The genre is 50 years old, dating back to Jim Brosnan’s book, The Long Season. I’m referring to that particular kind of baseball book in which a player provides an irreverent inside account of his team.
The key elements are well-established by now. The author is a reasonably cerebral pitcher, preferably a struggling reliever. The manager must be a character — profane and easy to ridicule. And there should be a racial angle. In literature, after all, the only thing more American than baseball is racial discord.
By now, I could probably ghost write such a book in my sleep. Yet I remain a sucker for the genre, which explains why I started reading the latest entry, Odd Man Out, by Matt McCarthy.
I’m happy to report, however, that McCarthy, while not entirely transcending the genre, has written a worthwhile, high-end specimen.
The key elements are certainly present. In 2002, McCarthy was drafted by the Angels out of Yale, and spent the summer pitching mostly in relief for their short-season affiliate in Provo, Utah. He struggled through the season to the tune of an ERA in the neighborhood of 6.00 and was released during spring training the following year. (He would go on to earn his medical degree from Harvard Medical School).
The Provo team was managed by Tom Kotchman, father of Casey Kotchman, now a major league first baseman, then an Angels prospect one step ahead of McCarthy in the farm system. McCarthy presents the elder Kotchman as quite the character. He is profane, sometimes hilariously so. And, though a solid career baseball man, his judgment is not always spot on. For example, he insists that McCarthy throw nothing but fastballs to opposing slugger Prince Fielder, convinced as he was that the young prospect “with breasts” was too fat to catch up with even McCarthy’s mediocre heater. “Smoke-em inside,” as Joe Schultz used to say
The racial angle is also pronounced. This time the divide involves “the Dominicans,” a label applied to all non-American Hispanic players (replaced before long by a more colorful name). But McCarthy neither portrays the minority group as victims nor tries to stand above the divide. Most of the time, he seems as put off by the Dominicans as his less schooled teammates.
And McCarthy enables us understand why the Dominicans do not fit in with the rest of the team. Beyond the language and culture gap, there’s a maturity gap — the white players are mostly in their early 20s while the Dominicans tend to be teenagers (this was true of the two Dominican stars, Erick Aybar and Alberto Callaspo, both in the majors now). As a result of the various gaps, there’s a behavioral chasm, particularly when it comes to propensity to simulate sex in the locker room. Perhaps the best piece of advice McCarthy received all season was to avoid the shower until the Dominicans are done.
Yet McCarthy is able to find the humanity in a Dominican pitcher he tries to comfort after that pitcher is pulled by Kotchman for refusing, on moral grounds, to throw at an opposing hitter in retaliation.
Playing in Provo, a Mormon town, also provides McCarthy with a religious angle. And religion becomes even more of an element after he is assigned an evangelical Christian roommate. McCarthy isn’t exactly thrilled on either front, but neither does he play for cheap laughs. He finds enough common ground with the Mormon doctor at whose house he lodges to conclude that they could easily have been friends in college. And he comes to regret not having been kinder to his evangelical roommate.
Because McCarthy is introspective, his book isn’t nearly as funny as, say, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Nor, of course, is his book populated by stars, as Bouton’s was. But McCarthy’s account of his brief contacts with Bobby Jenks, then a problem-child Angels prospect, later a World Series hero for the White Sox, is probably worth the price of the book. So is his account of “Larry King Night” in Provo.
This is not just a book for those who follow and appreciate baseball; it’s a book for those who follow and appreciate human nature.
UPDATE: Shortly after writing this post, I looked at reviews of McCarthy’s book (I like to opine first and then see what others have said). I found that the accuracy of some of what McCarthy reports has been challenged. In some instances, it’s a case of “he says, he says.” However, McCarthy does seem to have gotten some basic facts wrong and it has been argued that some of the inaccuracies cast doubt on whether the incident being recounted actually occurred.
If I have persuaded anyone to read the book, they might first want to read the criticism of its accuracy.
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