Oswalt's absence makes priorities clear - family first

The Phillies' Roy Oswalt was back in the dugout after taking time off to go back to Mississippi to help his family clear storm damage.
The Phillies' Roy Oswalt was back in the dugout after taking time off to go back to Mississippi to help his family clear storm damage. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 06, 2011

It might not be to some, but to Roy Oswalt baseball is just a game. It does not define his life, and it certainly does not define him. It is a means to an end that will come sooner rather than later - maybe after this season, maybe after the next.

Oswalt plays the game and enjoys the game, but he loves his high-school sweetheart Nicole and their three little girls: Arlee Faith, 6; Ainslee Grace, 3; and Aubree, 6 months. He adores his parents, Billy and Jean, and still lives in his tiny hometown of Weir, Miss.

So when, for the second time in a year, a tornado rolled through Choctaw County last week and flattened everything in its path, of course Oswalt had to leave the Phillies. He had no choice. At that moment, baseball meant nothing. His family meant everything.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. could have balked at Oswalt's request for a leave of absence from the Phillies, and it would not have mattered. Knowing Oswalt, he would have left anyway, and maybe never come back. He is that kind of guy; he has all the money he needs to own hundreds of acres in Mississippi and live on them the rest of his life, comfortably, with his family.

But on Thursday, Oswalt did return to the Phillies. He landed in Philadelphia in the early afternoon and took a regular between-starts bullpen session several hours before the Phillies' 7-3 win over the Nationals. While he admitted to being rusty after more than a week without a baseball in his hand, he said he very well could be ready to pitch as scheduled against Atlanta on Saturday night.

If he does, that means Oswalt will have missed only one start - Tuesday against Washington - to tend to his business in Mississippi. The time away was invaluable. Oswalt would have been worthless to the Phillies without it.

"The town next to us is completely gone," Oswalt said, sitting in the Phillies dugout before the game. The tornado "went right through the high school and the town. . . . The good thing was, on our family's side, there wasn't any damage to anybody, just a lot of clean-up, a lot of patching. Hopefully, [we will] get things back to normal down the road a little bit."

Last April, almost a year to the day, another twister ripped through Weir, crossing over the top of the home where Oswalt grew up. His mother and her dog were huddled inside a closet in the middle of the house, and when Jean Oswalt finally opened her eyes, all that remained of the house was the closet and one side of a bathroom. Everything else was gone. Pictures. Keepsakes. Clothes. Furniture.

"Everything you remember growing up is kind of gone, from a lot of memories to picking it up two, three miles down the road," Oswalt said.

His parents built a new house, but clearly the worry over another potential disaster weighed on Oswalt. He said his three dreadful innings against the Diamondbacks on April 26, when he gave up five runs on 57 pitches, were unrelated to the ongoing storms, but the next morning, he and his wife were on a plane back to Mississippi, where their children were staying with Nicole's parents.

In Mississippi, the Oswalts found hundreds of downed oak trees and three spooked little girls. Early that morning, just before the tornado hit, their grandparents had awakened the girls and whisked them into a storm shelter.

"It scared them pretty bad," Oswalt said.

Oswalt spent the next week clearing trees on his property and patching his in-laws' roof. He is the proud owner of an excavator and a bulldozer - given to him by Houston owner Drayton McLane after Oswalt pitched the Astros into the 2005 World Series - and both came in handy.

"We cut a lot of stuff out of the way and moved a lot of stuff and kept the house from leaking, put some tarp up," Oswalt said. "Hopefully we don't have no more wind until we get everything fixed."

Imagine, a pitcher making $16 million this year driving an excavator. But Oswalt did.

Asked about Oswalt's absence yesterday, Charlie Manuel at first seemed to endorse it - "I understand all those things, seriously," Manuel said - but the more he spoke on the topic, the less Manuel seemed to get Oswalt's stance.

"To me, as a manager, the game is the No. 1 priority," Manuel said. "The game itself, the priority is to win the game, if you want to be a winner. To me, that's how I feel. Do I think that's right? To me, it's right."

And what of Oswalt's take?

"I've always heard people say their family is first and things like that, and to a certain degree I agree," Manuel said. "But if you start looking at everything and you start wagering what goes on in your life and where you're working and what you have to do, I would think baseball definitely brightens your life from a financial standpoint."

It has done that for Oswalt, but money is not everything to him. The Phillies have a team option on Oswalt for next year for $16 million. No one would be surprised, if the Phillies win the World Series, to see Oswalt simply leave that option on the table. He is that kind of guy.

"Baseball is a gift that you're given to play, but this comes third or fourth on my list," Oswalt said. "I can walk away from the game today and be happy. As long as you have your family, they're going to be there a lot longer than this game will be."

Contact columnist Ashley Fox

at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.

Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/AshleyMFox


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