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First published in 2009 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Matthew McCarthy, 2009
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Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following copyrighted works:
“Doctoral Candidate” by Gordon Edes, The Boston Globe, February 26, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Globe Newspaper Company, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
“Loaded Gun: Great Arm, but Jenks No Angel” by Tom Friend, ESPN The Magazine, June 9, 2003. By permission of ESPN The Magazine.
“Former Chowan Student/Pitcher, Randy Burden Passes Away” by Stephen Dunn, Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, December 9, 2002. By permission of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Ahoskie, North Carolina.
“’97 World Series: A Rookie Who Knows About Pressure; After His Problems Adapting to the U.S., Livan Hernandez Takes the World Series in Stride” by Buster Olney, The New York Times, October 18, 1997. © 1997 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of the material without express written permission is prohibited.
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Odd man out : a year on the mound with a minor league misfit / Matt McCarthy.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01593-3
1. McCarthy, Matt. 2. Pitchers (Baseball)—United States—Biography.
3. Minor league baseball—United States. I. Title.
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To my teammates
WHEN I WAS TWENTY-ONE, I could throw a baseball 92 miles an hour. This led to a strange courtship between my left arm and a series of pencil-mustached, overweight middle-aged men. I eventually gave up the game and later found myself as far away from the baseball diamond as one could possibly be—living in rural villages in Cameroon and later Malaysia, colorful places that still somehow paled in comparison to the alien environment of my first home in professional baseball: Provo, Utah. It was the height of the steroid era, and while Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were rewriting the record books, those of us in the minors were trying like hell to break into the big leagues. In our clubhouse, amphetamines were passed around like candy and the allure of steroids was ever present.
It was the summer of 2002 and I was playing for the Provo Angels, an affiliate of the Anaheim Angels, who would go on to win their first World Series that year. Defeating the San Francisco Giants in an upset, the Angels attributed their success to the hard-nosed, unselfish play of low-profile players like David Eckstein and Francisco Rodriguez. But in Provo, we were a team divided.
“Separate but equal” was how Blake Allen, a right-handed pitcher from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, first described the team dynamic to me. Blake had been drafted in the thirty-fifth round of the 2001 draft and had already played one season in Provo when I joined the team. With his slack jaw, pot belly, and slow, deliberate manner of speaking, Blake was the yokel out of central casting that many of my classmates at Yale would have ridiculed. But he was also a reflective man who enjoyed dissecting people. He would’ve fit better in a Faulkner novel than in a baseball uniform.
He’d been on the disabled list for the past year and confided in me that he thought he’d never be healthy enough to pitch again. “I’ve got a wife and kid at home and I need the paycheck,” he said one afternoon in June while we were finishing our Grand Slams at Denny’s. “They can’t cut ya when you on the disabled list. It violates the collective bargaining agreement. So I just sit back and cash the checks.”
It was then that I learned about the two-party system of minor league baseball. “You’ve got your Dominicans and you’ve got everybody else,” he said in between bites of sausage. “You don’t want nuthin’ to do with the Dominicans. They’re loud, they don’t speak English, they don’t have no respect for nobody, and for God’s sake, don’t ever go in the shower when they in there.”
The team was, in fact, divided between the Dominicans (a catch-all term for Hispanic players) and those of us from the United States. There were a dozen Dominicans on our team, hailing from Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and, yes, the Dominican Republic. And Blake was right—they were loud and didn’t speak English. Just seventeen or eighteen years old, many had been snatched out of poverty within the last year and signed to lucrative six-figure contracts. Wearing large smiles, larger gold chains, and designer sunglasses, they seemed to be playing life with Monopoly money.
“The thing about the Dominicans,” Blake told me, “is that they can play. Most of the ones on this team could play in the big leagues someday. But they won’t.” He stopped eating for a moment and looked out the window. “A typical rookie ball team will have fifteen Dominicans. Double-A will have half that. Triple-A even less. As you move up the ladder you’ll see that they just wash out.” The idea of “washing out,” I would learn, was a recurrent theme among players. It implied that your career was cut short for no apparent reason—not an injury or a slump. One day you’d show up to the field and there’d be a pink slip in your locker and no one would tell you why.
He returned to his pancakes for a moment before adding, “But I tell ya what . . . in every goddamn town we go to this year, those Dominicans will have fat white girls waiting for them.”
The Americans, in contrast, were from places like Marianna, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Most had signed professional contracts directly out of high school and baseball was the only life they knew or wanted to know. They were fond of saying that Don Zimmer, the Yankees’ bench coach, had lived a model life because at seventy-one, he had never drawn a paycheck outside of professional baseball. I was one of the few who had graduated from college, although several had attended briefly. In general these were quiet, pious men whose priorities were the Lord and the girl back home. Pregame rituals included chapel, chewing tobacco, and numerous phone calls to family members.
