This article appears in the summer edition of GoGamecocks The Magazine. GoGamecocks.com members can click here to view an electronic version of the magazine or can click here to subscribe to the magazine at half the normal subscription rate.
Michael Roth stands in the highly acclaimed international business department of the USC Darla Moore School of Business with a smile on his face as he talks about a topic close to his heart.
The baseball team’s ace left-hander isn’t discussing how he gets the SEC’s toughest hitters out, however. He’s detailing the amount of work he put into a group project in an international marketing course, an undertaking that involved developing a cultural and economic analysis and a marketing strategy for introducing Krispy Kreme to the country of Chile.
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Roth called it the one of the most daunting tasks of his six semesters at USC. But this is not a guy who backs down from challenges, whether it’s saving his baseball team from elimination by Clemson in a College World Series game or pulling all-nighters to ensure his academic team meets a professor’s high standards.
Most importantly, the project taught Roth what it takes to work collaboratively in an office setting. This is, after all, a guy who talks more often about being the CEO or CFO of a global corporation than he does about being a pitcher in the major leagues.
It’s easy to look at Roth’s stats and think he’s defined by his number of wins and ERA, which rank among the best in college baseball. Yet his 3.82 GPA, with a major in international business and a minor in Spanish, shines as brightly and gives him just as much pride.
When it comes to his education, his mother, Deborah, is as demanding as USC coach Ray Tanner.
“My parents have always stressed grades,” Roth says as he walks through the lobby.
Roth carries two autographed baseballs to deliver to Trish Jones, the manager of undergraduate career studies. A week after exams, the offices are nearly empty, and Jones is not there. He does find Jeanette Ross in the office of career management and hands off the baseballs to her. Ross, a big baseball fan, greets him with a big smile and hug.
Roth is impossible not to like.
“I’ve been watching you,” she said. “You are doing so well.”
In so many ways.
“He’s the epitome of what a student-athlete should be,” Tanner says. “He’s very special. I could easily see him being a CEO or a president. He has leadership skills. He has intelligence. He has a tremendous rapport with people. He has all the ingredients that you know is going to make him successful at whatever he chooses to do.”
FILLED WITH FUN
Nobody should mistake Roth for the dull, serious type, though. There may be no player in college baseball who is having more fun than Roth.
A large part of his charm is his affability and approachability. While he’s a gritty competitor on the field, he’s as fan-friendly and media-friendly as they come off it. That puts him in high demand among both fans and the media — and that leaves the Greer native open to plenty of ribbing.
Roth rooms with outfielder Adam Matthews and team managers Rob Kish, a former Riverside High teammate, and Ryan Fischer. Pitcher Bryan Harper is their adopted roommate.
“The guys give me a hard time all the time, especially my roommates,” Roth says. “They’re always like, ‘You think you can do that because you threw a complete game in Omaha.’ We like to make fun of each other, and that’s the way they do it to me: ‘Oh, Michael Roth, you’re so famous.’ And I hate when they say that.”
That group travels from the baseball field to the golf course to the mall to the Vista, and Roth being recognized — which has happened frequently since the 2010 CWS — provides a kick because it allows the crew to pile on the wisecracks.
Sitting around their off-campus apartment one evening after practice playing a golf video game, they let Roth know what they think about him being a media darling and the subject of a magazine piece.
“We have to pull him through the door because his head is so big now,” says Matthews, Roth’s roommate of three years, including on baseball road trips.
Fischer, a recent sports management graduate, fires one barb after another, accusing Roth of wallpapering his bedroom with pictures of himself. He jokes about the benefits of riding in Roth’s wake.
“You see other people’s reactions, and that’s a good thing because they think I must be somebody, too,” he says.
They all laugh, including Roth, who has the same sense of humor about himself as he does everything else. He also understands the improbability of his story: backup first baseman as a freshman becomes a situational reliever and CWS hero as a sophomore then develops into the staff ace as a junior.
But for Roth, it’s all about living in the moment. He’s not afraid to admit he enjoys being a college student and reserves his Thursday nights for going out. He has taken up golf in the past year. He and his roommates watch “The Bachelor” and “Jersey Shore” and play along with “Jeopardy.” They even admit their music selection includes the Spice Girls, something that Fischer jokes could cost Roth respect with his fans.
