Rougned Odor fights back against his bad reputation
— -- HOUSTON -- On the punch heard around baseball, the comments about the man who threw it were almost as harsh as the blow itself.
Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman tweeted:
Toronto manager John Gibbons said, "To me, it was gutless."
What happened a little more than a week ago was chaos. Odor, the Texas Rangers second baseman, punched Bautista, the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder, in the face after a hard slide into second. It set off a wild melee resulting in numerous suspensions and fines, including an eight-game ban for Odor. His appeal hearing was Tuesday and a decision to uphold or reduce the suspension is expected soon.
In the aftermath, the larger narrative turned Odor, well-respected with his team, into a dirty player who doesn't respect the game.
Before you make an opinion about whether the 22-year-old infielder doesn't respect the game, Rangers manager Jeff Banister, who admits Odor reminds him of himself for his fiery style of play, wants to tell you something.
"I put my fist up for that one because that's the furthest from the truth, and when people say those things and they stand behind perception, do your homework before you develop an opinion," Banister told ESPN.com. "Do your homework and get to know a guy before you attack his character and his integrity, based on what you've seen; and here in our industry, it's very easy to cherry-pick certain situations and say, 'See, see?'
"That's irresponsible for those people to form those opinions without knowing what the reality is."
So what is the reality? Is Odor, a young player in the "Make Baseball Fun Again" era, actually an old soul playing the game in an old-school manner?
For that, you need to know his family in Maracaibo, Venezuela, where Odor was born. He learned the game at an early age from two uncles, one of whom played briefly in the big leagues, and a grandfather who played professional ball in his homeland. One uncle, Rouglas Odor, is the hitting coach for the Columbus Clippers, the Cleveland Indians Triple-A affiliate. His other uncle, Eddie Zambrano, played with the Chicago Cubs in the early 1990s and minor league ball with Banister in the Pittsburgh Pirates' farm system.
Zambrano remembers coming home one day to check on his brothers and sisters and a certain nephew. They were on this ranch in Maracaibo, the second-largest city in Venezuela and located in the northwestern portion of the country. Zambrano said the family was just throwing the ball around when he picked up a whiffle ball and threw it to young Rougned.
The 5-year-old kept his hands up, turned into the pitch with his yellow plastic bat and smashed it.
"He hit that ball like he was playing for a long time," said Zambrano, now 50 and a country music singer in his homeland. "I told my sister, 'See what he can do?' We all knew something special was coming."
Zambrano kept hearing reports from his sister about Rougned. He checked on his nephew during international tournaments and notified some MLB friends of his. As Odor grew older, he developed into someone with power at the plate and speed in the field.
"We love Rougned," said Mike Daly, the Rangers' minor league director, who scouted Odor in Venezuela. "He's very competitive in how he plays: a good, solid kid from a baseball family."
In 2011, the Rangers signed Odor as an international free agent. He received a signing bonus of more than $400,000. As a 17-year-old infielder, Odor moved quickly through the organization. That rookie season in the minors saw Odor compile 61 hits in 58 games. But in the minors, there was also his first brawl.
He was suspended four games in 2011 for getting into a fight while he played with the Class A Spokane Indians. On July 11 of that year, Odor slid into second base preventing the completion of a double play. After taking a few steps toward the dugout, he turned around to confront shortstop Shane Opitz. After a couple of words, Odor punched Opitz, and then he punched second baseman Jonathon Berti, who had moved toward the fracas.
Tim Hulett, Odor's manager in Spokane, said no one condoned the fight. Odor accepted his punishment, and the team moved forward.
"As a 17-year-old player, his maturity on the field was very good," Hulett said. "You didn't have to babysit him. It was a positive attitude for his passion to the game. He's not looking for a fight, he's looking to win a game."
Odor reached the big leagues in 2014. In 114 games with the Rangers, he had a slash line of .259/.297/.402.
Ron Washington, Odor's first manager with the Rangers, loved his passion but wanted him to work on cutting down on his strikeouts. After Washington resigned late in the 2014 season, he was replaced by Banister. The next season, Odor had to prove himself again.
