02 March 2010

Review: Odd Man Out


Aside from music, one of my biggest passions in life is baseball. Since 1994 I've been a huge fan of the Seattle Mariners. I care far too much about baseball and spend far too much time reading about it online. But one thing I don't read enough of is baseball books. When I read The Boys of Summer by George Kahn, I loved it (or at least the first half of it). I've read some other baseball stuff that is just superb. But then you get the real clunkers. And when a baseball book stinks, it's just unbearable. I want them to be good so badly that it upsets me when they are not.

Well I was killing some time at the UMD bookstore the other day, and came across Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit by Matt McCarthy. I'm not sure why it struck me, but I looked it up on my Kindle and downloaded it there. I've never been happier with a baseball book in my life. It doesn't have any of the sabermetric statistics that I'm learning to like, and it isn't really advanced technically. What it is is a superb recounting of McCarthy's year in the Anaheim Angel's farm system.

McCarthy was a left-handed pitcher for an abysmal Yale team. In 2002, after graduating from one of the top universities in the world, he was picked in the 21st round of the amateur draft by the Angels. 21st-round picks are usually people that will never make an impact on the big-league team. And the same is true of McCarthy. But his assignment to the Provo Angels, based in the geographic heart of the Mormon religion provides for some fantastic stories, and we're lucky they were experienced by someone who can write as well as McCarthy does.

He tells of extended spring training and his time in Provo, UT. But the best part of the book is the detailing of the players themselves. We get some big names (new Mariners 1B Casey Kotchman's dad is McCarthy's manager in Provo. White Sox closer Bobby Jenks makes a cameo as a drunk blowhard [which in turn makes me like Jenks even more now that I see his complete transformation], Joe Saunders is hated by his teammates, Ervin Sanatana puts no effort into his game, and Alberto Callaspo engages in hijinks galore), and we get some people that even the most avid baseball fan hasn't heard of.

These are the people that make the story special. Two players come immediately to mind, and both were (at one point) McCarthy's roommates. The first roommate, always referred to as Sunshine, was a bit of an eccentric player, who most of the team thought was only there as a favor. He served the season as the bullpen catcher, one of the least glorious jobs in all of baseball. After initially disliking him, McCarthy seems to end up with a great fondness for the crazy Californian.

The other is Randy Burden, a devout Christian who tried to push the Bible onto McCarthy while also trying to be supportive in a non-imposing way. McCarthy details the brusque manner in which he treated Burden, and then reveals that Burden died after the 2002 season. You can sense a profound regret in McCarthy's writing both that he wasn't there for his teammate in life, and afterwards. These segments must have been very difficult for McCarthy to write, as he lays himself out as kind of an ass.

The other truly inspiring character is Tom Kotchman, the Provo Angel's manager. The way he is described, he is truly a "player's manager."If his team plays baseball the "way it was meant to be played" he'll do anything for them. At one point, Kotchman offers any money that his players need with no strings attached. For some, this was they only way they could eat on the meager rookie-ball salary they received. As clich├ęd as it sounds, I absolutely loved this bit from Kotchman:
If you play hard for me, I will do anything for you. Anything! And to see some of you just going through the motions... it kills me. You're disrespecting the game!
These kids were given the chance to live the dream of thousands of people. To play professional baseball. And while you can't blame them for taking it for granted (most people who routinely do amazing things take them for granted), you have to appreciate what Kotchman is trying to instill in his players.

The author is very straightforward about the fact that he wasn't a very good pitcher. Without fear of spoiling anything (it pretty much gives the ending on the back cover), I note that even though McCarthy got cut in Spring Training of 2003, he's not doing too shabbily for himself: having attended Harvard Medical School.

If you're looking for a good baseball book, but this one now. The pace was fast and the story telling was phenomenal. I can't recommend it enough.

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