12 Rounds with Rougned Odor, the Toughest Player in Baseball
Rougned Odor will always be known for famously punching Toronto Blue Jay star Jose Bautista. But his friends and family know there is much more to him than that.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Rougned Odor, drinking a glass of soda water, sits in the corner booth of an Outback Steakhouse in Surprise, Arizona, next to his girlfriend Liusca and across from his cousin Cesar Suarez, a former minor leaguer who now works for the Beverly Hills Sports Council, Odor's agency. Outside of uniform, Odor doesn't look much like a professional ballplayer. It's the pointy ears, the pointy beard, the braces.
It's still February and it's raining outside; the restaurant is packed with old people eating early dinners. A woman in a booth nearby sends back a salad that has too much dressing on it. Our waitress, young and apparently frazzled, comes and goes from the table a half dozen times before anybody picks up a menu. "The strawberry lemonades are not free refills," she tells Cesar.
A few hours before our meal, Odor's representatives, including Cesar, sat down with members of the Texas Rangers front office to discuss a contract extension. A month later, Odor would sign a deal for $49.5 million, and the rights to a pair of horses.
It is a cliche to frame an article like this with a scene at the restaurant where the writer and subject meet, but it can also serve a purpose. In this case, I am hoping to convey that the best way to understand Odor—a 23-year-old from Venezuela who is as famous for punching Jose Bautista in the face as he is for being the youngest second baseman to ever hit 30 home runs in a season—is to think of him as the kind of person who was born to live and work Texas.
The legend of Rougned Odor, as recounted by his relatives, begins when he is six years old, playing in a national youth baseball tournament in Venezuela. He hits three home runs in a game, and executes an unassisted triple play. The play is not necessarily physically impressive. He fields a line drive, tags a base, then tags a runner. Impressive is the fact that while the other kids on the other team are running the base paths without a clue, six-year-old Rougned knows the rules and the situation well enough to calmly retire them.
It makes sense that he does. He has professional ballplayers on both sides of his family tree. His father's brother Rouglas was a minor leaguer, and now coaches in the Indians organization. His mother's brother Eddie Zambrano played parts of two seasons with the Cubs, and her other brother Roberto played in Triple-A.
Odor started going to ballgames in Maracaibo when he was just a toddler. He picked up a glove soon after that. When he was a kid, his parents wouldn't let him leave the house alone, wouldn't let him play in the street. His father took him to the field to play baseball; if it was time to do something else, his father took him there too.
It did not take long before Odor was selected to represent the Venezuelan national team in junior competitions abroad. It did not take long for the Rangers to offer him a $425,000 signing bonus. It did not take long for him to be promoted to A-ball at 18 years old, Double-A at 19, and the majors at 20.
"It was like he was born playing baseball," his grandfather Douglas says.
Odor orders his steak in perfect English.
"Do you have porterhouses?" Odor asks the waitress.
"Right there," she says, pointing at the menu.
"How many ounces? Twenty-two ounces?"
"Yes," she says. "How do you want it cooked?"
"Pink in the middle."
The punch is not what makes Rougned Odor famous or interesting, but it does make him more famous and more interesting. It's safe to say that were it not for the punch, we might not have met up at Outback because how many big feature stories are written about good second basemen? But Odor is now more than just that. He is the good second baseman who was at the center of the most compelling fight in modern baseball history.
On a sunny afternoon last May, Jose Bautista slid hard into second base while Odor turned a double play. When Bautista rose to his feet, Odor gave him a shove. Then came some words between the two, then the overhand right to Bautista's face. The benches cleared. Odor's punch culminated tensions that had been mounting between the Rangers and Blue Jays since the previous season's division series, when Bautista celebrated a go-ahead home run late in the decisive fifth game with a historic bat flip.
