By IAN WILSON
Sports transactions often have a lasting impact.
Edmonton Oiler fans still cringe at the thought of Wayne Gretzky being dealt to the Los Angeles Kings in a move that changed the landscape of the National Hockey League (NHL).
More recently, boosters of the Calgary Flames witnessed the departure of star forward Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers in exchange for a package that included winger Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.
Baseball, in particular, has a history of gimmicky swaps.
Keith Comstock, who pitched for the Calgary Cannons in the Pacific Coast League, was dealt for a bag of baseballs in the 1980s.
Slugger Drew Miller, a mainstay with the independent league Calgary Vipers, was once traded for “a player to be named later.” The other player never materialized, which ultimately meant that Miller was traded for nothing.
The Vipers never shied away from a move that had the potential to generate headlines.
In 2008, the Golden Baseball League club pulled several promotional levers to entice fans to Foothills Stadium. One publicity stunt saw NHLer Theo Fleury suit up for the Vipers. Felix Jose, a veteran of 11 Major League Baseball (MLB) seasons was brought on board. Another move involved the trade of a pitcher for an unusual return.
The incentive for the transaction evolved from the need to solve a problem with getting a player over the border from the United States and into Alberta.
The Vipers signed John C. Odom – a 44th-round pick of the San Francisco Giants in the 2003 MLB Draft – before the season. A right-handed pitcher with minor-league experience at the Single-A level, Odom had a criminal record from an altercation he was involved in when he was 17 years old. Immigration officials picked up on the unspecified charge when they checked his passport. Odom, who was originally from Atlanta, Georgia, drove to the Canada-U.S. border and stayed at a Montana hotel while team officials tried to figure out what to do.
The Vipers explored their trade options, reportedly targeting a top hitter with the Laredo Broncos of the United League, another indy-league circuit. That player was not interested in moving to Calgary, however, so the Broncos countered with a cash offer.
Peter Young, the president of the Vipers, described the monetary proposal as “an insult.” The Calgary team had concerns that another club buying out Odom’s contract at a cost of $1,000 would make the Vipers appear financially unstable.
Instead, the two sides settled on swapping Odom for 10 baseball bats. More specifically, the Vipers received 10 double-dipped black, 34-inch bats from Red Deer-based Prairie Sticks Bat Company. Each maple bat sold at a retail price of $69 US.
Mike Busch, the manager of the Vipers, described the trade as beneficial for all parties involved.
“We just wanted John Odom to play somewhere as soon as possible. This time of the year, everybody’s roster is set,” he explained to Calgary Herald columnist George Johnson.
“I didn’t want future considerations. You just never know what that means. I was looking around the room and we had a lot of Spalding balls … John was really good about it. Look, it’s supposed to be fun. It turned out to be a win-win situation. John Odom has gone somewhere where he can play and we got a little bit of publicity.”
Of course, the Vipers also received 10 bats.
“They just wanted some bats, good bats — maple bats,” Broncos general manager Jose Melendez said in an Associated Press news article from May 24th.
“It will be interesting to see what 10 bats gets us.”
Jon Hinkel, interim manager with Laredo, didn’t consider the deal abnormal.
“You hear of players traded for bats. That’s not unusual,” remarked Hinkel.
“Baseballs, uniforms, oysters, side of beef. It happens all the time. Nine out of 10 times when someone’s traded and it’s not for a particular player, they usually put in there, ‘For future considerations.’ ”
Added Hinkel: “If he comes out here and does his job, takes command of the strike zone and puts up good numbers, his name’s already out there enough, he shouldn’t be here very long then.”
Odom’s response was less than enthusiastic.
“I don’t really care … it’ll make a better story if I make it to the big leagues,” he said.
From there, the story took off. It made headlines in newspapers across North America and an appearance on American cable TV network ESPN. Sports radio hosts also got a chuckle out of the unorthodox trade.
Odom was immediately thrust into the spotlight on his new team in Texas.
“I’m still in shock from this phenomenon, I guess,” the pitcher told Associated Press reporter Chris Talbott as his Bronco teammates warmed up around him.
“I don’t know how to describe it. It’s mind-boggling.”
Odom recounted giving up baseball between the ages of 17 and 21 years old.
“I was a lost youth .. I was a very troubled kid. I was just lost is all I can say,” he said, adding he was pulled back into the game when a scout spotted him throwing in the low 90s in Florida.
“They were like, ‘Oooh, wow, who the heck is this kid?’ ” Odom recalled.
The Giants took notice and drafted him late, with the 1,317th overall selection. Plagued by injuries in the minors, he was later released by San Francisco.
Enter the Vipers, the issues at the border and the trade that made waves.
“You know, honestly, it can only get better career-wise,” Odom said.
