Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Matt McCarthy: Odd Man Out

This is a great baseball book written by a baseball nerd. It's also a book written by a nerd, who happens to have played baseball, which makes it all the more likable, at least for a baseball nerd like me. I don't mean a person who is obsessed with baseball, I mean a NERD, like me, who is a baseball nut. Right. Matt McCarthy went to Yale and is a doctor now, but once he was a professional baseball player, which made him the eponymous "Odd Man Out," or a baseball nerd. He has written a un-put-down-able book about his quick tour with the Angel's farm system and what it's like there. I seriously read this book in two days with wide eyes. It's ugly.

McCarthy is pretty deadpan about the whole thing, and leaves the reader to pass their own judgement, and a lot of times paints himself sort of as an anthropologist dropped in just to observe the racist, homophobic, misogynist, cut-throat world of minor league ball. I'm not sure if he really was the unbiased almost saint-like figure he paints himself as, but it's not that hard to buy it, since he really was an outsider. There aren't a lot of Ivy League players to be drafted to pro-ball. Craig Breslow, now of the Oakland A's (don't get me started), and McCarthy's Yale teammate and best friend, was one of 6 Ivy Leaguers in the big leagues in 2009. So when McCarthy describes the going-ons of his teammates from the perspective of someone literate and not particularly racist, it is a cut above and actually credible. He has an educated head on his shoulders.

For example, in the minors, everyone who is from any Spanish speaking country is a "Dominican." It doesn't matter if they're from the DR or not, they're "Dominican." The "Americans" don't speak to the "Dominicans" and visa versa. It doesn't sound like there's a translator amongst them who sort of bridges the gap, even between teammates, so no one talks to each other. The players even have decided that one group will swing at certain pitches and the other will swing at others. The Dominicans shower first and seem to have fun (a lot of it sexual) in the club house, and the Americans shower later. The Dominicans sit in the back of the bus on bus rides- and there are many. When Spanish speakers and English speakers are assigned to room together, they don't speak to each other, because they can't. No one learns each other's names, because they can't.

This is one of the oddest parts of the whole book to me: minor league ball, at least rookie ball in the Angel's organization as McCarthy describes it, is not about teamwork, or even about winning games. The team doesn't care if they win their post-season games, they care about going home. This is partially due to their grueling schedule- they have 3 off days or something in 80 days with 17 hour bus rides during the 3 off days. But it's also due to the competition: these guys are competing for Major League roster spots, and they don't really care about the long term status of their team. But the Angel's organization doesn't seam to care about their team, either, except for the bizarre and seemingly unstable/unhinged manager, Tom Kotchman (dad of Casey Kotchman). If there were team building exercises, McCarthy leaves them out (I don't think he did). There's no introductions, there's no team workouts to speak of- these guys literally don't know each other's names. It's bizarre. I wonder if the majors are like this, too, but I doubt it. In Major League ball, the team DOES matter. At one point, McCarthy notices the lack of emotion in the game, even when first place is on the line. "In this league, and in this organization, wearing your heart on your sleeve seemed to be viewed with contempt. I wondered what long-term effect that had on people."

The only team bonding comes at the expense of the "other." The team can't help ridiculing Mormons- they are based in Provo, Utah, and they can't believe the Mormons there. They can't wait to take advantage of the "Jack Mormons" who say one thing and do another, which for the men on the team, means sleeping with them. Kotchman's lucky charm is a giant black dildo, which he waves around and hits people with- his "rally dildo." He says he doesn't care what his teammates look like or believe, as long as they aren't gay. The players talk about "slump busters"- the fat women they have to sleep with to get out of their slumps, but then harass each other if the women are "too" fat. They save their money to go to strip clubs, and at one point there is an excruciating incident with a house party and two high school girls. McCarthy played the uninvolved anthropologist here- I desperately wanted him to walk out, or do SOMETHING, but he stayed and drank himself silly. According to his book, that's all he did. I want to believe it.

McCarthy has moments of true insight.
Baseball, the old saying goes, is a game of failure. But on Opening Day, everyone has a blank slate. Gone are the painful slumps and disappointing defeats of the previous season and in their place are an unbridled optimism and the sometimes irrational belief that this year, for once, everything will come together. For many, Opening day is the happiest day of the year. It marks the time before the aches and pains of the season set in, before the mental aspects of the game begin to toy with your psyche- it's the time when, in theory, baseball can still be fun.
McCarthy is talking about being a player, I think, but also a fan. This is the story of an A's fan in the off years- the moment we suspend disbelief, even though we know the team has nothing, and think wow, it's April, we waited all winter for this, it's gonna be FUN this year! We know it's irrational, the pain hasn't started yet, but maybe, just maybe. The crowds fill the stands for one of the few games of the year, and everything looks bright. It is almost always sunny on opening day (it was freezing this year and Ben Sheets looked terrible, but we were optimistic). Baseball is always a game of failure. Baseball nerds like to beat themselves up. We're masochistic assholes that way. But we keep coming back. It's an addiction.

It's a great read, and fun to hear how he played with future Major Leaguers, many of whom are still in the game. Their Minor League antics are often strange- Eric Aybar in the showers, Bobby Jenks (well documented) attitude, and Casey Kotchman one of the few gentlemen that McCarthy meets. Joe Saunders, future All Star, pisses the whole team off, because he was a #1 draft pick and knows it and flaunts it. He really respects and adores Craig Breslow, which makes me want to respect him a little more, even though he usually pisses me off when he comes in from the bullpen. I will try, McCarthy, out of respect for you.

McCarthy leaves baseball when the Angels cut him at spring training in his second year. The pitching coach he's been working with offers to call around and get him a spot on another team, but he's had enough. From one nerd to another, I would have had enough, too. His arm hurts, the travel is grueling, and the people aren't really fun to be around. There's no sense of teamwork or community, and McCarthy strikes me as the kind of guy where competition becomes exhausting, not exhilerating. Not cut out for professional sports, basically. As a doctor, baseball antics still make him smile. He's a true baseball nerd.