Odor has steadfastly refused to talk about what went down with Bautista, including to me. Anyway, it is too late for explanations. You can't un-punch someone. Even if he goes on to be a perennial All-Star, Odor will still be remembered in part as the guy who planted his fist in Bautista's jaw. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if you can deal with it.
"If you start paying attention to the public, you're going to go crazy because sometimes the public gets mad when you don't do things well and they say things you don't want to hear—ugly things, bad things," Odor said. "Then, when you're doing well, they're the first people with you. So it's better to just be...normal."
Sometimes a moment can both elevate a player's profile and transcend it, whether the player wants it to or not. Sometimes a moment takes on a life of its own: on Youtube, or on t-shirts, or simply in the memories of sports fans. Not long after the fight, Odor canceled an appearance at a card shop where he would have signed photos of the punch. Nolan Ryan is one of the greatest pitchers to ever live, and yet I once knew a guy who did lines of coke off a framed 8x10 of photo of Ryan's infamous fight with Robin Ventura. At some point, Ryan just accepted that the fight would become part of his legacy. He eventually came around to autographing photos of the fight, inscribing them "Don't mess with Texas."
These moments become part of a life, and of the broader story people tell about it. Nolan Ryan was more than a tough old Texan who happened to strike lots of guys out. Rougned Odor is more than a feisty little second baseman who happens to hit lots of home runs.
Josue Puerez, now the Rangers minor league hitting coordinator, first saw Odor at the Rangers' Dominican Republic academy when Odor was 17. "This guy's going to be a fucking player," Perez thought after throwing batting practice to Odor. Perez says he saw someone who was fun to work with, who wanted to be good, and who asked a lot of questions.
Odor is listed at 5-foot-11 (generously) and 195 pounds (not so generously). He is not a small person anymore, but when he first signed he was still short and scrawny. Even then, Perez says, Odor had some sock from the left side of the plate. Even then, he swung a massive, 35-inch bat—larger than the one Barry Bonds used. (These days, he'll sometimes borrow Mike Napoli's bat.) He has a wide, open stance and a high, deliberate leg kick. He generates more torque than it looks like he should.
It would be easy to label Odor as a sort of free-swinger, both in and out of the batter's box, who sometimes lets his aggressiveness get the best of him. After all, he practically never walks. Perez said that was not the case. Odor is not a free-swinger as much as he's an aggressive one. "He does have a plan when he goes up there," Perez says. "Yes, he doesn't take a lot of walks, hasn't been taking a lot of walks, but his strength is being aggressive at the plate. He's starting to find out more and more and more that he knows how to control his aggressiveness."
Odor's swing and his approach were crafted by a family of baseball players and coaches. And while that swing and approach may not be conventional, they are deliberate. Regardless, Odor is a rare talent offensively: a player who is effective despite having little patience, and a relatively high strikeout rate.
He is also an unsatisfied talent. His teammates and coaches laud him as one of the harder workers on the Rangers. "He's never not working," says Ryan Rua, who also played with Odor in the minors. And outside of his cage work and weightlifting, Odor has taken to seeking advice from his favorite childhood player, Manny Ramirez. Odor has never met Ramirez in the flesh, but they were introduced by phone, and speak regularly. They send each other video, talk about the mechanics of his swing.
"He's a tremendous person," Odor says.
Ever since Odor signed his contract extension, he has been anxious about the status of his new horses. When he officially picks them up and finalizes the paperwork, they will be his seventh and eighth horses. The mare, called Smokey, and her as-yet-unnamed foal will join Teresita, Isabelita, el Malandro, el Prospecto, la Tipa, y el Ruso. (Liusca says her favorite is el Prospecto, because he looks like Odor.)
"Sometimes I ride them, but not much," Odor says. "Mainly I just like to be around them."
Odor grew up in the city, but his mother's family are country people. Odor would spend his weekends with them as a kid. He grew to love horses, and became obsessed with a Venezuelan rodeo sport called toros coleados. Four cowboys mounted on four horses chase a bull down a narrow chute for three minutes at high speed, and try to bring it down by its tail as many times as possible without losing their mounts. Odor runs his horses in competitions back home, but he only takes them in as a spectator. "It's a little crazy," he says. "Dangerous."
