Published March 04, 2009
"Bat Man" or "Bat Guy" or "Bat Boy" — that's what they called him.
Ask the most hard-core baseball fan about John C. Odom and most likely you'll get a blank stare. Yet millions of people have heard of the slender right-hander.
He was the minor league player traded for 10 maple bats.
It became a big joke last May, when word of the unusual swap jumped off the sports pages, and Odom went from pitcher to punch line.
He seemed to handle it well, too. A former prospect in the San Francisco Giants' chain — future Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum bunked on his couch in Class A ball — Odom gladly agreed to interviews. He kidded about the kooky deal that made him famous, saying it would make a better story if he reached the majors someday.
"People are like, 'I'd kill myself' and stuff," Odom said at the time, dismissing any such notion.
Three weeks after the trade, he abruptly left the team.
Six months after the trade, he was dead.
The medical examiner said Odom's death in Georgia on Nov. 5 at age 26 was an accidental overdose from heroin, methamphetamine, the stimulant benzylpiperazine and alcohol.
Odom's death had drawn little notice by the start of spring training this year. Now, former teammates, managers and club officials keep asking a question for which there is no satisfying answer.
"I guarantee this trade thing really bothered him. That really worried me," said Dan Shwam, who managed Odom last year on the Laredo Broncos of the United League. "I really believe, knowing his background, that this drove him back to the bottle, that it put him on the road to drugs again."
Shwam added: "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?"
Odom certainly wasn't on the path to stardom when the Calgary Vipers of the independent Golden Baseball League made him an instant curiosity.
By his own account, the 6-foot-2 Odom was a "lost youth" who got tossed off his Roswell, Ga., high school team. A few years later, he showed up in Florida at Tallahassee Community College, a small-school baseball powerhouse.
"This guy comes into my office, hair hanging below his shoulders, earrings, and asks if he could use my field," TCC coach Mike McLeod recalled.
With a sharp curveball, 90 mph fastball and good changeup, Odom made the team as a walk-on. He pitched well, going 9-3 in 2003-04.
Odom had another talent: He was tremendous on the guitar, playing so often he hurt his elbow and missed some games.
"He had a musician's heart, not an athlete's heart," McLeod said. "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."
Odom later committed to Oklahoma State and instead signed with the Giants, who had drafted him in the 44th round in 2003.
He had a bumpy four years in the Giants' system, none above Class A. He went 9-8 in 38 games, missed most of one season because of a wrecked right elbow and lost another year to a dislocated left shoulder.
The Giants released Odom in spring training last year. Calgary offered a job, but because of a 1999 conviction for aggravated assault when Odom was a minor, he couldn't get into Canada. On May 20, the team made the famous trade.
Calgary team president Peter Young and Laredo general manager Jose Melendez nearly traded him for a slugger, but it fell apart. Melendez proposed buying Odom's contract for $1,000. Young rejected that, saying the Vipers didn't do cash deals because they made the team look financially unstable.
Bats, though, the Vipers could use. At $665 for 10 bats — made by Prairie Sticks, double-dipped black, 34 inches long, model C243, Laredo agreed to the unusual deal.
"This was not done as a publicity stunt," said Young, now the Vipers' director of baseball operations. "I talked to John several times and told him this wasn't done to embarrass him."
Odom did more than change teams. He changed identities.
He packed up 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. "Batman survives," he said. His first outing went OK, too.
Then came a particularly bad night in Amarillo.
Baseball isn't always the warm and fuzzy game of "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams." It can also be cruel and unforgiving.
Reliever Donnie Moore shot himself to death three years after giving up a big home run that kept the Angels from winning the American League pennant. Boston All-Star Bill Buckner became a scourge after letting a ball roll through his legs in the World Series. A Cubs fan, Steve Bartman, retreated from public view after trying to catch a foul ball and possibly costing his team its first National League championship since 1945.
On June 5 in Amarillo, the "Batman" 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. Shwam went to the mound.
"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," 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.
"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.
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.
"I was shocked," he said. "Unfortunately, it doesn't surprise me."
His roommate in Laredo, former Twins prospect Nathan Crawford, now lives in Australia and didn't learn about Odom's death until a few weeks ago. Melendez and Young found out only recently, and his old Giants teammates hadn't heard.
"It really is sad," Lincecum said last weekend.
"He was a fun-loving guy. I mean, just high energy all the time," he said. "I stayed on his couch just because he was on the same team I was on. I asked around a couple guys who I could stay with until I could find a place."
Remembered infielder Kevin Frandsen: "He was always wanting to joke around, always wanting to keep the clubhouse mood light."
The medical examiner's office figured out Odom's fame when they saw a tattoo on his right elbow over suture marks that read "Poena Par Sapientia" — a rough Latin translation of "Pain equals wisdom" — and did a Google search.
The actual 10 bats that Odom got traded for, they're easy to discover. An Internet search shows a picture of them, stamped with "John Odom Trade Bat."
They were never used.
The Vipers planned to auction them for charity. When Ripley's Believe it or Not! heard about the trade, it offered $10,000 to the team's children's charity.
So the bats are now stored away at a warehouse in Orlando, Fla.
"We're still hoping to create an exhibit around them," said Tim O'Brien of Ripley's. "It would still attract a lot of interest.