Ask the most hard-core baseball fan about John C. Odom and most likely you’ll get a blank stare. Yet millions of people have heard of the slender right-hander.
He was “Bat Man” or “Bat Guy” or “Bat Boy,” the minor league baseball player traded for 10 maple bats.
It became a big joke last May when word of the unusual swap jumped off the sports pages, and the former San Francisco Giants prospect went from pitcher to punch line.
“People are like, ’I’d kill myself’ and stuff,” Odom said at the time, dismissing any such notion.
Three weeks after the trade, he abruptly left the team.
Six months after the trade, he was dead.
The medical examiner said Odom’s death in Georgia on Nov. 5 at age 26 was an accidental overdose from heroin, methamphetamine, the stimulant benzylpiperazine and alcohol.
Odom’s death had drawn little notice by the start of spring training this year. Now, former teammates, managers and club officials keep asking a question for which there is no satisfying answer.
“I guarantee this trade thing really bothered him. That really worried me,” said Dan Shwam, who managed Odom last year on the Laredo Broncos of the United League. “I really believe, knowing his background, that this drove him back to the bottle, that it put him on the road to drugs again.”
Shwam added: “There were some demons chasing him, they’d been after him for a long time. But there’s no way to really know whether the trade did it, is there?”
At first, Odom seemed to handle it well. He gladly agreed to interviews. He kidded about the kooky deal and said it would make a better story if he reached the majors someday.
Odom certainly wasn’t on the path to the big leagues when the Calgary Vipers of the independent Golden Baseball League made him an instant curiosity.
By his own account, the 6-foot-2 Odom was a “lost youth” who got tossed off his Roswell, Ga., high school team. A few years later, he showed up in Florida at Tallahassee Community College, a small-school baseball powerhouse.
“This guy comes into my office, hair hanging below his shoulders, earrings, and asks if he could use my field,” TCC coach Mike McLeod recalled.
With a sharp curveball, 90 mph fastball and good changeup, Odom made the team as a walk-on. He pitched well, going 9-3 in 2003-04.
Odom had another talent: He was tremendous on the guitar, playing so often he hurt his elbow and missed some games.
“He had a musician’s heart, not an athlete’s heart,” McLeod said. “He was manic. He’d sometimes come in with dark glasses and you’d know he was in a black mood. But he had so much going for him.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Odom later committed to Oklahoma State and instead signed with the Giants, who had drafted him in the 44th round in 2003.
He had a bumpy four years in the Giants’ system, none above Class A. He went 9-8 in 38 games, missed most of one season because of a wrecked right elbow and lost another year to a dislocated left shoulder.
The Giants released Odom in spring training last year. Calgary offered a job, but because of a 1999 conviction for aggravated assault when Odom was a minor, he couldn’t get into Canada. On May 20, the team made the famous trade.
Calgary team president Peter Young and Laredo general manager Jose Melendez nearly traded him for a slugger, but it fell apart. Melendez proposed buying Odom’s contract for $1,000. Young rejected that, saying the Vipers didn’t do cash deals because they made the team look financially unstable.
Bats, though, the Vipers could use. At $665 for 10 bats — made by Prairie Sticks, double-dipped black, 34 inches long, model C243, Laredo agreed to the unusual deal.
“This was not done as a publicity stunt,” said Young, now the Vipers’ director of baseball operations. “I talked to John several times and told him this wasn’t done to embarrass him.”
Odom did more than change teams. He changed identities.
One day a ballplayer, the next day a bit of trivia.
“It really is sad,” Giants ace Tim Lincecum, who used to bunk on Odom’s couch in Class A, said about the deal last weekend.
Eager to play somewhere, Odom packed up after the trade and drove 30 hours, nearly 2,000 miles, to Laredo. When he arrived in Texas, everyone wanted to ask him about the bats.
At first, Odom lapped up the publicity. “Batman survives,” he said. His first outing went OK, too.
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