It’s that time of year again, time for the new crop of baseball books to hit the shelves. The Joe Torre/Tom Verducci book made a splash several weeks ago, and Selena Robert’s forthcoming biography of Alex Rodriguez is sure to make the best-seller list when it comes out in mid-April. But there are a bunch of other interesting titles set to drop this spring as well, including “As I See ‘Em,” Bruce Weber’s book about professional umpires; “Heart of the Game,” S.L. Price’s account of Mike Coolbaugh, the minor league coach who was killed by a foul ball in 2007, and “Odd Man Out,” Matt McCarthy’s evocative and entertaining look back on his brief minor league career with the Angels.
McCarthy pitched at Yale, played for a year with the Angels, and then moved on to a career in medicine. He’s now an intern at Columbia Pres uptown, just a stones throw from where the New York Highlanders once played.
Last week, Sports Illustrated ran a long excerpt from “Odd Man Out”, and on March 3rd at 6:00 p.m., Matt will be at The Corner Bookstore (1313 Madison Avenue at 93rd street) to talk about the book. I was fortunate enough to get together with Matt recently and talk about his life in professional baseball.
BB: John Ed Bradley wrote a terrific memoir about playing football at LSU called “It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium.” His experience might have been unique, but he describes the bond between his teammates almost like something soldiers feel. But I don’t get that same sense of being a team in baseball, even in college. Did you?
MM: Minor league baseball is a unique environment. It’s hard to be a good teammate when your primary goal is to leave the team- to be promoted to a higher level. And I was as guilty as anyone. If I pitched two scoreless innings and our team lost, I was relatively happy. No one makes the big leagues solely because they were on a winning minor league team. College baseball couldn’t be more different. We rooted for each other and still do. I still get a dozen texts every time Craig Breslow (my teammate at Yale who now pitches for the Twins) gets a big strikeout.
BB: Can you talk about the arrested development of the clubhouse culture. How do boys become men in that world?
MM: See: Kotchman, Tom. The Angels are very fortunate to have Kotchman. He could easily be a big league manager but instead he’s chosen to coach a rookie ball team. He’s able to influence players who’ve just signed very large (and very small) contracts and instill in them a culture of winning and for that the franchise owes him a large debt of gratitude. I don’t know if there are many guys like him still around, but I hope there are. That lucky charm of his- a large black dildo with two baseballs glued to the base- is something I’ll never forget. And the same is true of his Andrew Dice Clay impression. I’ve been out of baseball for six years and I still think about the Dice Man. He’s mentioned in recent interviews that he’s planning to retire from coaching sometime soon to become a full time scout. As I say in the book, I hope he reconsiders.
BB: Some of your teammates busted your chops about coming from Yale and assumed that you had a privileged life set up for yourself as a fallback in case baseball didn’t work. While they were wrong about you being on any kind of gravy train, you did have another career to turn to. How aware were you of that while you played?
MM: When you’re on the bottom rung of the minor league ladder, you can’t help but be aware of how expendable you are. That life after baseball is not just a possibility, but a reality. I was surrounded by guys who were coming to that realization and it was interesting to see how they responded. The realization came to me rather quickly- the first pitch I threw as a professional resulted in a bases-clearing double. I’m not sure if I ever recovered.
BB: Why is baseball culture, in particular, so anti-intellectual, at least in the clubhouse?
MM: I’m not sure I have a straightforward way of explaining the culture of baseball. There weren’t a lot of books floating around our locker room and a handful my teammates viewed my Yale degree with skepticism, but I think that’s because they equated the Ivy League with cut-and-run, blame-America-first, Taxachussets liberals. Others were glad to have me around because they thought I could help them figure out the stock market. They were sadly mistaken.
BB: Can you describe the machismo in the locker room. I’m thinking specifically of the Latin pitcher (Hector Astacio) who wouldn’t throw at a hitter and the quandary he found himself in because of it.
MM: We were thirty young guys who’d just been thrown into a very bizarre world- and we were all struggling to figure out how we fit into it. Astacio was asked to throw at a batter and he refused and was pulled from the game. He decided that baseball wasn’t going to change the way he lived his life. It would be an understatement to say that I was impressed.
BB: I’ve long felt that homosexuality is that great taboo in professional team sports. Reading your book just underscored how difficult it would be to come out as an active player. You’d have to be exceptional, both on the field, and as a personality. Do you ever see it changing in a game as conservative as baseball?
MM: It’s not going to happen any time soon. But one day it will, and we’ll laugh about the days when it was even an issue. I actually think professional baseball players deserve a bit more credit than they’ve traditionally been given. A few years ago an Indians minor league pitcher appeared in a gay porn video and the team supported him. Sabathia and Sizemore quickly came to his side and made an effort to deflate the notion that homosexuality is taboo in the clubhouse.
BB: The emotion involved is so tense at the minor league level. The scene with the farm director (Tony Reagins) when you are let go is incredible. Talk about how you ended up consoling him.
MM: There is so much emotion involved in this game and that’s why I felt compelled to write about it. It crushed Tony Reagins to tell me that the Angels no longer needed my services. He was destroying a dream of mine and robbing me of a sense of self, and he was acutely aware of that. He sobbed as he explained that I had failed to live up to his expectations, that an 85 mph fastball just wasn’t going to cut it. He also said he’d do anything to help me land on my feet. He cared about me as a person first and a player second. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see him named General Manager a few years ago. And now I have just one message for him: Sign Manny!
