COLUMBIA — Up on the stage, Michael Roth wasted no time in cracking wise, hoping to engage the auditorium of about 70 students in the University of South Carolina’s Honors College.
“Who’s going to Five Points after this?” he asked, referring to Columbia’s college bar district.
The students chuckled, and Roth was off, launching into an informal, 45-minute speech. He paced across the stage, wearing a plaid long-sleeved shirt tucked into jeans — only slightly more formal than the T-shirted group of students on this fall Thursday evening in Gambrell Hall.
A pitcher who led USC to back-to-back national championships and then a runner-up finish in 2012, Roth was known as a high achiever athletically and academically.
On this night, four months after his college baseball career ended, he was being paid by USC to speak about time management to a collection of the university’s highest achievers.
As Roth embarks on the uncertainty of professional life, either in baseball or with the company he launched to conduct paid speeches, his words to the students captured the approach that made him so successful on the mound — equal parts snarky, determined and cerebral.
“You guys are all honors kids; you’re all geeks and nerds,” he joked, when addressing how to handle a busy schedule. “It’s OK. I was a nerd.”
He rolled his sleeves up and stepped out from behind the podium.
“We want to master all of it,” he said. “Now is the time to figure out how to juggle all these things, because it doesn’t change.”
A summer of change
In early September, Roth launched his company, Michael T. Roth Enterprises. He doesn’t know what it might become. He has an international business degree and briefly considered doing an internship for an insurance company in London this offseason, but he didn’t have the time. For now, the company’s purpose is Roth’s paid speaking engagements.
Roth has done five — sales teams for companies in Portland, Ore., and Easley; a rally in Greenville for student government; the Honors College; and a Columbia event celebrating the area’s entrepreneurship and innovations. He is working a baseball event in Orlando, Fla., after Christmas and has several speeches lined up for January.
Then it’s back to baseball. Next year is an important crossroads in Roth’s life — the point when he will figure out just how far pitching can take him.
The Los Angeles Angels drafted him in the ninth round this year, and he pitched with their rookie league team in Utah, the Orem Owlz. He threw just 22 innings in 11 appearances, with nine starts. The Angels limited his pitches because he threw 137 innings with USC in the spring. Usually held to two innings per outing, he struggled at times with the Owlz and had a 4.91 ERA. But judging pro potential based on 22 innings is foolhardy.
Roth next year likely will join the Angels’ low Class A team in Burlington, Iowa, or high Class A team in San Bernardino, Calif. He will be 23 years old when the season begins, so neither he nor the Angels have lots of time to determine his chances of long-term baseball success.
“This next year, you kind of figure out: Either I’m going to be able to maybe pitch in the big leagues, or this isn’t something I want to pursue,” Roth said.
Roth won’t be lost without baseball. He brainstormed his company about a year ago, after his baseball exploits resulted in local schools asking him to deliver speeches. He also tagged along with his coach, Ray Tanner, for Tanner’s luncheon speeches. Roth observed Tanner’s conversational style, and how he used only a note card to remind himself of talking points.
Roth knows he can now capitalize financially on his popularity. With the speeches, he has. He declined to say how much money they’ve made him. His fee depends on the type of speech.
Roth’s first foray into minor league baseball’s unglamorous life allowed him time to think. The Owlz bussed through the night to outposts such as Grand Junction, Colo., and Idaho Falls, Idaho. They ate at Denny’s and supplemented with snacks at Walmart. Some people they met in Orem didn’t even know the team existed.
Roth learned to tolerate the standard clubhouse meal of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He learned to sleep on a bus, with the help of Advil PM. While he made some friends, he learned that minor league ball is nothing like college ball.
“It’s bad to say, but it’s the reality of it: You don’t pull against anybody, but you’re just not necessarily pulling for everybody. There’s no team atmosphere at all. That’s just the nature of the business. You’re all trying to climb the ladder. You’re not necessarily trying to be best friends.”
A few months ago, the expectations and pressure placed on Roth came from finality — his last season at USC, one more chance to win a national title. Now, those feelings are replaced by his own goals for this unknown post-college world.
Yet much about Roth remains the same. He is living in Columbia this offseason with his old roommate and teammate, Adam Matthews. Roth still itches to travel. In September, he played in Germany with Great Britain in the World Baseball Classic, because his mom was born in England. Before coming home, he made sure to spend a day drinking beer at Oktoberfest.
Roth is branching out, too. In addition to his paid speeches, he took an unpaid trip this fall to Omaha, Neb., where he gained his College World Series fame. Roth went with a group from the South Carolina Department of Commerce, to promote the state’s economy. The department wanted to bring Tanner, but he was unavailable, so Roth gave a speech in his place.
That trip was more formal than his Honors College speech, where he talked to the students about handling pressure and concluded by saying, “Life is supposed to be a freaking party, so make sure you’re having a lot of fun. And rock out college — seriously. It’s the best four years ever.”
Roth can relate to college kids and make them laugh, but it was his first speech with his company that bolstered his hopes for its future. A week after returning from Germany, he traveled to Portland to wear a business suit and speak to the sales team for Learning.com, whose national sales director once lived in Columbia and contacted Roth.
The company covered Roth’s flight and hotel. He spent 10 hours preparing for his 45-minute speech on pressure, to a group of adults who looked tired when he walked into the room.
“They’re probably looking at their boss being like, ‘Why the heck did you bring this 22-year-old minor league baseball player in?’ ” Roth said. “I just never thought I’d be going to Portland to speak as a first gig. I was kind of nervous. I was thinking that my first gig would be a small group that I would know.”
He loosened up the salespeople by telling his standby stories about how Matthews screamed in the shower after they struggled at practice as freshmen, how Tanner told Roth that year that “I’d never see the mound for him,” and how Roth responded to the challenge — by achieving so much that South Carolina will remember him long after his final pitch.
This was Roth’s first step into his new life, and as he left Portland later that day, he liked where it was heading.
“It was an encouragement to me that this thing is possible,” he said.