Friday, October 02, 2009

Book Report: "Odd Man Out," By Matt McCarthy

Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit
makes clear the virtues associated with being good at two things.

Matt McCarthy's is an autobiographical account of a Yale grad with a scientific bent and the good fortune of being a southpaw.

The fact of his left-handed birth limited the competition for pitching slots nationwide. It paved the way for McCarthy to play at Yale and later be drafted by the Los Angeles Angels Baseball Club.

The dynamic here is simple and effective. A young and cerebral son of old Ivy is tossed into the social wilds of the American West and the Angels farm system as a prospect with few prospects.

Most of the players he runs into can only do one thing and their level of education has been limited by the facts that they never went to school or that their schools only required them to play ball very well.

McCarthy is not so much a minor league misfit -- he wants baseball success as much as the others -- as he is a guy who took the time to develop both mind and body.

"Odd Man Out," dissects the system by which baseball separates its winners and losers. And although it is not necessarily seamy, immoral or perverse, the game is certainly tilted in favor of certain prospects and cruel to those with lesser pedigrees.

McCarthy only lasts a year and there is nothing his learned eye beholds along the way to encourage him.

In one episode, he is on the mound tossing pitches in front of Angel manager Mike Scioscia, former general manager Bill Stoneman, and his own pitching coach.

Asked for a little background, the pitching coach, in full-voice and easily within earshot of McCarthy informs the big shots that the kid's "nothing special."

Along the way he learns that all Latino players are grouped as "Dominicans" by their American counterparts and that some of the latter would rather quit the game than room with one.

He learns a good "gay" joke will always lift the players' spirits and that the team's fortunes take a back seat to individual statistics in what the author concludes is a "numbers game."

There is a familiar assortment of desperate types doing steroids to hang in there, the obligatory Bible freak, and meat-headed, beer-guzzling jocks.

The author's brief thumbnail portrait of White Sox reliever Bobby Jenks in his early days makes for great fun if you actually know who Jenks is.

The most complete portrait achieved is that of Provo Angels manager Tom Kotchman, father of the professional Angels' former first baseman, Casey (now with the Red Sox).

It's not a novel portrait, but rather one that confirms our impression of the chaw-chewing hard-ass we expect a guy charged with squiring a bunch of young lugs around the far West to be.

Although some of the insights are grim, there is nothing over-the-top in "Odd Man Out" that marks it for a special place in the annals of baseball literature, but it's an informative, easy read with moments of sly humor.

The most appreciative audience for "Odd Man Out" would have to be among fans of the Angels. It pulls back the curtain to reveals why what was once one of baseball's clunkers is now a well-oiled winning machine.

Similarly, McCarthy's time in the minors coincided with the apprenticeship of the club's present day stars.

Erik Aybar, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, Mike Napoli, and Rafael Rodriguez are clearly marked as winners in system that is made up largely of losers and the few anecdotes involving them make for good stuff.

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