“People are going to come see me pitch now just to see if I can even throw the ball straight. ‘Wow, he hit the mitt once. He’s good. The trade’s a success!’ ”
The trade was most certainly a success for Prairie Sticks Bat Company.
Company owners Jared Greenberg and Dan Zinger were traveling home to Red Deer from Minnesota when the news of the trade broke.
“We just kind of blew it off, like, ‘OK, we’ve got to make these 10 bats,” said Greenberg in the Red Deer Advocate.
“Then all the sudden … somewhere in the middle of North Dakota, within five minutes, both of our cell phones were blinking and beeping. It’s been crazy.”
The pair turned in for the night, but orders continued to come in from Connecticut to California.
“All these orders came in between midnight and 5 or 6 a.m. while we were sleeping,” said Greenberg.
Zinger said the company – which started in a workshop after amateur men’s league players in central Alberta had difficulty getting their hands on maple bats – had steadily increased the number of bats they were producing each year.
“We’re at the point now where this story has broken and we’re selling to a lot of independent pro leagues and we’re on the verge of picking up our Major League vendor’s license,” Zinger told the Associated Press.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT
The Vipers, a club that once tried to swap 1,500 blue stadium seats for a pitcher following ballpark renovations, also appeared to have a marketing victory on their hands.
“We’re a little crazy,” Young told the media.
“Our motto is, ‘Minor league baseball is supposed to be fun.’ So if there’s anything else you can do to make it more fun, you go ahead and do it.”
The original idea was to auction the bats off via eBay and donate the proceeds to charity, but when Ripley’s Believe It or Not! caught wind of the transaction, the entertainment group purchased them for $10,000 and made plans to exhibit them alongside a lifelike wax figure of Odom.
“This may not be the most bizarre trade ever done, but it certainly ranks up there,” noted Ripley’s vice-president of communications Tim O’Brien.
When O’Brien and Edward Meyer, Ripley’s vice-president of archives and exhibits, came to Foothills Stadium in mid-June for the cheque presentation and to take possession of the bats, they expanded on their interest in the baseball equipment.
“We loved the idea that this poor baseball player was actually going to be traded for 10 chunks of wood,” O’Brien said in the Calgary Herald.
“There have been interesting trades in the past, but this is the latest, and quite unusual … it’s quirky, bizarre. When people heard about the trade, they said, ‘I don’t believe that.’ And that’s what Ripley’s is all about.”
The bats were slotted for a trip to one of Ripley’s North American locations, but the display date had not been set at that point. The company planned to work with Odom in creating the exhibit.
“The final step of the trade is now complete,” said Meyer.
“Mr. Odom is now pitching for Laredo, and we’re in the process of creating an exhibit that will highlight one of professional baseball’s most bizarre trades.”
As for the $10,000, the Vipers indicated they would donate it to Snakes and Batters, the team’s children’s charity.
“(Odom) could throw a no-hitter and he wouldn’t be as famous as he is right now,” quipped Young at the press conference.
“When Ripley’s called, we decided it was a much better fit. Instead of the bats hanging in basements or sports bars around the country they will be properly displayed for many more fans to see.”
The Vipers hosted a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! night at Foothills Stadium on Saturday, June 14th when the Chico Outlaws came to Calgary. According to a team press release, the event promised “Ripley-style fun, prize giveaways and unusual activities during the game.”
NO LAUGHING MATTER
The jokes continued in the United League, where Odom was preparing to take the mound.
“What’s up, Bat Man?” remarked umpire Dewey Larson when Odom walked past for an interview.
“If he wasn’t my umpire,” replied the pitcher with a smile while choosing to leave the second half of his thought unsaid.
Many in Odom’s orbit didn’t see the humour in the trade.
“In all honesty, he has been the bigger man in the situation,” said Nathan Crawford, Odom’s roommate.
“What’s happened to him — I’m going to go ahead and say it — it’s pretty low. It’s kind of like a slap in the face. And it could taint your career if people don’t know who you are.”
Teammate Benny Cepeda, a fellow hurler with the Broncos, expressed a similar dislike for the transaction.
“I don’t know why he got traded for bats,” Cepeda told Talbott.
“That ain’t right. He’s a good guy. He has really good stuff.”
Despite Odom’s attempts to shrug off his newfound celebrity, there were indications that the deal bothered him.
He expressed concerns about becoming a “walking parody” because of his noteworthy change of address.
“People are like, ‘I’d kill myself’ and stuff,” Odom said.
“I’m like, ‘God, dude, that’s all you think life is about, sports?’ You get to know me, I’m a lot deeper. There’s a lot more to me than baseball.”
