Weir's Oswalt: a study in humility, hard work

(The great Roy Oswalt of Weir, one of the best pitchers of his generation, announced his retirement today. This is what I wrote of him on June 26, 2011, when he had suffered the back injury that was the beginning of the end of his splendid career.)

Roy Oswalt, one of the most accomplished pitchers of his era, has been diagnosed with a “mildly bulging disk” in his lower back and has been put on the Philadelphia Phillies disabled list.

Oswalt’s earliest return would be August. He is seeking a second opinion. My experience: There’s nothing “mild” about any kind of bulging disk.

The sad truth is that Oswalt could be finished at 33. The Weir native said as much earlier this week when reporters asked when he would return. Oswalt responded, saying he’s had “a nice career.”

“Nice” is an understatement. Playing nearly all of his 10-plus years for mediocre Astros teams, Oswalt has won 153 games and lost only 85 with an earned run average of 3.17. There are Hall of Famers who do not possess such numbers.

Yes, and Oswalt has been at his best when the games are most important. Traded from the lowly Astros to the pennant-contending Philadelphia Phillies last season, Oswalt had a pitching rebirth at age 33, going 7-1 with a 1.71 ERA. That collective groan you heard at mid-season was from Atlanta Braves fans when the Phillies obtained Oswalt. Braves fans know all too well what Oswalt is like when the games really mean something.

Oswalt has compiled such gaudy numbers with relatively little fanfare for a couple reasons: One, he pitched in Houston; and, two, he is a low-key, country guy, just plain folk. You could look it up in the Baseball Almanac, which quotes Oswalt as saying, “I’ve always believed in leading by doing it on the field and having others follow. I’ve never thought that you have to be too outspoken in the clubhouse, as long as you set an example for guys to follow. People watch that more than they listen to some guy talking, no matter who he is.”

Oswalt practices what he preaches.

A football star, too

Turns out, he always has. Junior Graham, who now coaches at Eupora, coached Oswalt in both football and baseball at Weir. In fact, Oswalt was a 155-pound starting free safety and wide receiver on Weir’s 1994 Class 1A state championship team. He was so good in baseball, Weir created a baseball team and built a baseball field his ninth grade season. That’s right: They saw Oswalt pitch and they decided they ought to start baseball.

“Roy was a junior when I got to Weir,” Graham said. “His dad was a logger and he had spent a lot of time in the woods. Roy was a quiet kid, and he wasn’t very big, 5-10 or 5-11 and maybe 155 pounds, but he was a gifted athlete.

“He was a really good football player for us both ways, and it’s obvious how good he was in baseball,” Graham said. “He could have been a great basketball player, too, because he had all the skills and was so fast. People don’t realize how fast he could run.”

Here’s a trivia question for you: What small-town Mississippi football team once had two safeties who would go on to play professional sports?

The answer, you might have guessed: Weir. The other safety on that 1994 state championship team was Dennis McKinley who went on to play at Mississippi State and in the NFL.

“In baseball, we had Roy and a bunch of ordinary players who loved to compete,” Graham said. “We figured whenever Roy pitched if we could just get a run or two we could win.”

Problem was, Roy couldn’t pitch every day, and sometimes they couldn’t get him a run. They made it to the second round of the state playoffs before elimination.

So much torque on back

College coaches were skeptical, along with pro scouts. For them, seeing wasn’t believing. Little guys can’t throw that hard for long, they figured. So, Oswalt pitched at Holmes Community College before being drafted in the 23rd round by the Astros.

I am with Graham on this one: “You would watch Roy pitch and it was just amazing that such a small, wiry guy could throw the ball 93 to 95 miles per hour. I mean, it seems impossible that a guy that size can throw so hard.”

It does. And that’s probably what has led to these lower back issues. So much body torque goes into every pitch he throws; such violent motion has to produce a strain or strains, somewhere, on his slender body. In his case, it’s his lower back. He has two degenerative disks.

Oswalt will be 34 in August. We will see.

“The one thing you need to know about Roy is that none of this will change him,” Graham said. “He’s the same guy now as he was back in 1994. Humility has taken that guy a long way.”

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As per our bylaws, Roy Oswalt will become eligible for the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2018, five years after he last played Major League Baseball.

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