One punch

Flashpoints arrive frequently and violently as young Texas second baseman Rougned Odor spars his way through the early stages of a career that teammate Elvis Andrus swears will lead him one day straight into the Hall of Fame. Baseball or boxing Hall of Fame, Andrus doesn’t specify. For now, it’s probably safer that way.

Even at that, the sledgehammer blow Odor delivered to the face of Toronto slugger and bat-flipper Jose Bautista one simmering hot May afternoon in Texas was stunning both in its rapid delivery and brute force.

One punch.

Everyone knew there was no love lost between the Rangers and Blue Jays dating back to their emotional playoff series last October, when Bautista emphasized his crushing Game 5 home run with the flamboyant flip. Everyone knew it wasn’t over. Texas doesn’t cotton to being messed with, no matter the time, place or circumstances.

But when Bautista, still smarting from taking a fastball to the ribs from Rangers reliever Matt Bush a batter earlier, answered with a hard, late slide past second base as Odor turned a double play, nobody could have seen what would come next.

Bautista and Odor started to jaw, the benches emptied and instead of the usual milling about and gentle pushing that normally accompanies an empty-calorie bench-clearing incident in baseball…ka-pow! Odor landed a right hook that undoubtedly made Manny Pacquiao proud.

Even now, as the dog days of August slowly lead toward the stretch run, Odor’s punch remains a signature moment of this season.

Many rival players are wary of Odor (pronounced “ROUG-ned oh-DORE”) and many view him as a punk who undoubtedly will get his. They figure it’s only a matter of time.

“He plays with a lot of emotion. He’s a really good player, and I think that’s why he [rubs] people the wrong way,” Oakland catcher Stephen Vogt says.

“He has a little flavor to his game,” Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre added. “I understand from the other side sometimes it doesn’t look too good. But here, we embrace it.”

Odor’s notorious reputation precedes him. Last summer against Houston, at the beginning of an at-bat, Odor and Astros catcher Hank Conger became engaged in a debate heated enough to, yes, clear the benches.

When he was playing for Class-A Spokane in 2011, Odor ignited another bench-clearing brawl that was so wild it led to a Northwest League-record 51 players being fined.

Through all of this, there is a common theme: While many rivals view him as a punk, Odor’s teammates have his back. Many opponents (and their fans) hate him, but he is beloved in his own clubhouse.

“I don’t think in any part of his play he goes too far,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister told B/R.

“I take offense at those who think that playing too hard is offensive; I really do…A lot of people talk about playing hard for 27 outs; our guys go out and do it. That’s because they choose to. Each one of them. They’re accountable to each other.

Banister says because physical play isn’t part of the game the way it is in other team sports—blocking, setting picks, checking someone into the boards—baseball players have to help their teammates in other ways.

“In baseball, the reality is, hitting is individual. Pitching is individual. Fielding is individual, right?

“Once you put the ball in play, the only gift you can give back to your teammates is what? To run your ass off down the line as hard as you can so you have an opportunity to be safe, so the next guy has an opportunity to drive you in.

“For a guy like Rougie Odor, people call it a chip because it’s not what has become the norm. Our game needs guys who will play the game hard….Why fault him for his style of play?”

Some think Odor carries that chip on his shoulder because he is only 5’8″ and has spent his entire life, 22 years, fighting to measure up to everyone else.

Some think it evolved because he was so determined to battle and scrap his way out of his native Venezuela.

Some think it ossified as he’s risen to become the youngest player in whatever professional league the Rangers placed him in, up to and including his major league debut on May 8, 2014. He was 20 years and 94 days old, the youngest man to appear in the majors that season.

What has become as clear as one of those ringside girls at a championship fight is Odor is as volatile as a lit stick of dynamite and as controversial as a split decision.

That day in Texas, Toronto saw red. Bautista saw stars. And the biggest shock from that dusty infield scene was that, as Bautista’s sunglasses flew off, his knees didn’t buckle and he didn’t crash to the canvas, er, dirt, immediately.

In the end, the Rangers’ veterans banded together to pay Odor’s $5,000 fine, Texas sources tell B/R (he also was suspended for seven games after his initial eight-game ban was reduced on appeal).

“It wasn’t cheap,” Andrus said, grinning. “But it wasn’t crazy, either.”

Justice usually has its price.


One family

Baseball always has been the sweet science to Odor. His father, Rougned, played community college baseball in New Orleans and worked in the Cleveland Indians organization for nine years. His grandfather played in Venezuela. Four uncles also played. And his brother is a minor leaguer in Texas’ system, though he is not considered a prospect.

