Oswalt introduces himself to Philadelphia
Veteran right-hander set to make home debut for Phillies
PHILADELPHIA -- Roy Oswalt is with a new team, in a new city, in unfamiliar surroundings.
It might take him awhile to get comfortable.
"It's a little different," he said, chuckling.
Oswalt, who pitches for the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park for the first time Wednesday, played nine-plus seasons with the Astros until they traded him to the Phillies on July 29.
Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, but it spreads over roughly 600 square miles. Philadelphia, Oswalt's new summer home, spreads over 135 square miles.
There is more room to roam in Houston.
There certainly is more room in Oswalt's hometown of Weir, Miss., which has a population of 553.
Weir is where Oswalt's heart is. He grew up there, lives nearby and opened the town's only restaurant in November. Home Plate Fish & Steakhouse originally opened its doors from 4 to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, because everybody in town eats at home during the week. But the place is doing well and recently opened for lunch Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
"Right where I live, right where I grew up, you have to drive about 20 miles to get to a restaurant," he said. "I didn't really start it up to make a whole lot of money. I just started it up for the community so they'd have somewhere to eat on the weekend."
Oswalt once said he would play 10 seasons in the big leagues before retiring and returning home to Mississippi.
He will play at least 11. His contract with the Phillies runs through 2011, although there is a $16 million mutual option for 2012. It would be impossible for most people to turn down $16 million to play baseball one more year, but Oswalt does not need the money. He has said he would be content packing up his glove and spending the rest of his life with his family at home.
"I've got next year on my contract, and then I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "It's getting close. But I don't want my kids growing up without me being around, so I don't know. We'll see where I'm at healthwise. I feel like if I'm not pitching at the level I'm pitching at now, then I'm not going to try to hang onto the game for some numbers."
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Oswalt, who turns 33 on Aug. 29, does not crave the city life. (He is living in Center City until he finds someplace else to live.) His grandfather Houston and father, Billy, were loggers, and Oswalt worked with his father when he was a teenager.
"I ran chainsaw," Oswalt said.
He also worked a knuckleboom loader, which picks up trees to be loaded on trucks. Oswalt's brother Brian ran the skidder, which grabbed trees and dragged them up a ramp. Once on the ramp, Oswalt cut off the tree's limbs.
"And then I'd get on the other machine, pick it up and put it on the truck," he said.
It was exhausting work.
"We'd get up at 5 o'clock and get home at 5 o'clock," he said. "On a weekend, our friends were like, 'Let's go out. Let's go out.' You're so tired by the weekend you didn't want to go out. Sometimes we'd go out Saturday night, but Friday night, we'd usually just stay in because we were dead tired. I remember during some summers when I got older, 17 probably, I would work there until dinner and jump on the log truck. It would always go by the road that went to my house. It was about three miles to my house, they'd drop me off and I would walk or hitchhike back to my house to get my truck to go to Jackson and pitch. They'd say, 'Are you ready to go?' Then I'd go seven innings."
Before he worked with his father, he worked for his grandfather, who grew watermelons after he retired from logging at 78.
"He did it for us more than anything to make us work," Oswalt said.
Houston Oswalt picked up Roy and his brother at daylight, and they would spend the rest of the day in the roughly 20-acre field, fertilizing or hoeing.
"I remember we'd always start in the morning and think we'll get finished by dinner and go fishing," Oswalt said. "It'd always take all day. But that's how we made our money to buy school clothes for the next year. It makes you appreciate the money part of [baseball] because we'd work all week for $300."
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The Astros drafted Oswalt in the 23rd round of the 1996 First-Year Player Draft. Kris Benson, Braden Looper, Adam Eaton, Eric Milton, Jake Westbrook, Gil Meche and others were selected in the first round that year.
Oswalt signed his first contract in May 1997 and was pitching for Class A Michigan in the Midwest League two years later. He missed the first month of the 1999 season because he had calcium deposits in the shoulder. He rehabbed in extended spring training, rejoined the team and started great before feeling pain in a different part of the shoulder toward the end of the season.
He finished 13-4 with a 4.46 ERA.
"It got worse and worse and worse every time I started. I took painkillers before the game just to try to get through it," he said.
He pitched a playoff game for Michigan, but said, "It got to the point where I couldn't get my arm above my head."
Oswalt returned to Mississippi in the offseason, hoping rest might help. But simple tasks like getting food off the top shelf at the grocery store proved difficult. He figured he had enough and would call the Astros to tell them that he might need surgery.
But before he made the call, Oswalt was working on an old truck he used for hunting.
"I kind of knew what was wrong with it, so I was just checking it out," he explained.
The engine running, he reached for some spark plug wires with his right hand. Electricity shot through him. The shock caused his hand to grip the wires tighter. He could not let go, so he jumped backward to free himself.
"I jumped back, and my shoulder felt 90 percent better," he said. "The next day I couldn't feel it at all."
Oswalt told Astros doctors about it, but they sounded skeptical. They said it was probably just time that healed the shoulder.
"I'm telling you it wasn't time," he replied. "It was to the point when I was about to call you to tell you to cut me open and look in there."
Oswalt returned in 2000 and went a combined 15-7 with a 2.21 ERA in Class A Kissimmee and Double-A Round Rock. He made his big league debut in 2001 and went 14-3 with a 2.73 ERA to finish second in National League Rookie of the Year voting behind Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols. Since then he has been a two-time 20-game winner, a three-time All-Star and has finished in the top five in Cy Young Award voting five times.
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Oswalt's success in the big leagues has helped him own a 1,000-acre reserve -- named the Double 4 Ranch -- in Kosciusko, Miss., where his father and cousin Robbie Hall are hunting guides. (Oswalt also owns reserves in Missouri and Illinois.) It boasts the finest whitetail deer and exotic game like gemsboks, blackbuck antelope and mouflon sheep.
So what are the chances of success for an average Joe from Philadelphia at Double 4?
"About 90 percent," he said with a smile.
Are there any comparisons between pitching and hunting?
"I like the challenge of it," he said. "Some people go hunting and shoot the first thing that comes by. I try to pick out an individual deer that I've seen on camera at night and just hunt that animal."
A few years ago, Oswalt spotted a deer that he wanted to hunt. He spent the entire three-month season pursuing the animal, bypassing better deer for the chosen one.
He got it the last day of the season.
"I was in the stand right before dark, and something told me to get out of the stand and walk over the edge of a ridge," he said. "I never do that. I always stay there until dark. Something just told me to go over the ridge. I walked up on him within 15 steps. He was with a doe. He heard me. But when the doe saw me, she took off. She kind of blinded him by going in front of him. So he was standing there looking at her run off, so he never saw me and I got him."
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The postseason hunt continues in Philadelphia. Oswalt, who is 0-1 with a 4.38 ERA in his first two starts with the Phillies, wants another shot at a World Series championship after the Astros lost to the White Sox in the 2005 World Series.
He has this year and next year to make it happen, if he decides to retire after 2011.
"He's fit right in," Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick said. "He wants to win, and he's definitely happy to be here. I thought we had a pretty good rotation before, and now it's a lot better."
"One of the big things our team has is guys don't have to take the credit," said Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who played with Oswalt in Houston. "He was the ace of that staff in Houston, but he comes over and he doesn't need to be the ace here. He just wants to help us win. He's quiet, but he'll go out there and show you how good he is. Having guys like him is what we're all about."
If the Phillies get Oswalt his ring, how would he celebrate? It is difficult picturing him taking an exotic vacation somewhere. It is much easier picturing him celebrating at Home Plate with family and friends.
Hey, why not?
"We have some good steaks," Oswalt said.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.