While Roth’s pitching has most helped make him a fan favorite, he also receives attention because he’s engaging and articulate when it comes time to talk after games.
“It’s my personality,” he says. “I’m pretty comfortable in general with talking in front of a group of people.”
Tanner says “comfortable” might be the best word to describe Roth. As hard-nosed as he is when he’s pitching, he’s incredibly loose when he’s not on the mound. He enjoys getting his teammates and the fans involved in the game; witness the arm-waving in the dugout that accompanies Christian Walker’s “Fresh Prince” walk-up music.
“I think people understand that I know when to be serious and when to joke around,” Roth says. “I don’t mind the funny reputation. I don’t try to take the game more seriously than it should be.”
Tanner smiles when asked about his pitcher’s offbeat behavior, but he has learned to trust Roth enough to allow him to show his personality.
“You don’t need to have fake intensity. The best chance to be successful is to be loose and relaxed. I can’t argue that,” Tanner says. “I’ve never seen him in a stressful mode. I know that he’s intense and tries hard, but I’ve never visited with him when I thought he was feeling a lot of pressure. He just doesn’t appear to be that kind of person. He just is who he is.”
He’s the kind of person who doesn’t mind shaving his head to help raise money and awareness for the young cancer patients at Camp Kemo. He looked different for a couple of weeks, but it was still easy to spot the smile on his face.
Most SEC pitchers who have Roth’s stats would be locks to turn professional after their junior seasons. But while Roth has the numbers and physical frame of a first-round selection, he doesn’t have the raw physical tools that Major League Baseball teams look for when they’re picking pitchers in the early rounds of the draft (he was taken in the 31st round by the Cleveland Indians).
Roth has improved his velocity — he is in the upper 80s — but he doesn’t throw his fastball past hitters; he slips it by them. He relies on a changeup and breaking pitches to keep hitters off balance, as well as an arm-delivery slot that can make it tough to pick up the baseball. It helps that he throws from the left side because teams value lefties who can throw strikes and get outs, and Roth can do both.
He hasn’t retained a big-name adviser; in fact, he plans on using Deborah, who negotiates contracts for Michelin, in that role.
Roth insists he isn’t going to consider signing unless he’s convinced the financial offer is worthwhile and the Indians are making a real commitment.
After this season, Roth is looking forward to a study-abroad opportunity in Alicante, Spain, a coastal city where he will be able to put his international business courses into practice and where he can practice his Spanish-speaking skills.
“There are a lot of things to consider, obviously,” Deborah says. “It’s his decision to make. But he has so many other options.”
He knows the opportunity to play professional baseball likely will remain after his senior season, when he has finished his degree work and enjoyed his final go-around as a college student.
He considers the college experience the best part of his life. Unlike many players who can’t wait to shed the commitment that comes with melding academics and athletics, he embraces it, even on those nights when he feels too exhausted to study.
“You sit down at home and you’re like, ‘Oh, now I have homework to do,’ when all you want to do is watch TV for an hour,” he says.
But he finds a way to get it done. He doesn’t cut corners, whether it’s staying longer in the weight room after practice or staying up late to finish an assignment.
“Coach Tanner is a big believer in players doing what they should be doing,” Roth says. “The structure is good for us.”
Roth even has found time to develop an NCAA-sanctioned money-making opportunity. At the end of each semester, he buys books for a national company called Better World Books, an outfit that buys the books from Roth, plus an additional 15 percent. Using his sales and promotional abilities around campus, he buys about $8,000 to $12,000 worth of books each semester.
“It’s a good way to make some money because, as an athlete, you don’t really have time to have a job,” Roth says.
He’s smart enough to realize he’s living the good life in many ways. And he knows his success is a product of the support around him — from his mother pushing him in the classroom to his father, a former SUNY Binghamton player, working with him on the field to his brother, a personal trainer who showed him the importance of working out, to his sister, whose academic accomplishments motivated him.
Still, he refuses to let his drive to succeed define him.
“You’ve got to have fun,” he says.