“I’ve been playing baseball since I was three years old,” Odor says. “I come from a family that’s played baseball. I was always playing baseball.

“That’s why I love this game.”

He was raised in Maracaibo, Venezuela, the country’s second-largest city behind Caracas. Maracaibo is stocked with fisherman, given its location on the western shore of the strait that connects Lake Maracaibo to the Gulf of Venezuela.

“It’s hot, like Texas,” Odor says.

Although he enjoys fishing, it never got in his blood. Not the way baseball did.

“I saw him in a tournament when he was five years old,” remembered his uncle Rouglas, now in his 29th season with the Indians organization. Coaches were pitching to kids and he was representing the state of Zulia. The opposing team had the bases loaded, and a kid hit a line drive to Rougned, who was playing second base.

“He caught the line drive and, obviously at that age, kids run when the baseball is hit. So Rougned caught the ball, stepped on second base and then threw to first base to complete a triple play. At five years old.

“I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that in my life.’ We always said, ‘With that kind of confidence, did he get lucky, or did he know what he was doing?’ Obviously, he knew what he was doing because of watching family members.

“That was the first time I said, ‘Whoa, maybe he will have a bright future if he develops and continues to get better.”

Rouglas had a front-row seat during his nephew’s formative years because, among other things, he was the field coordinator in charge of Cleveland’s Venezuelan baseball academy from 1996 to 2001. He remembers his father—Rougned’s grandfather, Douglas—becoming upset with the coaches because he wanted Odor to play shortstop, but the coaches played him at second base.

The reason was simple: Most of the hitters were right-handed, and at that age they were swinging late and producing a steady stream of ground balls toward second base. I want my best infielder to play where most of the ground balls are going, the coach told Douglas. Doesn’t matter, Douglas would shoot back, shortstop is where the best player should be.

“They went back and forth,” Rouglas says, chuckling. “But the coach had an idea what he was doing.”

Odor just wanted to play.

“All my life, baseball,” he says. “I would go to school in the morning, then after that I would go home and then go to the stadium.”

His English is serviceable, though he often uses a translator to make sure he gets his thoughts across properly. Especially since the Bautista incident made him infamous, he’s leaned more on translators, people around the Rangers say. And the club itself has become more protective. When we speak, it is just Odor and me, no translator, and he is accommodating, friendly and unfailingly polite.

But only to a point. He cuts off the interview after a bit, pleading that he has to go hit in the batting cage. He wonders if we can continue our discussion after that. Which is fine, except later he says he is too pressed for time, and so we agree that I will return the next day to finish the interview.

Then the next day arrives and he continues to make excuses over the course of two hours, stalling until the coast is clear and he safely avoids any of the hard questions about his hot temper and brawling reputation.

“The only times his style of play got him into trouble was because of playing the game hard,” Rouglas says. “There were players who didn’t read that the right way. He always played hard and all out, similar to the way people used to play.”

At times, yes, it would anger his opponents. But Rouglas doesn’t remember his nephew fighting much as a youth.

“Not that I know of,” Rouglas says. “As a kid, I’m sure he had a few in school, but nothing major that I know of.”

On the field, though, sparks could fly.

“If you knew him, you knew that was his style of play,” Rouglas says. “It happened when they were playing a new team from out of state, and the team had no clue. When they were playing in the same state and everybody knew who he was, they knew his style, they accepted he wasn’t being dirty; it was just him playing hard.”

It also was him playing the way he was schooled to play.

“Being around professional people, we always were telling him to respect the game and play the game right way no matter what,” Rouglas says. “You hit a ground ball, a pop fly, you run the bases the right way. You’re down by 10, winning by 10, you run the bases. It’s the way the game is. Respect the game.”

Says Mike Daly, Texas’ director of international scouting when it signed Odor and now the club’s senior director of player development: “He knows how to play the game. He knows how to get a base. He knows how to do a ball read. He knows how to line up on a double cut. He knows a lot instinctually, and I think a lot of that was growing up with his dad, his uncle and his grandfather.”

The edge with which he plays appears to come naturally. At least, he says, it doesn’t emanate from where many believe: his short physical stature.

“I think I’m like everybody else,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a little guy.

“When I play the game, I think everybody is the same.”


One chip

When the major league scouts came calling, Odor was a switch-hitting shortstop. Now, he’s a left-handed-hitting second baseman. For good, it seems.

“I really like it,” Odor says of second base. “I like it more than shortstop. It’s more fun. I like turning double plays.”

He had just turned 15 when A.J. Preller, now San Diego‘s general manager but then Texas’ senior director of player personnel, first saw him at a tryout in Venezuela.

