Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Spirit of Ten Broken Bats

Recall the story of John Odom, the Golden Baseball League player who was traded for ten maple bats during last season.

However, little was said of the following: Odom died in November from a drug overdose.

Some investigative reporting discovers that while Odom claimed to the media that the trade was no big deal, it broke him up inside.

It became a big joke last May when word of the unusual swap jumped off the sports pages, and the former San Francisco Giants prospect went from pitcher to punch line.

"People are like, 'I'd kill myself' and stuff," Odom said at the time, dismissing any such notion.

Three weeks after the trade, he abruptly left the team.

Six months after the trade, he was dead.

The medical examiner said Odom's death in Georgia on Nov. 5 at age 26 was an accidental overdose from heroin, methamphetamine, the stimulant benzylpiperazine and alcohol.

The life of a pro baseball prospect is rough. I had two high school classmates who took a stab at the pros. Neither one made it to a regular role past A ball. My father had a friend whose son pitched for years in the independent leagues and with the Brewers organization. After years of AA and indy ball, he got just a handful of games in AAA before washing out.

Lost in the feel good stories of baseball are the stories of thousands of prospects and minor leaguers who never get beyond the obscurity of half empty baseball fields out in the middle of nowhere, playing other teams from the middle of nowhere. Nobody comes to these teams with visions of being a Class A tomato can with a 6.00 ERA, spending their careers in dusty farm towns being the backup catcher behind prospect after prospect on the depth chart, or finishing a futile minor league career by hitting .184 in the Southern League.

The harsh reality of life in minor league baseball for a washed up prospect was hard enough for John Odom, never minding his regular battles with depression, drugs and alcohol. But then he got traded for ten maple bats, and everyone in America found out. He got singled out from a crowd of nobodies for exactly the wrong reason.

"He came in 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,'" (manager Dan) Shwam recalled.

And with that, Odom disappeared.

Several baseball people tried calling him, but got no answer.

In January, Shwam called Odom's cell phone, seeing if he wanted to pitch this year for a team in Alexandria, La., but got only his voice mail. A few weeks later, Shwam learned that Odom was dead.

"I was shocked," he said. "Unfortunately, it doesn't surprise me."

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