BB: Can you explain your relationship with your pitching coaches. How much input did they give you? How much were you left to figure things out on your own? And were players in your position in a much different spot than say a top prospect?
MM: Minor league pitching coaches have a difficult job. They’re working with players who have been very successful doing things their own way, and many are hesitant to make major changes to their mechanics. I had a funky delivery and wasn’t particularly interested in trying out new deliveries against the best hitters I had ever faced. But I was fortunate to have an excellent pitching coach, Kernan Ronan, who went to great lengths to explain his pitching philosophy and I think it’s why he was able to connect with so many of his players. He was also wise enough to append any suggestion with the disclaimer that “ultimately this is your career, and you have to decide what’s right for you.”
BB: You were trying to make it as a left handed specialist, the baseball equivalent of a punter in a way. You don’t talk about lack of self confidence in the book, but considering what you signed for, did you ever think you’d make the big leagues?
MM: I was constantly doubting myself and its hard not to when you see the radar gun readings and the box scores every day. I often found myself rushing to the bathroom while warming up in the bullpen because I was so nervous. I’m pretty sure Prince Fielder was actually salivating when he stepped into the batters box to face me. But take a look at Breslow, we were thrown into very similar circumstances and he thrived while I floundered. We were both long shot lefties who had signed for the league minimum, but he was able to make it. I think what ultimately separated us was his composure- for example he wouldn’t mind being called baseball’s equivalent of a punter whereas I’d fall apart.
BB: You describe Joe Saunders and Bobby Jenks as having a real arrogance about them. And yet Casey Kotchman and Howie Kendrick went out of their way to be generous with you. Is that because the second two weren’t pitchers? Did you find that most of the really good players were jerks?
MM: It was a lot of fun being around Joe and Bobby. I met Saunders a few days after he had been given a check for close to $2 million and told that he was going to be the savior for the organization. That’s a lot for a 20-year-old and I can’t say I would’ve handled it any better than he did. He was the pitcher I wished I could be and as a result I paid closer attention to how he conducted himself. I came across Bobby when he was in a tailspin and everyone had written him off. He was frustrated and didn’t know how to right the ship. But I’m thrilled that he did. Kendrick and Kotchman were two of the kindest players I ever had the opportunity to meet. During Spring Training, both pulled me aside independently to give me tips on my delivery and my pick-off move. The Angels made a mistake trading Casey away.
BB: You are out of the game now. Are you worried at all about the responses the book might get from some of the players?
MM: I’m in touch with a handful of guys from the organization and several have said they are disappointed that they’re not featured more prominently in the book. I’m sure others won’t feel that way.
BB: Who do you think might be upset?
MM: It’s no secret that I’m most critical of other pitchers in the book- particularly the left-handed pitchers. If a position player hit a home run, my first thought was, “Hey, good for him,” but if a left-handed pitcher struck out the side, my first thought was, “what does this mean for my career?” We used to joke about the half-hearted high-fives that guys competing for the same position would give each other.
BB: Looking back, what stands out the most for you? The people that you met, or the crushing loneliness and anxiety of minor league life?
MM: For long bus rides, I used to listen to the Radiohead song, “Pact Like Sardines in Crushed Tin Box” because it really captured the way I felt at the time- like a nameless minor leaguer surrounded by two dozen others. But that time- on the bus and in the locker room allowed me to get to know some very special people- people that I’m still talking and writing about six years later. And because I spent so much time with them, I never felt lonely. There was always someone to talk to. As for the anxiety, I don’t miss it, but I’ve found a new line of work that causes me plenty of anxiety.
BB: When did you first get the idea to write this book? Two-thirds of the way into it you reveal that you had been taking notes, but you never mentioned specifically what your intentions were.
MM: The book came together gradually, and then all at once. I had toyed around with the idea of writing it for a few years, but it wasn’t until I saw Bobby Jenks record the final out in the 2005 World Series that I thought seriously about putting pen to paper. I think his is a great story- someone who was able to overcome a lot of adversity- much of it self-inflicted- to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. I still get excited every time he takes the mound.
BB: The book is a quick read, not too trim, not too fat. Did you cut a lot out? How much help did you get from your editors in shaping the narrative?
MM: I’ve had a number of people tell me that they’ve read the book in one sitting, which is a strange feeling because it took six years to write. The first two people to see a draft of the manuscript were two friends from college- Ben Reiter and Charlie Finch. Ben has written extensively about baseball for Sports Illustrated and Charlie has a great Victorian mystery series. They were able to give me comments from two very different vantage points. And I was lucky to have strong support from a number of enthusiastic editors at SI – Chris Stone, Rob Fleder and Terry McDonell, specifically. My editors at Viking- Kevin Doughten and Wendy Wolf- did a great job with the manuscript, particularly with the pacing of the story. They’re very good at saying things like “maybe a little less about what you had for dinner, and a little more about Weenie Wednesday.” I did cut a lot out, but it mostly related to things that happened at Yale that only a handful of Elis would’ve been interested in.
BB: You shared with me in a recent e-mail that you didn’t read “Ball Four” or “A False Spring” before writing your book. Did you model it on anything you’d read before?
MM: I haven’t read many sports books, so I can’t say I modeled it on anything in particular, but I’m a big fan of the way Jon Wertheim, Bill Simmons, and Chuck Klosterman write about sports. And you can add my name to the long list of aspiring southern writers who have had their mind warped by Faulkner. On draft day 2002, I was reading “As I Lay Dying”, which, now that I think of it, rather nicely summarizes my performance on the mound for the Angels organization.