Odd Man Out ... Again

Matt McCarthy pitched one very forgettable season of minor league baseball in 2002. Seven years later, he turned a loose collection of journals into a best-selling book about his experiences in the baseball hinterlands, and people quickly took notice.
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Matt McCarthy pitched one very forgettable season of minor league baseball in the summer of 2002. Seven years later, McCarthy, who has two Ivy League degrees, turned a loose collection of journals into a best-selling book about his experiences in the baseball hinterlands, and people quickly took notice.

If McCarthy thought he was unwanted in baseball before, his book, Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, pretty much closed the door on an analyst gig with the MLB Network or a "Matt McCarthy Day" at Angel Stadium. But while McCarthy, who was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in the 21st round of the 2002 amateur draft out of Yale and is now an intern focusing on internal medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, works on his bedside manner, several baseball insiders have dissected this bedside table book and charged the left-hander with being under-handed.

The anger and accusations have come from several fronts. A relentless Angels blogger engrossed with the team's minor league system has hammered the book for a month, admittedly before he even read it. His old manager and several teammates have openly disputed his work, and last week, the New York Times compared him to the dreaded James Frey and another writer who supposedly faked a Holocaust love story.

The Times recently published a rebuke of Odd Man Out in the form of a 1,423-word story and a sidebar that listed 26 distinct errors from the 294-page book - which ranged from the sloppy (naming one player in a drinking scene three weeks before he was called up) to the mundane (the wrong player popping up in his first start), to the downright trivial (miscalculating the scoreless innings streak of his best friend). The Times' exclusive was thorough, but shouldn't be taken as gospel. Despite its initial introduction in Sports Illustrated last month, this book isn't meant to be taken as long-form journalism. It certainly wasn't intended to be a black-and-white recap of the 2002 Provo Angels, and the distinction is important.(1)

. . .

Culled from notebooks McCarthy said he kept during that year, Odd Man Out is a memoir, a nonfiction book that isn't a slave to the certitudes of journalism, but rather is beholden to the author's overriding, unflinching honesty to their subject.

While the aggregation of erroneous details is lamentable, none of the mistakes seem to be malicious, and in the context of the book, they're almost invisible. McCarthy doesn't paint himself as anything more than he what he was: a minor league washout. He treats his friends, teammates and his manager with the same touch. He doesn't go overboard with criticism and he doesn't whitewash what he remembers. McCarthy didn't fake playing baseball. He didn't fake his feelings of disillusionment as he failed to master the transition from small-time college baseball to the rookie leagues. To say this author is a fraud because he screwed some details is deceiving in itself.

But the Times piece stopped just short of doing that, comparing McCarthy's work to Frey, the boogeyman of the memoir genre who faked most of the juicy parts of his breakthrough book, A Million Little Pieces, and a more recent writer who faked the most important parts of his love story set during the Holocaust, wryly adding: "The authors of those books have acknowledged their fraud."(2)

This flap caught fire on the so-called blogosphere, prompting headlines like, "Crazy Baseball Memoir Probably Didn't Happen" (Deadspin) and "Lying Memoirs Come to Pro Baseball" (SportsbyBrooks). The word was out: McCarthy was a failure and a liar.

"I knew people were going to challenge this book, but I didn't know to what extent," McCarthy said in a phone interview from Fort Myers, Fla., where he was doing a book signing with his close college friend, current Twins pitcher Craig Breslow, who was drafted at the same time as McCarthy and was featured prominently in the book. "I wasn't surprised that people went through the box scores. My journal of my 76 games in the minors wasn't 76 discrete box scores." McCarthy added: "I'm trying stay above the fray in this. They put three reporters on the book and they were able to find there were (mistakes). If you look at them individually, you have to ask yourself as a reader, does this change the story?"