“The more you got around him, you noticed that he was a highly competitive kid,” Preller says. “He was a great kid, he loved to play, loved the game, he was a great teammate. Those things made it easier, as we went to sign him, to go to [Rangers general manager] Jon Daniels and tell him this is a guy we really wanted.”

By then, Odor was a high-profile international prospect. He also played in some tournaments in the United States in 2010 as his father and Rouglas worked to get him in front of as many scouts as possible. What Preller and others saw was a young, skilled and versatile kid burning with desire. A kid who played much bigger than his size.

That became evident quickly whenever the Rangers’ scouting contingent strategically placed him in tryout games.

“He always seemed to raise his game, always seemed like he had something to prove,” Daly says.

When the Rangers finally signed him in January 2011, a month before he turned 17, he actually was considered a late sign. Some clubs had concerns regarding whether he could survive at shortstop long term in the majors because of his size, according to several scouts. And because of that, clubs weren’t enamored with the money he was asking for at the time.

“Obviously, you look back on it now, and he’s worth every penny, but at the time, his bat was much better than probably we as an industry gave him credit for,” Daly says. “Certainly, he has enough bat to play second base.

“His running times, he was a below-average runner then, too. To his credit, he worked very, very hard. We saw him just after Christmas and he dropped his 60-yard dash time from 7.3 to 6.7, and you asked him, ‘Dude, how do you do that?’

“He said, ‘I kept running and I kept running and I kept running and I kept running. That’s how I got faster.”

With his future about to be decided by the evaluators, Odor worked with his uncle every day in Winter Haven, Florida, where the Indians trained at the time.

“That was a big clue to his makeup; he took something that was a limitation and turned it into a strength by running every day as hard as he could,” Daly says. “He dropped his 60 time, and now you see that bat and the speed and the edge that he played with, and we were lucky enough to be the highest bidders on him.”

Right before Texas signed him, Preller and Jayce Tingler, then the club’s coordinator for instruction in the Dominican Republic and now Texas’ minor league field coordinator, worked Odor out in the Dominican complex, where the ball doesn’t travel much. They flipped well-used (read: dead) baseballs to him. Odor, using a bat made from composite wood material, blasted several balls over the fence.

“He’s swinging a 35-, 36-ounce bat, which is a big bat for anybody, and me and Jayce look at each other and it was like, ‘OK, this guy’s a little different,” Preller says. “We don’t have anybody like this,'” Preller says.

“You could see his work ethic, and as he kept getting better and better you could see he was a hungry player; he wanted to keep proving people wrong.”

The Rangers signed him for $425,000.

Six months later, barely into his first season at Texas’ short-season Class-A affiliate in Spokane, Washington, he threw the punch that started the worst brawl in Northwest League history.

It was similar to the blow he landed on Bautista, though this time it was Odor who was thrown out at second base when things became testy. After sliding past the bag while attempting to break up a double play, he exchanged words with Vancouver Canadians shortstop Shane Opitz as he started to run back to the dugout. Words led to an exchange of shoves and then, ka-pow! Odor connected with a right hook and wound up with a four-game suspension for instigating the melee.

As in Texas following the Bautista punch, Odor’s teammates rallied around him.

“He’s not afraid to stick up for himself or his teammates,” says now-demoted Rangers first baseman Ryan Rua, who was in a Spokane uniform with Odor that day. “He felt the other player did something wrong, and he took it into his own hands.”

The Rangers immediately sent people from the front office to Spokane to see whether they had a problem on their hands. Conclusion: They didn’t.

“Anything like that that happens in the minor leagues, you want to make sure,” says Preller, who went to Spokane. “Were our guys on the up and up? It’s development. You want to make sure you’re not missing a teaching moment or anything like that.

“When we got through with it, we were sure this isn’t a character issue or a character flaw or anything like that. This is a competitive kid who ultimately, we felt…knew the difference between right and wrong and he’s going to be fine and develop the right way.”

Normalcy returned quickly, and Odor, whose time in the Northwest League was fleeting (58 games that summer before moving on the next season), faded back into the picture with everyone else. Bob Richmond, Northwest League president for 30 years before retiring following the 2012 season, says he recalls no other incidents with Odor.

“You never want to condone fighting,” says Daly, “but at the end of the day, you saw all his teammates out there with him and you could tell it was a very close-knit team, and they respect Rougie and it’s just part of baseball.

“These guys are very competitive and they want to win, and he wants to win, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in the major leagues or in a rookie ball game in Spokane; he’s always played with that edge.

“It’s something he learns from, but that edge is something we never want him to lose. That’s something that separates him, something that makes him such a special player.”

