Game Time: The Oswalt Redemption
"I guess it comes down to a simple choice really...get busy livin' or get busy dyin'." -- Andy Dufresne
If you're a true competitor, at some point the front office ineptitude goes beyond constraining, and the losing becomes suffocating.
For Roy Oswalt, the "get busy living or get busy dying" realization moment came May 22 when he politely requested his parole from Minute Maid Prison.
After traversing another 68 days of shit-smelling foulness the likes of which we can't even imagine (unless you're one of the five or six poor souls actually watching the Astros 2010 tragedy unfold every night on television), Roy Oswalt came out on the other side Thursday afternoon, presumably staring up at the heavens with the rain falling on his face as his Astros jersey floated away down Brays Bayou.
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All they found of him was a muddy set of Astros clothes, a bar of soap, and J.A. Happ's forearm, damn near worn down to the nub.
Thursday afternoon, the book was closed on the single greatest overall resume for an Astros starting pitcher in franchise history when Roy Oswalt agreed to waive his no-trade clause and accept a deal that would send him to the Philadelphia Philles for 2009 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up Happ and a couple minor leaguers.
Ever the gift that keeps on giving (at least to Philadelphia), Ed Wade also threw in $11 million to help the Phillies pay some of Roy's $23 million which he's guaranteed through 2011. Thankfully, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro stopped short of demanding primae noctis with all future Astro wives, or some poor intern would be ordering condoms as we speak.
The reaction of Astro fans to Thursday's trade says all you need to know about the sorry state of this franchise -- by and large, the Astro faithful shrugged their collective shoulders, shook their heads and muttered "It's about freaking time..."
"Those of us who knew him best talk about him often. I swear, the stuff he pulled. It always makes us laugh."
To put this in perspective -- Roy Oswalt was one win away from tying the franchise record for wins in an Astros uniform. If you were putting together an all-time starting rotation for the Astros, it would be a coin flip between Oswalt and Mike Scott for the ace of the staff. Oswalt was the Most Valuable Player in the series that sent the Astros to their only World Series in franchise history in 2005.
Roy O can finally get back to living again
With a career whose footprint fits perfectly snug into the decade of 2001-2010, Roy has undoubtedly been one of the two or three most dominant, consistent aces in the National League during the last ten years. Make no mistake, relatively speaking for the Astros, this is like the Braves' trading Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine in their primes. Roy Oswalt is an Astro icon in every sense of the word.
And Astros fans -- the ones that still care, that is -- willingly accept that this is a necessary step for the Astros to at some point regain relevancy on the baseball landscape. And sadly, they're right. And even more sadly (and infuriatingly), owner Drayton McLane is the last one to realize this is what should have been done a long time ago.
Whether the Oswalt trade represents an indication of self-awareness on the part of Drayton McLane that nearly everything about his ball club is either broken or at least severely flawed or whether this deal is merely a cost cutting move to mitigate the damage of this season doesn't mute the depression for Astros fans -- either way you're stuck.
"I guess after Tommy was killed, Andy decided he'd been here just about long enough."
The carnage started pretty much from jump in 2010. In his first two starts, Oswalt had to face Tim Lineceum and Roy Halladay. With the 2010 Astros batting order backing his efforts, Roy was essentially walking into a gunfight with the dullest of butter knives as his weapon of choice. By June 22, he had faced Lincecum three times already, but by then the damage was done.
Roy had checked out of Houston a month to the day before that.
He still had great stuff. With stat lines that were among the best in the National League for categories like strikeouts per nine innings, opponent's batting average, ERA and WHIP, Roy sat and watched his teammates score a total of 17 runs in his 12 losses.
In the last two seasons, the Astros had supported Oswalt with two runs or fewer a mind-boggling sixteen times. Six times last season, he walked off the mound with a lead only to watch the bullpen cough it up. That's how you start thirty games, have a respectable (but admittedly atypical for Roy) 4.12 ERA, and finish with only eight wins.
Roy probably realized the truth long before waking up on May 21, the day after seeing his record go to 2-6 despite a 2.66 ERA. But that was apparently the tipping point. Within 24 hours, Roy Oswalt had officially had enough.
Despite rumblings of where he would and wouldn't go, rumors of demands that his 2012 club option (worth $16 million) would need to get picked up as part of any deal, none of that ended up mattering. It didn't need to be driving distance from his family in Mississippi. He needed no guarantees for 2012. All he needed was a ride to the airport.
"Andy Dufresne, who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. Andy Dufresne, headed for the Pacific."
Gauging Roy Oswalt's comparative greatness is as easy as looking at the pitchers to whom he is most similar on baseball-reference.com. Included in the top ten are aces or near-aces like Mike Mussina, Tim Hudson, and Johan Santana. There are former Cy Young Award winners like Bob Welch and Bret Saberhagen.
And there's Roy Halladay. Statistically, Roy Oswalt is most similar to his new teammate.
There's an exponential effect sometimes to having more than one ace on a staff, to where the presence of equal greatness drives both guys to achieve more. The Braves won roughly a thousand division titles throughout the `90's with this formula.
In 2001, the Diamondbacks rode the backs of two aces to a World Series championship. Randy Johnson was the decorated ace with no real semblance of post-season success; Curt Schilling was the ballsy sidekick who had made one unsuccessful trip to the World Series (Phillies, 1993). Both guys famously pushed each other, and made each other better. The end result was a title.
Insert Halladay for Johnson and Oswalt for Schilling (and throw in Cole Hamels, an actual World Series MVP, for good measure). This is what the Phillies are banking on.
The Phillies have now made themselves the favorites once again in the National League, but they've done more than that. Virtually their entire nucleus (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Halladay, Oswalt) are in their prime years, ages 30 through 34. With two National League titles and a world championship in the last two years, the Phillies are in the midst of a window to achieve dynastic greatness in an era where, outside of New York and Boston, the playoffs alone have a revolving door.
They needed a jump start to get back on that track. Roy Oswalt is that jump start.
"Sometimes it makes me sad, though, Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged, that's all. Their feathers are just too bright..."
The question now becomes if Lance "Red" Berkman, the last of the old-school prisoners in the yard, joins Roy on the outside. Rumors are hot and heavy that something could be done by the time you read this. (Because Darryl Morey's not involved, I'm less fearful of this happening than I would normally be.)
If it indeed comes to pass and Puma is traded, the book on the "championship" Astros is effectively closed, a sad but necessary ending to an era that will end up being remembered as much for its deplorably botched mismanagement the last five years as it will be the euphoric highs of the first half-dozen or so.
It's sad, but it's not uncommon. Very few franchise icons wind up getting an appropriate send-off at the end. Craig Biggio was the exception to that rule, and yet ironically Drayton McLane's allowing Biggio to play out his string to 3,000 hits in the everyday lineup is viewed (somewhat correctly) as symbolic of Drayton's issues dealing with reality and prioritization.
"Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."
If Lance Berkman winds up traded, like Roy, his destination will be one where he has a chance to finally get a championship. The window is probably closing faster on Lance than it is Roy, but both are equally deserving of tasting the sweet nectar of playoff success again. Puma's reported list of teams to whom he would accept a trade includes mostly American League teams (I'll go with the Yankees as the chalk), not surprising because of the chance for him to move into a lineup as a designated hitter.
It could be that Houston fans may still have a rooting interest in the World Series after all, perhaps on both sides.
Philadelphia is the new Zihuatanejo.
"Get busy living or get busy dying. That's goddamn right."
Roy and Puma hug at home plate before Game 1 of the World Series. Astro fans cry, for a variety of reasons.
Roll end credits.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.