That's the important question here. From someone who read the book, the answer is a resounding no. Odd Man Out isn't a masterpiece of the genre, like Jim Bouton's Ball Four, but it is an enjoyable, intellectual and unsentimental look at the minor leagues, a diverse splinter of the professional sports landscape that is all too often sanitized or ignored. This is a universal story, a coming-of-age narrative that focuses on how people come to find their place in the world. When you read a book like this, you don't look at every quote and wonder if it's spot-on. An author is allowed some creative license for dialogue and situation. If they weren't, David Sedaris would still be cleaning kitchens in New York.(3)

. . .

The book delves anecdotally into sociological topics. Subplots involve racial, or more accurately societal, tensions between white players and Latinos. Classism also comes into play. McCarthy is a low draft pick and the organization has no money invested in him. Higher draft picks are coddled and cared for. But McCarthy's Yale background helps him out in a major way as a wealthy Provo couple, impressed with his education, volunteers to be his host family, taking him from a budget motel to his own wing of their McMansion. His less-educated roommate makes do at the motel.

The book is peppered with funny, often raunchy anecdotes that all minor leaguers will recognize, as will anyone who has ever spent significant time with a group of young men. And while it has been marketed as "salacious," aside from a few anecdotes about players hooking up with local girls (some not of legal age) and a slew of raunchy actions in the clubhouse, McCarthy left a lot out.

"You don't want to know what's on the cutting room floor," McCarthy said.

McCarthy's manager Tom Kotchman probably wishes the whole book was excised. Kotchman, a baseball lifer, was featured prominently as a complex man, a caring, crude and supremely dedicated teacher who loved nothing more than making his players better.

Kotchman, who still manages the team, which is now called the Orem Owlz, has been one of the more vocal detractors of the book and reportedly sent a 14-page missive of corrections to the book's publishers through his lawyer. But if you read the book, you'll see that McCarthy is mostly complimentary of his manager, devoting chunks of the book to his generosity and spirit. He points out his flaws generously as well, but Kotchman is instantly recognizable to anyone who has played a sport. He is, in many ways, the archetype of the baseball manager.(4)

"Anyone who asks me, I tell them there's a reason Tom Kotchman has spent 30 years in professional baseball and I only lasted one summer," he said. "This guy's a pro and a fantastic manager and he's one of the reasons that the Angels have a successful farm system. I loved playing for him, and I think that he's a very complicated man. And I think that's what I tried to capture in the book."

. . .

The impetus behind the book was the 2005 baseball season. During this time, McCarthy was at Harvard Medical School and Breslow improbably made his Major League debut with the San Diego Padres, becoming the first Yalie to make the majors since Ron Darling.

That season Bobby Jenks went from bust to phenom with the Chicago White Sox, thanks to his new found maturity and long-held 100 mph fastball. After watching Breslow do the impossible and Jenks finally realize his potential, McCarthy found the journals he kept during that summer and revisited the contents.

Jenks, whom McCarthy met briefly right after he was drafted, was featured in an excerpt in Sports Illustrated that introduced this book in February. It wasn't an entirely positive depiction of the Sox closer, but Jenks' experience in the Angels minor league system wasn't very positive either, which is how the Sox claimed him on waivers a couple years later. Jenks protested his involvement in the book, not realizing that his career rebirth helped inspire it.

"I thought I was in a unique position to triangulate," McCarthy said. "I have this detailed account of what happened, but it was so long ago I was able to pull back and say not only what these people have done with their lives, but how important this experience has been to me and shaped my life."

. . .

But despite the detailed account, there are the mistakes to consider. Before the brouhaha began, I found one on my own and disregarded it as a chronological slip-up. One fairly major error I brought up to McCarthy was the inclusion of Matt Brown, then a teenage third baseman, and now an occasional major leaguer, in an anecdote that involved the two of them drinking in a parking lot before a long road trip. By piecing together the road trip to old box scores, the Times found that Brown was three weeks away from joining the team.

McCarthy readily acknowledged the mistake to me, before noting that the situation itself, two guys drinking before a bus ride, trying to dull the boredom of a long bus ride through the Pacific Northwest, was a regular occurrence and intended to be anecdotal in nature.

