Oswalt carries values of youth to field
Small-town roots help ace ascend as quiet leader of Astros
Whether harvesting watermelons as a kid on his grandfather's farm in rural Mississippi or trying to pitch his way out of a bases-loaded jam in Los Angeles, Roy Oswalt knows of only one way to do things -- keep your head down, stay quiet and make sure you're working harder than the next guy.
Those were the country-fried values Oswalt was taught at an early age by his grandfather, a logger and farmer, and his father, a tough-as-nails Vietnam veteran. Oswalt relied upon those values and his talented right arm to emerge from the fields of tiny Weir, Miss., and reach stardom with the Houston Astros.
Along the way, there was fame and fortune and an Olympic gold medal, but soft-spoken Oswalt's hard-working ways never changed. He always led by example, which is why comments he made recently after a difficult loss were so surprising.
Stinging from a 3-2 defeat to the Cardinals on Aug. 26 that further damaged the Astros' playoff hopes, Oswalt said after the game the team was playing with "no fire" and the clubhouse atmosphere was "dead." He and fellow veteran Lance Berkman addressed the team a day later, and Houston went out and beat the St. Louis.
"Roy's a guy that has a lot of pride in what he does," Berkman said. "That's one of the reasons he's been so successful."
After all, the son of Billy Oswalt and grandson of Houston Oswalt knows no other way.
"Be who you are and don't try to be someone else," Oswalt said. "I think a lot of guys get in a situation where they try to be somebody else and adapt to the atmosphere around them instead of be who you are and keep the correct mindset of where you came from and your last name."
Oswalt's comments last month even got the attention of owner Drayton McLane, who gave Oswalt a $200,000 bulldozer after he won Game 6 of the National League Championship Series to clinch the Astros' only NL pennant in 2005.
"That was out of character for him -- he's normally a very soft-spoken person, very quiet," McLane said. "That was surprising, but Roy felt it from his heart, and he felt like it was important to say. Roy has been one of the strongest leaders on our team for nearly 10 years. Most of his leadership has been similar to Jeff Bagwell, who rarely ever spoke out public.
"Roy has been reserved, but people have looked up to him because of the high quality of player he was. Roy only speaks when he thinks it's important. Some people talk constantly, but when Roy speaks out, it's a big story."
Dodgers catcher and longtime Oswalt battery mate Brad Ausmus slowly saw Oswalt evolve into his leadership role.
"I think when [Andy] Pettitte and [Roger] Clemens left, Roy became the leader of the pitching staff," Ausmus said. "Even though he was the Opening Day starter when Andy and Clemens were there, when they left, he became the veteran, successful pitching leader, and it's only natural that would translate [to leading] the entire team."
|"Roy only speaks when he thinks it's important. Some people talk constantly, but when Roy speaks out, it's a big story."|
|-- Astros owner Drayton McLane|
"Being a young pitcher, I grew up watching a lot of the early part of his career and I definitely lean on him for advice on everything, from when you're throwing too much, not throwing enough, different pitches to use and the mind-set," left-hander Wesley Wright said. "He's definitely a leader. He's one of the guys I always go to for advice."
A 23rd-round pick in 1996 out of Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss., Oswalt won 19 games for the Astros in 2002 and was the only pitcher in the Majors to win 20 games in the '04 and '05 seasons. He signed a five-year, $73 million contract that runs through 2011, but has stayed true to his roots. Sure, he owns a ranch in Illinois and has a nice spread in Weir, but the Roy Oswalt that helped worked the watermelon fields is the same Roy Oswalt you see today.
Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who played with Oswalt at Class A Kissimmee in 2000 and later with the Astros, marveled at how quickly Oswalt established himself with the Astros in a rotation full of veterans, becoming arguably the team's best pitcher during its playoff runs in 2004 and '05.
"Ever since then, he's firmly entrenched himself as a guy that will step up in the games and a guy that will take the ball just about no matter what," Lidge said. "There's a reason every single year he's at the top of the innings-pitched leaderboard. He's a workhouse out there. He doesn't say a whole lot, but he's in the Bagwell mold and goes out there and gets it done."
That mentality comes naturally to Oswalt.
"A lot of times with the fame and the money here, you can get your wires crossed a little bit on who you are and adapt to the environment instead of staying with what you know and how you got here and what you do," Oswalt said. "This is one of the most humbling games in the world, and you try to ride that wave as long as you can.
"At some point you're going to struggle. No matter who you are, you're going to struggle. Same way with life. You go through life and have those years where everything seems to go right, and you have those years where you have to battle through."
With that in mind, Oswalt hasn't been shy about giving back to his community. The money he donates to the "Astros In Action" foundation yearly goes directly to help the folks in Weir, a small town of about 530 people.
In 2007, Roy and wife, Nicole, a fellow Weir native, established Fund 44. In addition to providing annual gifts to several children's charities such as the Garth Brooks Children's Charity, the fund has made contributions to the Gulf Coast Ike Relief Fund. In 2009, Fund 44 will be teaming up with the Ronald McDonald House to provide assistance with local programs in Jackson, Miss.
"We've helped some people in Jackson and some people in town have some problems here and there or had a house burn down," Oswalt said. "We try to give them some money and get them back on their feet."
Oswalt built an indoor workout facility for his high school and donated $100,000 to Holmes CC to help build a similar facility. Holmes head baseball coach Kenny Dupont said Oswalt's yearly contributions have helped put the school's facilities among the best in junior college.
"If it wasn't for him, I don't know what we would do," said Dupont, who was the pitching coach while Oswalt was there. "That's the one thing about him -- he never forgets where he came from."
Dupont said Oswalt will be involved in the designing process for the indoor facility, and the school is in the process of naming the stadium after him. Dupont's office is filled with signed Oswalt memorabilia, and the spikes he wore in the 2005 World Series are in a glass case.
|"A lot of great leaders may never say a word, but have the actions that other guys tend to follow."|
|-- Roy Oswalt|
Dupont believes Oswalt could run for mayor of Goodman and win easily.
"Everybody loves Roy around here," he said. "Roy is the hardest-working kid I've ever had. He was one of the guys that's the first on the field and the last one off. I remember running him off the field and it was raining. He was out there with a five-gallon bucket, playing long toss by himself.
"He was a very competitive person and wanted to win. If he had to knock a batter down, he'd knock him down. When he took that hill, he became a different person. Off the field, he is a great kid and we can't say enough about him."
Good work ethic aside, those close to Oswalt were concerned with how he'd handle the bright lights and big cities of the Major Leagues.
"Everywhere I've been is always bigger [than Weir]," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's 10,000 people or 3 million people, it was bigger than where I came from. I think the small-town values, growing up there everyone knows everyone and you have a core of people that have great morals."
And with great morals comes hard work, and that's the example Oswalt always tries to set.
"I think a lot of times, leadership can be by actions on and off the field," he said. "A lot of great leaders may never say a word, but have the actions that other guys tend to follow."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.