COLUMBIA — As one of the nation’s most successful college baseball players, South Carolina pitcher Michael Roth regularly receives phone calls from Major League Baseball scouts trying to better understand him as the draft approaches.
Name: Michael RothSport: South Carolina baseball Position: PitcherYear: Senior Hometown: Greer Athletic accomplishments: Consensus first-team All-American in 2011. … Has a career earned-run average of 1.94, including 2.68 this season and 1.25 in eight NCAA tournament starts, as well as 1.25 in five College World Series starts. … Has 251 career strikeouts and 99 walks. … His career record is 23-6, including 6-1 this season. Academic accomplishments: Graduated last month with a 3.83 grade-point average, after majoring in international business and marketing, with a Spanish minor. … Back-to-back first-team academic All-American – the third USC baseball player to earn the honor twice. … Named 2011-12 Southeastern Conference male scholar-athlete of the year, which earned him a $15,000 postgraduate scholarship.
“Are you just looking to get drafted to put this on your resume?” a scout asked him recently.
Roth laughed and simply said no. Later, he thought more about the question. It bothered him.
He dreams of playing professional baseball and always has. But he does not want the sport alone to define him. He also dreams of running his own company, of learning a third language, of returning to Spain and befriending the locals he salsa-danced alongside last summer.
None of this really matters to major league scouts, but Roth thinks maybe it should. And he said maybe he should have responded to that scout’s question by saying, “Buddy, I don’t need any help on my resume. My resume is pretty good without putting baseball on there.”
Few current college athletes pair onfield and classroom achievements like Roth, a senior who has led the Gamecocks to back-to-back national championships and is their best pitcher again this season, which continues this weekend with the NCAA Super Regionals. Yet he does not throw particularly hard and is not considered a highly regarded pro prospect. He might not get drafted until Wednesday, the final day of the MLB draft.
He graduated last month and was a double major in international business and marketing, with a Spanish minor. His grade-point average is 3.83. While his teammates enjoyed their national championship parade last summer, Roth sat in the Atlanta airport, on his way to Alicante, Spain, for a five-week study abroad program that turned into a life-changing cultural experience.
He knows he could get a job out of college that would immediately pay him more than he will earn in minor league baseball next year. He is fully aware that the best days of his baseball career are likely ending, that even five years from now he might be finished with the game that consumed so much of his life.
While he embraces his uncertain yet promising future, he just wishes these scouts really did understand him.
“Maybe that’s what kind of blows my mind a little bit — is that they’re very intimidated that I’ve done the right thing in school and have intelligence and have an option other than baseball,” he said.
A curious kid He always asked why. Long before the scouts’ narrow perspectives frustrated him, Roth was wondering and tinkering, and just as sure of himself as he is now.
As a kid, he shared a bathroom with his sister, Lindsay. One morning, she noticed he used her razor to dissect the bar of soap in the shower. Another day, she returned home and saw him hurling an axe at a tree. His mother, Deborah Roth, said she quickly learned he would obey her, so long as “you had a logical reason for why you wanted him to do something.”
“Whatever he was doing, he wanted it to make sense,” Deborah said.
Summers meant endless weekends of travel baseball tournaments, but Deborah and Roth’s father, David, always arranged side trips to places like the Smithsonian. Rather than having Michael play video games on car trips, his parents encouraged him to read or talk with them about topics in the news.
This expedited his maturity, but he seemed innately confident. Lindsay was shy, so Michael was the one who called and ordered pizza, or told the waiter what she wanted to drink at restaurants.
“I think he basically just came out of the womb that way,” Lindsay said.
Changing perspectiveHis freshman season at USC curbed some of his baseball confidence — and expanded his world view.
He and his roommate, outfielder Adam Matthews, often returned to the dorm and swapped stories about what they got yelled at for in practice. Matthews would hop in the shower and scream out his frustration for several minutes, while Roth sat in the living room and laughed at the absurd scene.
Still, he frequently found himself lying awake at night, replaying that day’s baseball mistakes.
“That was kind of when it was like, ‘Really, baseball might not be in your life,’” he said.
By then, he had switched from a biomedical engineering major to international business — a very selective program at USC. He poured himself into his schoolwork and wowed professors like Mariah Lynch, who taught him in accounting as a sophomore and now considers him the son she never had.
Not only was he “acing everything I threw at him,” he also took tougher elective courses, like finance. Roth so impressed Lynch that she had him and his friends over for dinner with her family. They barely talked baseball.
“He doesn’t have the blinders on,” Lynch said. “If baseball didn’t work out for him, I think he’d maybe be a little disappointed for the day. Then he would just move right on and go get a really, really awesome job. He has a whole big life without it. He’s somebody I’d be friends with if I just met him on the street.”
In the classroom, globalization fascinated him after one of his courses discussed the far-flung places that contribute to making the T-shirt on your back. Roth wanted to see those places.
Over there The world saw him first — or the college baseball world, at least. A reliever for all of his sophomore year, he threw a complete game three-hitter against Clemson in the College World Series, then started the championship game win over UCLA. But after starting and winning the championship-clincher last year against Florida, he was ready for a break.
That’s how he envisioned his five weeks in Alicante, a city in southeastern Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. He certainly enjoyed beach time (every day, in fact) and partying at the clubs until dawn, as is custom there. He also relished jarring cultural differences and thought-provoking conversations.
The biggest, and most comical, culture shock: how to approach a Spanish woman.
“It’s almost like cat calling, like what you imagine construction workers doing to beautiful girls as they walk by,” he said. “If you do that in America, girls are like, ‘What a creep.’ But that’s what you’re supposed to do over there.
“The first two weeks, I was so scared. I couldn’t do it. Me and my buddy, we would walk together and we would try to say something, but we just felt so stupid. We’d be like, ‘Ooh, chica sexy,’ and try to say something, but just like die laughing as we walked away.”
During a quieter moment, he spent an hour talking, all in Spanish, with the son-in-law of the woman who hosted him. They discussed President Obama, the war in Afghanistan and the foreign impression of American inflexibility, because most of us speak only English.
“Overseas, we have a very bad image,” Roth said. “We’re seen as elitists. We’re seen as almost bullies.”
Open to his options Roth didn’t touch a baseball or work out during his entire trip.
“That’s what I wanted,” he said.
He found himself wondering this season if he wanted to make baseball part of his future at all.
“I was thinking about going to grad school,” he said. “Throughout this season, I did kind of think about, ‘Well, maybe I don’t want to play professional baseball.’ Why was I thinking that? I don’t know.”
He guesses it might have been a defense mechanism, in case he didn’t get drafted. But he will, as he was last year in the 31st round by Cleveland before deciding to return to school. For him, players picked that low don’t make enough initial money to warrant sacrificing a college degree.
He said he will give pro ball a shot. For how long, he doesn’t know. He seems to have too many options to enjoy floundering in the minors. He isn’t sure where life will take him 10 years from now. He thinks being an athletic director sounds interesting. Then his eyes light up when he talks about playing pro baseball in Japan and tackling another language, in a focal point of world commerce.
“There’s nothing in 10 years that’ll surprise me,” said Lynch, his former professor.
Whatever his line of work, he wants it to send him overseas, for trips or full-time living, so he can “break that American stereotype that we only speak English, that we think we’re the best. I just think it would be great to meet other people and be able to speak their language,” he said.
Sometimes, he looks at his iPad and takes himself there, zooming in on a satellite image of Alicante’s beach where he spent every afternoon. It is but another small part of the great big world Michael Roth can’t wait to see.
“I just feel,” he said, “like there’s a lot to learn.”