Even during winter ball at home in Venezuela, Rouglas says, things have become heated.

“I had a couple of players tell me, ‘Tell your nephew to take it easy,'” Rouglas says. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘He needs to slow himself down.’ I said, ‘You don’t know him. This is the way he plays. We’re not going to tell him to change it.’

“He’s the type of player you want to have on your ballclub. If you’re on the opposing team, you’re not going to like him because he will find ways to beat you and do things the right way.”

Says Preller: “Great kid. One of my all-time favorites.”


One demotion

Where is the line between punching the accelerator and easing up ever so slightly?

Here is where that line is for Odor: Round Rock, Texas, home of the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate.

Racing through the Texas system, Odor debuted with the Rangers in May 2014, less than three years after instigating the brawl in the short-season Class-A league. Over 114 major league games in ’14, playing as the youngest man in the majors, Odor tied for eighth in the American League in triples (seven) and was selected as the Rangers’ rookie of the year.

But in 2015, after just 29 games, he was hitting .144 with a .252 on-base percentage.

Banister was in his first season as Texas’ manager, and this certainly wasn’t the player he had heard so much about. The only thing Banister’s predecessor, Ron Washington, wanted from Odor was fewer strikeouts. In ’14, Odor fanned 71 times in 386 at-bats.

But this?

“I’d heard a lot of different things,” Banister said. “They talked about the energy he played with, how tough he was as a player. There’s no give-in. He’s hard-working. And as I watched him in spring training [in ‘15], he had gotten away from that.

“I’m not going to say he was passive, but he was not as described. Things didn’t seem to work out for him. He was not aggressive at the plate at times, and things kind of spun out of control for him, [as far as his] numbers. And you could see it start to affect him defensively. You could see it start to crumble as far as his focus and determination.”

So the Rangers unceremoniously shipped their 2015 Opening Day second baseman to Round Rock.

When they sent him down, Banister and the Rangers did so with one order: Go find Rougie Odor. Go summon that edge. Go tap back into that passion.

Instead of pouting or getting angry about his demotion, that is exactly what he did. And six weeks later, in mid-June, Texas called him back.

“We saw a completely different player,” Banister says. “I saw the guy that was described. A tough out in the batter’s box. He would bunt, he would hit balls out of the ballpark, he’d hit balls the other way and he ran hard on everything.

“He was aggressive, and there was no quit in anything he did. That’s the guy we’ve got today. I think he’s going to continue to be that way. He helps bring the energy that the veteran core needs.”

Odor batted .292/.334/.527 with 15 homers and 52 RBI over the Rangers’ final 91 games in 2015. He also helped them storm back from a ninegame deficit to pass Houston and win the AL West.

And he hasn’t stopped since. This season, through Sunday’s games, he was batting .273/.295/.492 and produced 23 homers and 62 RBI.

And, yes, one walloping punch.

“Great teammate, man,” Andrus says. “He’s like my little brother. How much he’s grown up in such a short time, it’s unbelievable. You can see how hungry he is to be a good player. He plays with a lot of passion, and a lot of people take it wrong, but I don’t see it that way.”

Says Beltre: “He’s smart. He’s been awesome for us. He’s the main reason we are where we are right now.”

Back when the scouts were flocking to see him in Venezuela, one of them predicted Odor was either going to be in the big leagues in three or four years or he would be out of baseball completely, depending on how he handled that chip on his shoulder.

Really, the scout said, Odor is reminiscent of one of his Venezuelan countrymen, Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, who has closed for the Angels, Mets, Brewers and Tigers now for 15 years. Like a young K-Rod, the scout figured, Odor’s edge either was going to rub people the right way or the wrong way. No in-betweens.


One horse

Specifically, a cutting horse. Odor owns four of them, two male and two female, and keeps them at Alex Cabrera’s La Pelotera Ranch in Valencia, the third-largest city in Venezuela, some 107 miles from Caracas.

The horses are used in a popular Venezuelan sport called toros coleados, which, loosely translated, means “bull tailing.” It is a descendant of bull fighting. In this case, cowboys riding the horses work to grab the bull by the tail and flip the animal in competition. The bull is considered flipped when all four legs are sticking up.

Odor loves toros coleados.

“He’s a Venezuelan cowboy now playing for Texas,” Rouglas Odor says of his nephew, chuckling. “That’s what he is. A Venezuelan cowboy.

“He likes horses. He likes cows. He likes bulls. He likes animals. That’s a lot of the reasons why he loves Texas, because you can find cowboys in Texas, and he loves hanging around them.

“He has some friends who will take him around their ranch.”

