When Good Stories Go Bad

I don’t think a week went by last season without an exasperated email from me to Eric complaining that I just didn’t have a good feel for the type of content I wanted to post on a weekly basis.  We wanted the fan experience, yes, but balancing that with prospect and promotional info and putting it all in a nice, neat, readable package often became a puzzle for which I had no answer.

Sometimes, though, we knew the stories we had to write.  There were fun stories, like the early season Jay Bruce obsession, the “Now Batting For” series, or the tale of mine and Eric’s Hall of Fame pilgrimmage, that made us chuckle while writing and talking about them, because they really captured what the minor leagues were all about.  Those are the stories we love.

Then, of course, there were the sadder stories, like the aftermath of Mike Coolbaugh’s death, when the Rockies voted his family a full playoff share.  We’ve covered stuff like that from time to time, but it became less of a priority as the season progressed.  Without speaking for Eric, I suspect we gravitated naturally toward an almost entirely optimistic worldview on minor league baseball because that is how minor league baseball should be.  Setting aside from the Darwinism that permeates the game, the survival of the fittest mentality that has always and will always dictate the day-to-day lives of every player in every organization, the overall aura that one gets from the minor leagues is supposed to be natural, innocent.  We’re supposed to look out there on the field and watch grown men in giant sumo suits wrestling, or a mascot racing a child around the bases, or a veteran who’s hanging on for one more season just because the game is the purest love he’s ever had.  At its most basic, there should be no time for negativity in the minors.

John Odom’s story started out as a good time, a fun story that we just couldn’t ignore.  How do you pass up a story about a minor league pitcher who gets traded for ten baseball bats? You don’t.  I wrote the post (neglecting to reference Johnny “Blue Moon” Odom”), slapped on a silly headline about getting traded for geometry books (I worked in a high school at the time), and moved on.

Odom, apparently, couldn’t.

He took the deal in stride at first, cracking jokes and enjoying his newfound fame as “Bat Man.”  As his performance on the field declined, however, he found it more difficult to keep it together off the field, leaving his new team shortly after the trade.

His spiral hit bottom last November when he was found dead from an overdose of heroin, methamphetamine, benzylpiperazine and alcohol.  He was 26.

Of all the sad moments in this sad story, I found two to be the saddest.  The first was a passage near the end:

Details of his final days are elusive. His death was obscure. There is no record on where he was living, no explanation of how his body wound up at a hospital, no police report, no public record of where he is buried. Numerous telephone messages left for his family and friends were not returned.

As sad as that is – I fear nothing more than I fear dying alone – there has never been a better metaphor for the end of a playing career than the ones found in that paragraph.  How many times did it happen, especially before the Retrosheet Era, that a guy would come up for a few games, maybe make a small impression, then go back down to the minors, never to be heard from again.  It happens all the time in the independent leagues these days.  Of all the players I worked with in my two years with the Nashua Pride, I can tell you where maybe one or two are today.  So many of the others fell through the cracks, playing ball until their bodies gave out and they disappeared off to parts unknown.

The second sad spot comes at the very end, when the fate of the ten bats is discussed.  They were given to Ripley’s Believe it or Not! for a $10,000 donation to the team’s charity.  Ripley’s planned to make a display.  Shouldn’t Odom’s death complicate things?  It appears not:

“We’re still hoping to create an exhibit around them,” said Tim O’Brien of Ripley’s. “It would still attract a lot of interest.”

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