"He had some work defensively to clean up, footwork, subtleties of fielding ground balls turning double plays," Banister said of his first impressions. "This is a guy who loves to play the game with an edge: run hard, had good speed, played bigger than his size. He played up. The bat really played big, had some strikeout to it but could also hit the ball."
The Rangers liked Odor's ability to hit the other way, as well as his swagger.
"I've always been like that, even when I was a little kid," Odor said. "My dad always told me and my uncles to play hard all the time, respect your teammates and play hard. That's what I do."
Last weekend in Houston, Odor was the subject of boos from the home crowd. Perhaps the displeasure originated from the Bautista punch, but that wasn't all. Don't forget the incident incident on July 18, 2015. Odor was taking a little too much time getting into the batter's box, and the home plate umpire asked him to get in the box. Astros catcher Hank Conger also said something, almost motioning for Odor to get in the box. Odor said, "What?" and something else, prompting both dugouts to empty and meet at home plate.
So what did Odor do next?
He hit a ball into the right-center gap in the outfield and flipped his bat as he raced around the bases for a triple.
"He's a manager's favorite type of player," Hulett said. "A passionate kid. Those guys are my favorite to coach."
Odor went incident-free until May 15, when still irked by Bautista's bat flip after hitting a go-ahead home run in the game-clinching American League Division Series last season against Texas, the Rangers wanted revenge.
In the top of the eighth, Bautista was hit in the ribs by rookie Matt Bush. The Rangers claimed Bush's pitch wasn't intentional, but it didn't matter. The next hitter, Edwin Encarnacion, hit a slow grounder to third baseman Adrian Beltre, and Bautista slid hard into second. Out at second, Bautista stood in front of Odor as if he was about to do something, Odor pushed him and threw a perfect right hook to Bautista's cheek.
In form, it was similar to the punch he threw in the minors. It was as if he has boxing in his blood. He said he doesn't and that he doesn't have a desire to fight, just a passion to play baseball. But he's also said he doesn't regret the punch, that he needed to protect himself. The punch, coupled with the minor league fight, brought a perception that Odor is dirty.
"It don't bother me," he said when asked about the dirty label. "I know I'm not a dirty player. I'm just trying to play hard and respect the other team.
"I'm not that kind of guy. I know I'm a good player, I'm an aggressive player but not a dirty player; dirty player and aggressive is different. I just play like I know how to play."
He didn't talk to the media the day of the fight with Bautista, but he did speak the next day in Oakland and again in Houston. He spoke of wanting the respect of his family and teammates and how they've supported him after the punch. He gave a reporter the phone number of one of his uncles, because Odor wanted Zambrano to tell the truth about him. He even chuckled when asked whether he had ever boxed.
"That punch, it was ugly," Zambrano said. "It was sad, it's just a reaction; that's how he plays. We talked to him about it, as a family; we called him and talked."
Zambrano said he called his friend, Dave Concepcion, who played 19 years with the Cincinnati Reds' Big Red Machine. Concepcion told Zambrano of his own displeasure with the punch -- and that Odor plays cocky.
Not all of the reaction was negative. One memorabilia dealer wanted to sell photos of the punch with Odor's signature on it. The autograph signing was postponed because of the amount of attention surrounding the event. From a GoFundMe page to pay his fine to Internet memes, Odor's punch resonated positively with some.
For now, Odor keeps playing. On Friday night, he caught a ball while lying on his belly in shallow center field, a ball that ricocheted off the back of the head of starter Colby Lewis. He made another fantastic play that night, going to his right to snag a hard hit ground ball with his glove and in one motion pitching the ball to Elvis Andrus to complete a double-play.
Odor leads the Rangers in total bases (82), tied for the lead in home runs (seven, with Nomar Mazara), and he is second in hits (48).
"There will always be a few players that will get on our nerves, and he's one of those guys," Andrus said. "Nothing you can do about it. It's the way he plays. As long as he doesn't show off and plays hard and plays the right way, I don't think as a team or a teammate we're going to have any problems."
And, perhaps most important, Banister agrees.
"We should celebrate him instead of coming up with reasons why, 'Oh he's a dirty player,'" Banister said. "No, he's not a dirty player. No, not at all. He plays for his team and his teammates and tries to help them win a baseball game every night. And quite frankly, that's gotten rare."
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