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December 20 2005: Yellow Doze of Texas

They say everything is bigger in Texas. Texas definitely has a thing about bigness, and when you go there, that size-ism is on display everywhere. The last time I visited Texas I discovered just how different the scale is there. A typical sight: an American flag flies over a car dealership, just like they do in states everywhere. Then you realize this one is larger than the street I live on in Massachusetts. That and people cannot give directions there, because the scale is so skewed. More than once I was told something was a quarter or half a mile away, only to discover it was actually more like two miles away–an important fact when you’re trying to walk somewhere in 100 degree heat.

The latest symptom has to be a gift that Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane has bestowed on star pitcher Roy Oswalt. A typical gift for a baseball player who achieves something amazing is a sports car. The MVP of the World Series was traditionally given one in the 1960s. And of course the winners of the World Series get diamond-studded rings, expensive to be sure.

But Oswalt did something exceptional enough to qualify for an unusual gift. Consider this. At midseason, the Astros were out of it. No one thought they had much of a chance to get far, and certainly they weren’t going to repeat the previous year’s performance, which saw them battle the St. Louis Cardinals for the pennant, only to lose in a deciding game seven of the NLCS. The Astros had trouble scoring runs all year, and despite great pitching from Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Oswalt, they were going nowhere fast.

But then, they went on a run, while the rest of the division fell away. An NLCS rematch with the Cardinals soon followed. And this time the Astros were not going to let the chance to go to the World Series get away. Or were they? They lost game 5 to the Cards in heartbreaking fashion (Albert Pujols ninth inning home run) and it looked like St. Louis was picking up momentum.

On the day of game 6, Oswalt was slated to pitch, and he sat in the clubhouse alone. Astros owner McLane approached him, wanting to give the kid some extra incentive. McLane remembered a conversation the two men had back in 2001, when Oswalt first hit the major leagues. McLane is a paternal sort who likes to talk with his boys about their “goals.” Most young fellas just making it to the majors talk about wanting to buy a house or a car. Not Oswalt. He wanted a bulldozer.

The uniqueness of the desire stuck with McLane, who told his pitcher that day: “You win this game tonight, and I’ll buy you a Caterpillar D6.”

Well, Oswalt did just that, pitching a gem and propelling the Astros into the World Series for the first time in 43 years. And today, McLane made good on his promise, presenting the right-hander with a yellow mechanical monstrosity worth $230,000. (The gift is so expensive, it had to be written into Oswalt’s contract to comply with major league baseball rules.) Yes, you heard right, the bright yellow Hummer presented to Roger Clemens by a Houston radio station as a bribe to get him to pitch for the Astros (which he did) is no longer the biggest yellow vehicle given to a star pitcher.

Now, baseball does a lot to foster its image as a folksy, country-home sport, but this isn’t a Bud-Selig-created promo opportunity. This guy really, really wanted a bulldozer. Oswalt owns a 40-acre farm in Weir, Mississippi and a 1000-acre ranch with his brother, according to reports, so he plans to put the bulldozer to work right away, building roads and man-made lakes. And when he’s not using it, he plans to rent it to neighbors for extra money.

I suppose if you wanted proof that not every big-money player (Oswalt made close to $6 million last year) spends the offseason chasing super models and hobnobbing with the Beautiful People, this is it right here.

Not that there wasn’t a little promotion involved on McLane’s part, too. The big machine was unveiled in a ceremony in the parking lot of Minute Maid Park (formerly Enron Field, remember Enron?) and McLane also went to the always reliable well of good will baseball has with charities for kids, by also giving 44 toy bulldozers to the Star of Hope mission. (Together now: awwww.) You know, there’s simply nothing bad to say about this uplifting Christmastime story. I can’t even come up with a good way to knock George Bush in this one.

Enjoy the ‘dozer, Roy, and the big-hearted ways of Texas.

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