Astros would be wise to deal Oswalt before he heads home for good
Just 32, Roy Oswalt has hinted at retirement when his current contract expires
Oswalt requested a trade from Houston, the only team he's ever pitched for
Unlike fellow Mississippian Brett Favre, Oswalt might actually depart and not return
To understand the complexities of the Roy Oswalt trade situation, you must grasp a very basic lesson in Mississippi geography.
Just because a couple of high-profile athletes come from small towns in the same state doesn't mean they're very much alike. Sometimes they can be as different as the Mississippi marshes and the Natchez Trace.
Oswalt, the Astros' unquestioned ace, was born and raised in Weir, Miss., a timber and ranching spec of a place, where about 500 hard-working folks know each others' names and sit together at the dinner table. Weir -- pronounced, appropriately, "where" -- sits just 250 miles and about five country-road hours north of Kiln, where a certain NFL star has been known to pitch footballs to high schoolers while holding the NFL hostage.
When it comes to what makes Mississippi's golden-armed players tick, Oswalt's hometown of Weir and Brett Favre's Kiln might as well be worlds apart. Galaxies apart, really.
And this is why things get tricky for the Astros, who publicly have said they are not bound to honor Oswalt's recent trade request. Keeping Oswalt and hoping for an eventual rise from the NL Central's cellar certainly is an option for this dismal team, albeit a far-fetched one.
Who wouldn't want to cling to marquee players like Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee? But the Astros are years away, not months. And should the Astros not trade Oswalt, they run the risk of Oswalt retiring after next season -- at a young 34 -- and missing the opportunity to get top-shelf prospects at a time when the club is in full-blown rebuilding mode.
While most athletes who hint at retirement at this point in their careers should not be taken seriously, Oswalt should. He's different.
Favre, as it turns out, was just getting warmed up at 34. Like a lot of athletes, the lure of money, fame and a place in history has kept him around longer than anyone expected. In fact, no one has epitomized hanging on more than Favre. He has turned it all into a game of sorts, cashing in on marketing opportunities and going so far as to place a bet with the Southern Miss. baseball team that he would return to the Vikings if the Golden Eagles made it to the College World Series.
But to know Oswalt, as the Astros certainly do, is to know a competitor who refuses to compromise his standards on or off the diamond. He doesn't say a lot, but when he does, it generally rings more sincere. Since early in his career, Oswalt has talked of playing roughly 10 years, then returning to his farming and ranching in Weir. His current contract, which will pay him $73 million, including $15 million this year and $16 million next, expires after the 2011 season (though there is a $12 million club option for 2012 that includes a $2 million buyout), which would be Oswalt's 11th in the majors..
As recently as February, Oswalt told reporters he would not hang on in baseball for the sake of paychecks. Should his skills begin to diminish or his competitive juices subside, he'll walk. He competes at an extraordinary level and has a phenomenal ability to perform at his best in crucial situations. The most infamous moment in Astros history, in fact, was backed-up by maybe Oswalt's greatest. Two nights after Albert Pujols launched a Brad Lidge pitch and, it seemed, the Astros' pennant hopes into oblivion in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS, it was Oswalt who snuffed out the Cardinals by throwing seven innings of three-hit ball at Busch Stadium in Game 6, punching the Astros' first World Series ticket.
Over his 10 years in the big leagues, Oswalt has been perhaps the quietest, least-heralded, but most consistent ace in the game -- notwithstanding the past two years of dismal run support from his Houston teammates. Oswalt has started at least 30 games in seven of the last eight seasons. He's gobbled up at least 200 innings six of those seasons. His career ERA is 3.21.
He has ferocious heat for a 6-foot frame and his 74-mph curveball is considered among the best in baseball. Losing and inconsistency rips at him. That became evident on Memorial Day, when Oswalt was ejected by home plate umpire Bill Hohn. Sure, Oswalt's frustration boiling over had something to do with Hohn's mistaken belief that he was showing up the umpire. It had a lot to do with a rare bad day, as that was Oswalt's first non-quality start of the season. But it was about much more.
In eight starts before Memorial Day, Oswalt was dominant in every way but the final score. He pitched at least seven innings in seven of the eight starts. Opponents were batting .194 against him. He had a 2.05 ERA and 58 strikeouts. But he was 3-4 in those starts, as Houston's bats offered little help, scoring fewer than three runs five times and getting shutout twice over that stretch.
Before Oswalt asked to be traded, his agent asked Astros owner Drayton McLane and GM Ed Wade if the club was considering bringing in more veteran talent or moving toward youth.
"They didn't really have an answer for what they were going to do right now," Oswalt said.
And in the midst of trade talk, he also said, "I've got two years left, and those two years, I'm trying to get back to the playoffs."
In this era when the only milking Mississippi farm boys tend to do is milking the clock, two years for Oswalt just might mean two years. It seems absurd that a player at the peak of his game, with millions more potentially on the table, would simply walk away after his current contract expires. It ultimately may prove to be too tempting for Oswalt, too. But those Mississippi folks back home who know Oswalt best would not be surprised. It's how he is.
And in a strange way, those simple values may force a trade. The Astros can't risk Oswalt retiring after 2011, perhaps just when the club begins to turn around. Any contending team -- the Mets being the most recently rumored trade partner -- can't afford to ignore this dominant, proven postseason commodity.
Favre has proved to be worth the trouble. Favre relishes the spotlight on Kiln, and the annual pilgrimage of TV trucks and reporters camping out. Oswalt prefers anonymity on the country roads around Weir.
Favre craves attention. The most attention Oswalt received was when he built a buffet restaurant near Weir, open only on weekends, so farmers and ranchers can have a nice place to take their families.
Favre loves it when his name is splashed across the sports world in full-HD, with zillions of mega-pixels flashing his name across computer screens. Oswalt would rather spend all year working and hunting his "Double4Ranch" or lazily, anonymously, sitting on a porch swing.
Favre is known for flamboyance and squeezing every last dollar out of his career. The most excited Oswalt ever got over a perk was when McLane promised him a new bulldozer if he won Game 6 of the 2005 NLCS. He did, and has since put nearly 800 hours on the 'dozer, clearing land, building a stock tank on his property and doing what folks around Weir always do: live the simple life.
These two Mississippi legends, Favre and Oswalt, come from virtually the same place, but could not be more different. Just as it was for Favre, somewhere out there is a team -- Nationals? Cardinals? Phillies? Rangers? Mets? -- that will have a real chance if they find a way to snag Oswalt before he calls it a career and heads home to Mississippi.