie and helping reopen Cappe’s Steakhouse in Starkville. Cappe’s, owned by his friend, Eric Hallberg, burned last year and Oswalt decided to move a restaurant building he owns in Weir to the Cappe’s site. The steakhouse is scheduled to reopen this summer.

Today, Oswalt is no longer an old player. He is a young entrepreneur and farmer.

But you have to wonder if he doesn’t miss the glamour of the big leagues, at least little bit.

Oswalt quickly rejects that idea as he scans the endless, empty acres of his ranch.

“Do you think I’d be way out here if that was true?” he asks, grinning.

“This is exactly where I want to be.”