Bat men

Among a roster of baseball books, the standout is by a pitcher who never made it out of the low minors.

By Daniel Okrent

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(Fortune Magazine) -- It's the annual ritual: First come the pitchers and catchers, next the position players, and then right on their heels, quicker than you can say "Alex Rodriguez" or even "anabolic," the baseball book season.

Joe Torre's The Yankee Years (Doubleday), which jumped the gun in January, has gotten most of the attention. But as much as I admire Torre and his excellent co-author, Tom Verducci, all major league memoirs are somewhat alike. I remember Pete Rose standing by his locker in spring training in the early '80s, dodging questions about one of his autobiographies (by my count, he's "written" nine books). "I haven't read it yet," Pete said. That was almost as good as Charles Barkley's immortal disavowal of something he "wrote" in his own as-told-to book several years later: "I was misquoted."

But this season's cargo of baseball lit happens to include a captivating first-person account by an athlete/memoirist who doesn't require quotation marks around "wrote." Much as I admire Bruce Weber's engaging As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires (Scribner), and much as I'm anticipating the June publication of Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself (Times Books), by the superb baseball historian Michael Shapiro, I have to say that as of now, Odd Man Out, by Matt McCarthy (Viking), is leading the league.

You say you've never heard of Matt McCarthy? His subtitle will explain why: "A Year on the Mound With a Minor League Misfit." Otherwise, you'd probably know him only if you were one of his patients in the infectious-disease unit at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, where he landed after four good seasons at Harvard Medical School. Those came after an undergraduate career at Yale, where he supplemented his studies by throwing 92-mile-an-hour fastballs. The fact that he could do it with his left hand earned him an intervening season in the uniform of the Provo Angels of the Class A Pioneer League.

This isn't the minor leagues of Bull Durham, that imaginary land where the women who lust after the players look like Susan Sarandon, and where a switch-hitting catcher with more than 200 lifetime home runs can't make it to the bigs even if he looks like Kevin Costner. McCarthy's minors are populated by rowdy 20-year-olds who call the young women they seduce (and quickly discard) "slump busters"; by bouts of nerves and frustration and ever-dimming hopes that can tip the less talented among them into either depression or rage; and by a division between American players and their Latino teammates so extreme it's a wonder they can share a locker room. (In a way, they don't - the Latinos shower as a group, and after they're done, the Anglos take their turn.)

I don't want to suggest that McCarthy has written a glum book, or that he's a snob. Although acknowledging that he went to Yale was regarded by some of his teammates as the equivalent of admitting a genetic defect, McCarthy is admirably descriptive and rarely judgmental.

His portrait of Provo's manager is hilarious (I have a feeling I'm about to make the first mention of a "rally dildo" in a respectable magazine [Editor's note: Yes, you are, Dan]), his affection for many of his teammates endearing, his self-knowledge courageous. I only wish McCarthy had been a better pitcher. That way we might have had a major league memoir as revealing and as entertaining as this one.

Editor's note: Odd Man Out, the minor league baseball memoir by Matt McCarthy reviewed in our March 16 issue, recently became somewhat controversial for more than its mention of the Provo Angels's "rally dildo." Certain incidents could not have taken place in the circumstances recalled by McCarthy, nor could certain teammates have been involved in them.

On rereading, it seems apparent that McCarthy's note-taking and his memory for dates were about as successful as his fastball - that is, not major league quality. But the book's amusing and moving (and sometimes appalling) characterization of minor league baseball and the boys and men who play it remains convincing.  To top of page

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