"We did that all the time," he said, "and I just didn't put a date on that."

Ah yes, the dates. The Times' sidebar was organized by dates and it was thorough, even including a few details where McCarthy was off by a day or so, or an inning or three. McCarthy doesn't dispute any of it.

"One thing I want to make as abundantly clear as possible, and from when you read the book you'll see, I don't use dates in the book," he said. "I talk about the dog days of August, and I say I had a good game and then a bad game. If in fact it was a bad game and then a good game, to me that doesn't change materially the story I was trying to tell."

McCarthy writes bravely of how he didn't have the head (too full of anxiety), the arm (he had trouble summoning his collegiate velocity) or the stomach (he spent a lot of time on the can) to be a professional. One of the strongest subplots in the book is that Breslow, also a left-handed pitcher, had much less of a problem fitting into pro baseball, despite the two having almost identical biographies. McCarthy comes to see his failures reflected in Breslow's success, as the two friends eventually diverge on different paths.

Several other former teammates have argued about their characterization or of events that McCarthy wrote about, and nearly every memoir runs into this problem. Memories are a tricky thing, and the re-consolidation of them is a process, that like a rookie league game, is almost guaranteed to be fraught with errors.(5)

"That's the point of a memoir," McCarthy said. "It's your memory of the situation. There aren't that many memoirs where you can go back and check the box score. There are tens of thousands of details in the book and if someone is able to find a few that don't match up and compare me to James Frey, I think that's a leap."

It hasn't all been bad news and recriminations. McCarthy said he has heard from teammates who were upset they weren't in the book more. Someone who played in Provo the following year got in touch with him as well.

"I got an e-mail from a player who played in Provo the year after me, for Kotchman, and he said 'I've spent the last four years trying to explain to my wife what the experience of playing minor league baseball for the Angels was like, and I was never able to capture it and you captured it,'" McCarthy said.

And that is the story he was trying to tell.

1 The thorough debunking attempt was done by two reporters and a researcher. That's three brains for one book about Minor League baseball. Not to impugn the journalism done here, because lord knows professional writers need the work, but in this writer's eyes, it not only seemed a bit excessive, but in a lot of ways, misleading, given the genre of nonfiction doesn't demand pitch-perfect accuracy for details.

2 In an e-mail exchange, Benjamin Hill, one of the reporters who wrote the Times story, said they completely stand by their reporting.

3 Sedaris, known for too-good-to-be-true essays, received similar treatment from a Slate writer in 2007. While Sedaris refers to his work as "real-ish" because of the leaps he makes for humor's sake, McCarthy said he didn't feel like he needed any such distinction and the mistakes he made weren't purposeful. In his acknowledgments, he notes, "All errors of fact and interpretation are mine alone."

4 The Times, and several blogs, seem to propose that McCarthy details Kotchman implicitly suggested players use steroids to improve their performance. When going over a conversation with teammates about steroids, McCarthy, as the narrator, writes that he doubted that Kotchman would do such a thing because he "cared too much about his players to roll the dice with their health." In an interview, McCarthy said he included one conversation about steroids to show the pressure minor leaguers were under before drug testing came to the Majors. In an earlier section of the book, he remembers Bobby Jenks calling reliever Derrick Turnbow a steroid abuser. Turnbow was the first Major Leaguer to be identified for testing positive for a banned substance in January 2003.

5 One detail that has been questioned is Angels General Manager Tony Reagins, then the head of the franchise's minor league system, crying when he was releasing a wave of players that included McCarthy at the end of the book. This was a striking scene and one that was included in the Sports Illustrated excerpt. McCarthy stands by this memory, and when Reagins recently questioned it in the Times, McCarthy said Breslow backed him up, anecdotally."When Tony Reagins came out and said, 'I didn't cry when I cut McCarthy,' (Breslow) called me and said, 'I remember you called me and told me that story about how he was all choked up,' " McCarthy said. "The nature of memory is that people going to remember events differently and that's just how it's going to be."

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