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Big Game Hunter
February 27, 2006
If you watch how Astros ace Roy Oswalt uses his steely resolve to stalk a prize buck back home in Mississippi, it's no surprise how efficiently he takes out opposing batters
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February 27, 2006

Big Game Hunter

If you watch how Astros ace Roy Oswalt uses his steely resolve to stalk a prize buck back home in Mississippi, it's no surprise how efficiently he takes out opposing batters

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Here's what a hitter is up against. Not so much a 97-mph fastball, or even a confounding curve, the one that limps over the plate about an All-Star break after he's already slapped at it. He's trying to outlast the sort of guy who will spend 40 days--the better part of an entire off-season--in pursuit of a single deer, Moby Dick--style, never backing down, never suffering a single self-doubt, just staring holes into the batter, rearing back and firing. � Roy Oswalt won the Big Buck contest in Weir, Miss., so many years in a row, they just stopped having it. It wasn't fair. Most of all, he had the advantage of time. He'd come home from his summer job, starting pitcher for the Houston Astros, and spend weeks scouting the 1,000-acre hunting property he owns with his brother, Brian, in Kosciusko, 20 miles southwest of Weir. He'd identify deer paths, set up motion-sensor cameras, study the photos, settle on likely targets. The guys he'd hunt with, loggers like his dad, Billy Joe, could hardly invest so much prep time. Anyway, who is so weirdly disciplined that he can stand in a blind and watch one trophy after another pass by, waiting for that one buck that will shame all others? � This past hunting season, though, was a test even for Oswalt, who'd just turned 28 and was settling into major league stardom. He'd won 20 games for the second straight year, even pitched the wild-card Astros into the World Series. Making good on a promise, the team's owner, Drayton McLane, had delivered to him a Caterpillar D6N XL bulldozer, a mass of hydraulics normally associated with the construction of interstate highways. Oswalt, infatuated with heavy equipment after having worked many summers for his dad's logging outfit (operating knuckle booms and whatnot), was understandably taken with the 35,000 pounds of yellow iron on his property. "Most people have the D5s," he says, patting the treads on his house-sized, $200,000 machine. This kind of generalization might actually apply in central Mississippi, believe it or not. In any case, Oswalt has the more powerful model. So he drained his eight-acre lake (outworking a beaver who kept packing mud into the drain), restored parts of it with his bulldozer before refilling and restocking it, and carved an intricate network of roads through his piney plot.

Still, he did not neglect the hunt. Anyone who knows Oswalt, whether in his Fried Green Tomatoes town of Weir (pop. 555) or at his workplace in the National League, is aware of his frightful resolve. Teammate Craig Biggio remembers Oswalt "scuffling" in 2002, his second year with the Astros. (Though Oswalt won 19 games, they didn't seem to come as effortlessly as in his 14-3 rookie season.) "Then he started doing his homework, studying reports and tendencies. Since then, he's been filthy."

For that matter, how did Oswalt, who last week reported to spring training with other Houston pitchers and catchers, get to the major leagues, if not through outlandish persistence? The 6-foot, 185-pound righthander is not given to introspection and, in his country-boy way, denies all ambition. But a visit to the boys-only rumpus room above his substantial garage, where he likes to entertain visitors to his 40-acre home site, gives away the truth. His truck, hunting-dog carrier, ATVs and full-blown gym are below. But upstairs, overlooking the man-made lake and a small clearing to which deer are lured by a corn-spreader (just for the pleasure of watching them; he's a sportsman, not a butcher), is a collection of baseball memorabilia (including signed jerseys from Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan and Curt Schilling) that speaks to a definite striving. He won't admit as much, but it's up there on his walls.

On a Houston staff that has had the more media-ready Clemens and Andy Pettitte, Oswalt has been overlooked--to the extent that a pitcher who has won 83 games over his first five seasons can be overlooked--far more often than he's been outpitched. He helped the Astros nail down the wild card by going 5-1 in his last seven starts of the regular season, then went a combined 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA as Houston beat the Atlanta Braves in the Division Series and the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. But if you hail from Weir (pronounced ware, and very slowly), being overlooked is a geographical and sociological inevitability. You're going to have to be a little special, combative even, to overcome it.

Weir has had outsized success in producing NFL players--at least five of them, including Alvin McKinley of the Cleveland Browns, since 1975--but it has produced just one major leaguer. "Well," explains Oswalt, in his soft drawl, "we didn't have a high school baseball team, for one thing." Weir is the kind of place where the high school kids (there were 31 in his class) would spend Saturday nights building bonfires or going mud riding. "You know, get your girl, load up the four-wheeler, hit some trails, see who gets stuck," he says. Oswalt's girl, his 10th-grade sweetheart, Nicole, eventually became his wife. (Their daughter, Arlee Faith, turns two this year.) The point is, Weir was good for a nice wholesome upbringing but not for entry into the big leagues.

Billy Joe, a former rec league softball player, had watched his son play Little League ball, though, and knew Roy might at least be a college-level pitcher. So he petitioned the school board to start up a baseball program and used his own equipment to clear a field. By Roy's sophomore year there was a school team. "Had 14 games that first year," says Roy. "I pitched 12 of them."

A scout who worked the central Mississippi area for the Baltimore Orioles, Kenny DuPont, was the only bird dog to visit Weir, and he loved the way Roy intimidated batters and owned the plate. "He was a dirtbag bulldog," says DuPont. But when the scout filed his report with the big club, what he heard back was, "Hmmm, 5'10", 150 pounds, throws 85--we're pretty much set in that department."

As it happened, DuPont became pitching coach at nearby Holmes Community College in 1996 and persuaded Oswalt to join him there, if only to get a better shot at a scholarship to Mississippi State. In one year Oswalt grew two inches, added a few pounds and got his fastball up in the 95-mph range by just generally working his butt off. "It'd be raining out," says DuPont, now the team's head coach, "and I'd look down on the field and there was Roy all alone, long tossing. He's once in a lifetime."

Mississippi State and the Astros came calling, the latter winning out with a $500,000 bonus. But aside from the money, the team showed little faith in him. The Astros kept Oswalt in Class A ball for three years; he felt doomed to a life of 10-hour bus rides, maybe breaking through to work in a major league bullpen by the time he was 28--or worse, because after that third season, in 1999, he returned to Weir not only discouraged but also hurting, his shoulder so sore that he was taking seven Advil a day.

Which brings us to the Spark Plug Story, one of several yarns that Oswalt spins for his delighted teammates ("Did he tell you about fishing with dynamite?" Biggio asks. "For God's sakes!") This one, Oswalt swears, actually happened. Seems that over the winter he was working on his hunting truck, a Ford F150 he'd bought for $1,500, when he grabbed a bare spark plug wire and got jolted across the garage. He reported it thus to his wife: "My truck done shocked the fire out of me, and my arm don't hurt no more."

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