He added: “I don’t want people to think this is what defines me as a person … I look through my whole life for things that define me, things that are important to me. Not just baseball. I want to have a family and land and be a good man’s man in society. That means a lot to me.”
Odom took to the ball diamond to work out some of his frustrations.
He allowed one run in two innings during his debut for the Broncos against the Edinburg Coyotes.
It was a rougher start when he faced the Dillas in Amarillo on June 5th. Odom tipped his ball cap to the sound booth when the “Batman” theme was played over the loud speakers while he was warming up. But the Amarillo hitters got to him early and often, striking for eight runs in Odom’s 3.1 innings of work.
“The 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,” said Laredo manager Dan Shwam of the outing.
Odom bounced back in his next game, a June 10th matchup against the San Angelo Colts. He only allowed a single in his first three frames and finished with five solid innings that saw him surrender five hits and two earned runs in the 4-3 loss.
“He was very good,” observed San Angelo manager Doc Edwards of Odom’s performance.
On the bus ride home, Odom told Shwam that he needed to speak with him the next day.
“He 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 to Associated Press reporter Ben Walker.
Odom was placed on the team’s temporary inactive list on June 11th. He made three starts for the Broncos and went 0-1 with a 6.10 earned run average (ERA) and six strikeouts in his 10.1 innings with Laredo.
From there, Odom seemed to fade away. Some baseball people who reached out to him got no reply.
When Shwam called Odom’s cell phone in January to see if he wanted to pitch in Alexandria, Louisiana the call went to voice mail.
What Shwam and many others didn’t realize was that the 26-year-old had passed away on Nov. 5th, 2008.
He died in Georgia as a result of an accidental overdose. A medical examiner discovered heroin, methamphetamine, benzylpiperazine and alcohol in his system.
His final days were a mystery. According to news reports at the time, there was no record of his residence, no details of how he ended up in a hospital and no police report regarding his overdose. Phone messages to family and friends from the media were not returned.
Odom’s passing sent shockwaves through the baseball community.
“He had a musician’s heart, not an athlete’s heart,” said Tallahassee Community College coach Mike McLeod.
“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.”
Tim Lincecum remembered crashing on Odom’s couch in 2006 when the two were teammates on the Single-A Salem-Keizer Volcanoes in the Northwest League.
“It really is sad,” said Lincecum.
Another former teammate, infielder Kevin Frandsen, shared memories of Odom’s sense of humour.
“He was always wanting to joke around, always wanting to keep the clubhouse mood light,” recalled Frandsen.
Questions emerged about the role of the trade in Odom’s death.
“I guarantee this trade thing really bothered him. That really worried me,” said Shwam, who added he was shocked but not surprised when he learned of Odom’s passing.
“I really believe, knowing his background, that this drove him back to the bottle, that it put him on the road to drugs again … 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?”
Crawford also acknowledged the deal when he communicated with reporters for a story that ran in newspapers across North America in early March of 2009.
“As far as the trade, I can say it started getting to him,” stated Crawford.
“Something would happen, like a umpire walking past would be ‘What’s up, Batman?’”
“We would stay up some nights after the games and jam on the guitar, talking about pitching, the trade, family. I said goodbye to him finally after a trip to Amarillo. He said he just had enough and that he wanted to spend time with his father. He told me he would play again next year … he was a friend, he was a ballplayer, he will be remembered.”
Young said he had been in touch with Odom after the trade was made.
“This was not done as a publicity stunt … I talked to John several times and told him this wasn’t done to embarrass him,” said Young.
In speaking to Calgary Herald reporter Richard Cuthbertson, Young indicated he was stunned when he learned of the fatality.
“I was shocked, because he seemed like such an upbeat kid the last time I talked to him,” he said.
“He talked about the whole media frenzy … he seemed to be lavishing in the spotlight. As he said to me once, ‘I’m more famous than if I pitched a no-hitter.'”
Young said he received an e-mail from the Laredo manager in December inquiring about rumours of Odom’s death. The Viper executive tried calling Odom but got his answering machine instead.
“Basically, at that point, I thought that the rumours must not be true, otherwise somebody would have … disconnected his phones,” said Young.
The bats, meanwhile, were held in storage at a warehouse in Orlando, Florida in 2009, with Ripley’s still planning to orchestrate some sort of display, despite Odom’s death.
“We’re still hoping to create an exhibit around them,” said O’Brien at the time.
“It would still attract a lot of interest.”
Odom appeared to have some thoughts and feelings about his baseball journey locked away as well.
He had a tattoo on his right elbow that read “Poena Par Sapientia.” That Latin phrase translates to “Pain equals wisdom.”
We often don’t see the pain that others experience. Let’s hope that we can, however, gain wisdom from tales like the tragedy involving John C. Odom.