At dinner, he flips through photos of horses he is considering buying, asking for opinions on them. His Instagram is littered with horse pictures and videos. He bought his first two in Texas when he made the big leagues, and had them shipped back home. I ask him what traits he looks for in a horse. "Strong and small," he says. You need small horses for toros de coleados. He likes horses with small ears and white faces.
He says he likes playing for the Rangers in part because of the livestock around Dallas. Between baseball and easy access to horses, bulls, and cows, he has everything he wants. In the off-season, he lives with his parents back in Maracaibo, and tends to his horses.
Odor and Rangers reliever Jeremy Jeffress stand before Adrian Beltre's locker in the team's spring training clubhouse in Surprise. Each is pleading his case. Odor claims that Jeffress owes him money lost in a card game. Jeffress claims that Odor cheated by not dealing the cards out sequentially, instead dealing all of Jeffress' cards, then all of his own. Beltre, who seems to have little patience for the dispute, asks Jeffress whether or not they bet on the game.
Jeffress says they did, but Odor cheated. Beltre says he can't say whether or not Odor cheated because he wasn't there. "What's the difference what order I deal the cards in?" Odor asks. There is talk of a double-or-nothing free throw shooting contest, but it quickly fizzles. Why, Odor asks Jeffress, should he shoot free throws when he always beats Jeffress in cards?
Rougned Odor on Adrian Beltre:
"He's always trying to help the young players. Sometimes you don't see it that way because you don't understand things, so you don't do what he says. I had that problem, where he would try to explain something to him, but I saw it another way and tried to act tough. I didn't say anything, but I was acting tough in my mind, at least. On the inside.
"Then, later, I started noticing that he was just trying to help. Just trying to give you his best, trying to make it so you do things the right way. Because sometimes you don't realize when you are messing up until somebody tells you, and sometimes, being a young player, you don't understand the way they're telling you. That's why I say he's a tremendous person and a tremendous teammate. It doesn't matter how he's feeling. It doesn't matter if he's got a hurt foot or a hurt hand, or a hurt something else—he's going to play. He has taught me so much about baseball, and I'm so thankful to him for it."
If he was not a baseball player, Odor says he would have been a soldier. That's what he always told his mom when he was a kid and didn't yet know if he'd get a pro contract. At this point in our conversation, the frazzled young waitress returns to tell us that the kitchen has run out of porterhouses. Odor settles for a 22-ounce ribeye. When he eats, he doesn't talk.
There are a few things that appeal to him about the notion of military life, he says. One is simple: he likes guns. Odor's grandfather was a competitive shooter, and Odor enjoys shooting and hunting. He has a few guns in Venezuela, but none in Texas because, he says, there are too many regulations there. When he wants to shoot in Texas, he connects with friends he's made in law enforcement agencies.
But more than the simple fact of liking shooting, Odor is intrigued by what he sees as the similarities between the life of a ballplayer and the life of a soldier. Odor likes the idea of a chain of command. "You have to respect your elders, the guys with more big league experience. In the military, I think it's the same way."
"By rank," Cesar says.
"By rank. The discipline, the work, the dedication, the respect. I think it's really similar."
When I suggest that baseball is a better job, Odor agrees. More money. But you do OK as a soldier in Venezuela, Liusca says. "You get rich."
"It's a good time to be a soldier in Venezuela right now," Cesar says.
He is alluding to Venezuela's ongoing social, political, and economic crisis. It was that crisis that motivated Odor to sacrifice potential future earnings for the stability of a contract extension coming off the best season of his career. With the extension, Odor can bring his family over to Texas. He can buy a ranch outside of Dallas somewhere. He can focus on baseball, and horses, and leave the rest of it alone.
