When Big League baseball teams want to make a public relations splash, they can go out and make a big personnel move — like the Royals signing Bruce Chen to a Minor League deal or the Mets bringing Ron Villone aboard — and grab some headlines. But MLB tickets sell themselves, for the most part, because the teams are recognizable brands, the baseball is generally of a high quality, and you’re guaranteed not to hear Joe Morgan or Joe Buck talking if you’re at the game in person. (How and why the $11 beers sell is a different, sadder story) But it’s not that hard to get attention if you’re a Major League team. It doesn’t mean MLB teams don’t go in for the occasional corny stunt. It just means they don’t necessarily have to.
Minor League teams, especially in independent leagues, don’t have the brand strength to coast on big stars like Chen or Villone, and so do need to fall back on stunts. This is how we get bobblefoot giveaways or teams built around past-their-prime stars — the late Atlantic League franchise in Newark, for instance, kept both Ozzie and Jose Canseco in uniform well past their sell-by dates, an experience memorably captured in this searing documentary. It’s not a bad thing at all, really. But at the absolute bottom, where any national headline is instantly worth the sneers and collateral damage, it can lead to things like the Golden League’s Calgary Vipers trading a player — this guy, former Giants farmhand John Odom — to the United League’s Laredo Broncos for 10 bats. The publicity stunt delivered the publicity, but pretty much ruined Odom, reports the AP’s Ben Walker. Odom, who had struggled with mood and substance issues since high school, did not take the deal terribly well and died of a heroin overdose last November, six months after the trade.
œThis was not done as a publicity stunt, said [Peter] Young, now the Vipers™ director of baseball operations. œI 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.
…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. œBatman survives, he said. His first outing went OK, too. Then came a particularly bad night in Amarillo.
…On June 5 in Amarillo, the œBatman theme played while Odom warmed up for Laredo, and he tipped his cap to the sound booth. But he was battered for eight runs in 3 1-3 innings and mercilessly taunted by the crowd. [Laredo Manager Dan] Shwam went to the mound. œThe chants, the catcalls, they were terrible. I had to get him out of there for his own good. He was falling apart, right in front of our eyes, Shwam said.
When Shwam noticed Odom becoming more withdrawn, he called a team meeting. The message: No more talking about the trade or the bats by anyone. Odom pitched five good innings at San Angelo on June 10 in what turned out to be his third and last start. On the bus after the game, Odom said he needed to speak with Shwam the next day. œHe came in and said, ˜Skip, I™m going home. I just can™t take it. I™ve got some things to take care of. I™ve got to get my life straightened out,™ Shwam recalled. And with that, Odom disappeared.
Several baseball people tried calling him, but got no answer. In January, Shwam called Odom™s cell phone, seeing if he wanted to pitch this year for a team in Alexandria, La., but got only his voice mail. A few weeks later, Shwam learned that Odom was dead. œI was shocked, he said. œUnfortunately, it doesn™t surprise me.
There’s already something strange and jarring about trading people for other people, and stunts are a minor league tradition and generally not worth getting too fired up about, but this stinks.
UPDATE: I typed too soon on the Newark Bears, who are back in business and have landed their usual assortment of recognizable names before even signing anyone to their roster. Rock Raines is managing the team and, in a needed note of levity after this turbo-bummer of a post, the team has brought aboard former White Sox out-machine Ron Karkovice — and the credibility of his career .221/.289/.383 line — as hitting coach.