What Price Self-Respect?
By Bob Gaydos
You never know when life’s going to reach out and touch you in unexpected ways. About a week ago I was sitting in a waiting room (they all blend together) flipping through a July copy of ESPN the Magazine when I came across an update of a quirky old story that had mildly piqued my interest when it happened, but had been quickly filed in my future trivia look-it-up file. It concerned a minor league pitcher named John Odom who had the dubious distinction of being traded in May of 2008 for 10 baseball bats.
The trade, of course, immediately became the punch line on TV and radio sports shows, but I remember thinking at the time how insulting that must be for an athlete. How does your psyche make sense of it? Of course, the trade was a fleeting hit on the Internet, where no humiliation is so bad it can’t be made worse by frequent repetition and mockery. Such is the world in which we live, in which John Odom lived. But it turns out that Odom’s psyche was more fragile than others. Six months after the trade and apparently despite his own efforts to laugh it off, Odom, 26, died in relative anonymity of an accidental overdose of heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol and benzylpiperazine, a stimulant. That story didn’t get nearly as much play as the trade.
Which may be why reading about it last week in that waiting room saddened me more than I might have expected. Not only was John Odom’s life trivialized by a callous business decision, but when it ended it was devalued to the point of being barely noted. In fact, Odom died last November, but the story did not come out until March of this year. Even then, the people directly involved had a tough time dealing with it. And they certainly didn’t want to entertain the idea that maybe they had contributed to his untimely death.
But clearly Odom didn’t do anything to deserve the unthinking, unfeeling treatment he received, first from team owners, then from “fans.” Unlike the losers who populate reality shows on what passes for much of prime time TV these days, he did not volunteer to be mocked, to be made a fool of, to have people laugh and shake their heads when his name was mentioned. And unlike the people who show up on recorded TV shows where they have been unwittingly put into embarrassing or even humiliating situations, he did not sign any waiver to allow himself to be made the object of ridicule and entertainment for millions of others. Nor did he make an embarrassing video of himself and sell it to some TV show.
He just wanted to play baseball. To throw his 93 mph fastball and, just maybe, live up to the promise he held as a teenage athlete. That promise was derailed by some poor judgment and behavior on his part — alcohol and drug use and a fight that resulted in rehab and an assault conviction at age 17. That conviction got him kicked off his high school team in Georgia in 1999 and returned to haunt him in 2008, leading to the infamous trade. A musician with a free spirit and a quick smile, Odom kicked around a couple of years before winding up pitching for Tallahassee Community College in Florida. He eventually was drafted by the San Francisco Giants, but a series of injuries and some questionable behavior hampered his progress. He was released in 2008. That’s when the Calgary Vipers, an independent league team, signed him.
And that’s when the assault charge again changed his life. Because Canadian immigration officials had been unaware of his youthful conviction, they would not allow Odom to cross into Canada to play baseball. Calgary team president Peter Young figured he had to trade Odom. Laredo’s general manager offered a player, but Young didn’t want to pay to fly him to his team. Laredo said it would offer $1,000 for Odom. Young said no, that taking cash would cast doubt on the team‘s financial condition. Instead, he said he would take 10 maple bats, double-dipped black, 34 inches long, total price $665. Somehow, he figured that wouldn’t look as bad as a straight cash-for-player deal.
Odom immediately became known as Bat Man and, to his credit, tried to shrug it off and go along with the kidding. (They even played the Batman theme when he came into a game.) But when he had a bad game, the “kidding” became unmerciful. Even umpires called him Batman. Laredo officials saw it affecting Odom and put an end to all Batman talk or promotion. But Odom had had enough.
He left the team after three weeks., saying was going home to get his life straightened out. He apparently never did. After the trade he insisted that he was about more than baseball. “I don’t want people to think this is what defines me as a person,” he said. He figured people would come to see him out of curiosity, but see that he could pitch and his career would progress. He didn’t figure on American society’s short attention span and lack of empathy and compassion.
And the men who traded him for those bats? Laredo’s GM says he won’t ever do something like that again. But Calgary’s Young doesn’t like to think he had anything to do with Odom’s death. Young said the bats, stamped with Odom’s name, were never to be used. They were supposedly to be auctioned for charity, but he got a better offer from Ripley Entertainment, which paid $10,000 to the team’s children’s charity. Ripley’s plans to use the bats in a “Believe It or Not” exhibit.
That makes me saddest of all. John Odom made some mistakes in life, but he also was trying to change his way. A lot of people — friends, teammates — liked him and thought, at 26, he was finally on the right path. Then he got traded for 10 stinking bats. Hey, that’s life in the minors, right?
Not funny. Not even close.
Bob can be reached at email@example.com.
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