Cabrera, 44, is a close family friend and played on the same Venezuelan team as another of Odor’s uncles, Eddie Zambrano, years ago. He spent the better part of a decade bouncing around the farm systems of the Cubs, Rays and Diamondbacks. At his baseball peak, Cabrera played in 31 games for the 2000 Diamondbacks. His son Ramon is a backup catcher with the Cincinnati Reds.

“Rougie rides every single day; he enjoys the ranch all day long in the winter,” says Cabrera, who estimates right now he keeps 95 horses at La Pelotera and about 1,000 head of cattle.

During his years playing baseball, Cabrera also came across Bautista several times. Though they were never teammates, their teams played against each other in winter leagues, and when Bautista was playing for the Dominican Republic and Cabrera for Venezuela, they faced each other in the Caribbean World Series.

“Let me tell you something,” Cabrera says over the telephone from his Venezuelan ranch. “I tell Rougned this guy is big in the major leagues. I tell him I’ve known Bautista for a long time, and he’s a big man, and you have to respect him. I say, ‘You’re a rookie.'”

Cabrera pauses and laughs.

“He’s crazy,” he continues. “Rougned said, ‘In the major leagues, we’re the same. I had to do something—he tried to break my ankle.’ I watched—the slide was so hard. Rougned is lucky Bautista did not hit him. If he hit him in the knee, he’d be hurt.”

Still, Cabrera advised caution. He told Rougned he shouldn’t have clocked Bautista. But he understands that in the moment, things happen.

Just as it became the Punch Seen ‘Round the Baseball World, it also became quite the topic for family conversation.

“We all saw what happened,” Rouglas says. “I’d rather talk about Rougned as a person.”

Odor is so adept with his fists that some have wondered whether he boxed as a kid. Even Andrus asked. No, Odor told him. No boxing.

“It was a great punch,” Cabrera says. “But no power. If he had a strong hand, Bautista would be on the ground.”

Still, the Venezuelan cowboy playing for Texas now has a reputation that precedes him. His Rangers teammates get asked about him by opponents during breaks in games, maybe during pitching changes or idle moments on the bases.

“Yeah, guys ask because of the perception from the outside,” Beltre says. “Guys ask, ‘What’s going on with Odor?’ He’s a good kid. He plays hard and he means well. He’s popular because he plays hard.

“He’s a good teammate. He can steal a base, play defense, hit, hit for power. He’s the complete package.”

Says Andrus, “A lot of guys ask me how it is dealing with him every day. I tell them I’m lucky to be playing next to him. He’s a future Hall of Famer, for sure.”

Again, to those who know him, whether on his Texas teams or from his area of Venezuela, Odor poses no problem.

“I don’t know that Odor,” Ramon Cabrera, Cincinnati catcher and son of Alex, says when the Bautista punch is mentioned. “The Odor I know, he’s a nice guy.”

Says Oakland’s Vogt: “He’s kind of in the new wave of baseball player, playing with a lot of passion and a lot of emotion. I like his style.”

In Texas, he lives in the same apartment complex as Rua. Though there are no horses in the residence, there is a pool, and sometimes the two will hang out there or at the mall. They share dinners and sometimes carpool to the ballpark together—especially for day games, so Rua’s wife can sleep in rather than serving as their own personal Uber driver.

This season, Nomar Mazara, 21, has replaced Odor as the youngest player on the Rangers’ roster, and if you look hard enough, there are signs that Odor is getting older. Even at 22, he’s beginning to lose some of his hair, and you can bet that the Rangers give him some heat for that.

Well, not too much.

“He’s 5’8″, 5’9″, but he walks around like he’s 6’4″, 6’5″,” Rua says.

As Odor himself says, when he plays he doesn’t think he’s a little guy. He thinks he’s like everybody else.

“Now that I make it, I want to stay here for a long time,” Odor says.

As long as this Venezuelan cowboy provides this kind of horsepower, energizing the Rangers’ veterans and immobilizing their opponents, he appears on the fast track toward doing so.

As Banister says, “We can talk for hours on the whys—why incidents like those happen—but everyone just sees the incident and wants to talk about it, and yet they don’t understand what led up to any of them.

“So criticize how you may, just understand who the man is.”

Each day, Odor walks by the manager’s office in Texas, and on most of those days he veers in and plops down to chat with Banister.

“I’ve never seen him have a truly bad day. He’s always got a smile on his face,” the manager says. “It’s engaging. It’s captivating. And it’s real.

“That’s a favorite part of Rougie for me, because no matter what you see or what you think you see on the field, this guy just loves to show up to the ballpark. It’s his favorite place to be. And he wears that every day. No matter what happened yesterday.”


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on