Adrian Beltre on Rougned Odor:
"He's a person who has something to prove, and obviously I play that way too. And sometimes the other team doesn't quite understand, and they might see it a different way. But we understand how he plays. He's not trying to offend anybody, that's just his way of getting the most out of himself and playing his hardest. In time, he'll learn to control it a little better, but so far, he's been good.
"Pedroia is a good comparison. They're the same. They play with a lot of fire inside, and I imagine that has something to do with their stature, with the fact that they're small. But they're very alike."
The fight with Bautista was not Odor's first in professional baseball. In 2011, playing for the Spokane Indians in A-Ball as an 18-year-old, Odor was involved in a similar incident. But in that situation, he was the baserunner coming in with a hard slide, not the fielder absorbing it. Odor was suspended four games after the brawl.
"I don't like to lose," he says. "If I'm going to do something, I'm going to win. I don't care what sport it is, whatever I do, I want to be the best. I think it's just who I am."
Odor was also like that as a kid. He was competitive in the way that only certain professional athletes are competitive. He fought. Not for no reason, and not because he liked to fight, but because he had a chip on his shoulder, and because he was proud, and because he wasn't going to just sit there and take what he perceived as abuse from somebody. The day after the fight with Bautista, a reporter asked him if he regretted anything that happened.
"No," Odor said.
Napoli recently compared Odor to former Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler, who is a competitive, expressive, energetic player with a different skill set and a different reputation. One doesn't often hear Latino ballplayers being called a dirtbag or a red ass, which are the sort of words used to describe players like Kinsler, but the description fits Odor. Rua described him as the kind of player you love having as a teammate and hate having to play against.
Odor says he feels a certain responsibility for his teammates, and feels a certain responsibility to the Rangers organization, which nurtured him as a player and encouraged him to be himself. The team did not try to squash the competitive fire in him, or change his personality as he was coming up. He is thankful, he says, to be on a team with such a strong Latino presence—Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gomez, Nomar Mazara, Martin Perez, Robinson Chirinos, Hanser Alberto—that isn't cliquey, and where everyone more or less gets along. When he was in the minors, and taking English classes, Odor was impressed that the Rangers had the American guys on his teams taking Spanish classes. "What other organization does that?"
"And now, for us on the team, it's like we're all from the same place."
Odor does not eat dessert. He doesn't even take a bite of Cesar's chocolate brownie with ice cream, which comes with four long spoons. "I'm on a diet," he says, having just consumed 22 ounces of ribeye, plus mashed potatoes and spinach. Well, not a diet, exactly, he clarifies. He's just trying to eat relatively well and take care of his body.
During the season, Odor says he takes care of himself by living quietly: not going out after games too often, not thinking too much. He doesn't even like to know his own batting average if he can help it. Liusca makes him arepas when he gets homesick.
He is a 23-year-old who loves horses and hates losing and has seriously thought about a career in the military. He punched one of baseball's biggest stars in the face, and doesn't like talk about it; he also doesn't seem to think it was such a big deal.
Cesar shakes his head. "Let me share an anecdote with you," he says.
The first time Odor went to play in New York against the Yankees in the summer of 2014, Cesar went to visit him thinking they'd go out on the town, or at least visit some tourist spots before games. The team was put in a fancy midtown hotel, right near Times Square and Central Park and the Empire State Building. Odor didn't leave his hotel room once—except to to go the ballpark. I'd rather rest for the game, he told Cesar.
"That's why I didn't amount to anything and he's going to be a star," Cesar says. "Because his priority is baseball. If it's me? I go out. I only made it to Double-A. I would have gone out to walk around the city."
After dinner, which ends by about 7, Odor, Liusca, and Cesar walk out through the crowded restaurant and into the rainy strip mall parking lot. Odor is going to do the same thing he does after practice most nights in Surprise: go home, watch some horse videos, and go to bed.
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