After road games, we would pile into the bus and head to dinner as a team. It was an endless, nauseating cycle of Applebee’s, Chili’s, and T.G.I. Friday’s. In the restaurant, the Dominicans sat on one side, the Americans on the other. On the bus, the Dominicans all sat in the back. After games, the Dominicans showered first. During the five weeks of spring training, Dominican players would be assigned American roommates because the organization felt it was “good for them,” but during the season, a Dominican would almost never be paired with an American for road trips. “That would be cruel,” our strength and conditioning coach once said. “Six months of living with one of them? Shit.” And it was the language barrier that was always used to defend the status quo. “I mean, what the hell am I gonna say to them?” Blake had asked me one day as we were walking to the ballpark, “Ho-la, amigo?”
It took five years of distance to be able to write this after I walked away from professional baseball, although shoved out is a more apt description. Some of my former teammates became stars in the big leagues while others washed out of the minors and returned home to install carpeting. Blake returned to Alabama to run the family farm and raise roosters for cockfights. I, of course, had no idea how it was all going to pan out, or that my stay in baseball would be a brief one. A year later I’d be on the other side of the country in Boston, preparing to enter medical school and begin a new life—a life after baseball, if that’s ever possible.
BUT THIS STORY does not begin in Utah. It starts in New Haven, Connecticut, a place I first visited as a senior in high school. I was invited by the coach of the Yale baseball team to visit the campus on an all-expenses-paid trip, the kind that has become a ritual of the varsity athlete recruiting process. Yale was the first school to show any interest in me and I was ready to commit to them the moment I set foot on Old Campus. The other high schooler on the recruiting visit was not nearly as impressed. Chris Young hailed from Houston, Texas, and, at six feet ten inches and 230 pounds, was the largest person I had ever met. Chris and I spent the weekend meeting the coach, touring the campus, watching a football game, and spending time with players on the baseball team.
On Saturday night, the team held its semiannual Kangaroo Court, where players recounted sex acts with undergraduates in graphic detail while teammates howled and came up with nicknames for the girls, like “Donkey Punch” and “The Beating.” Between stories, players chugged beers and accused one another of engaging in activities unbecoming of a Yale baseball player, like being seen in a French restaurant or meeting a professor for coffee.
The event took place off campus in the backyard of a house where the seniors lived and the alcohol flowed freely. When Chris Young refused the first beer offered to him, several players snickered and the captain halted court proceedings to announce that Chris was destined to become “a typical Yale nerd.” A few moments after the proclamation, Chris lumbered over to me and in his slow drawl said, “I don’t have time for this crap.”
At the stroke of midnight, shouts of “Toad’s!” began to ruffle through the crowd.
“What’s Toad’s?” I quietly asked one of the freshmen.
“It’s the bar everyone goes to on Saturday night,” he said. “Tons of people. Tons of girls. It’s great. . . .”
Another player had been listening in and put his arm around me.
“Tons of sluts is what he meant to say. They get bused in from all over Connecticut. University of New Haven. Southern Connecticut State. Quinnipiac. They all come to Toad’s!”
“All you have to do is drop the Y-bomb,” another player offered before taking a swig of Jack Daniel’s from a bottle that was being passed around. “Tell ’em you go to Yale and next thing you know you’re in their pants.”
I looked over at Chris and asked if he was interested.
“No, thanks. I, uh, have to get up early tomorrow,” he mumbled.
I didn’t want to ditch him, but as a seventeen-year-old, my interest in Toad’s had been piqued.
“I’m in,” I said to cheers from the drunken players, “but I don’t have a fake ID.”
“No problem,” the captain said. “Let’s just figure out who you look like.” The next few moments were excruciating as the Yale players gathered around to examine me.
“Let’s see . . . about six feet tall.”
“Kinda big nose.”
“Brown hair with a high forehead.”
“Yeah, a high forehead. Is it a receding hairline?”
“Nah, probably not. But maybe.”
“Decent build. Not really thin, not really fat.”
“He kinda has a big neck.”
“Definitely a big neck.”
“You know who he looks like? The Pope!”
Everyone erupted in laughter and quickly agreed that I looked like the Pope, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. I was hoping for something along the lines of Matt Damon, but that night I learned an early lesson about baseball team dynamics: never look for affirmation from a group of baseball players. The Pope, it turned out, was Ben Johnstone, a center fielder on the team who was waiting until marriage to lose his virginity. Players found this act of religious observance so incredible that they’d dubbed him “The Pope.”
He lent me a spare driver’s license and with that we were off to the bar. My first night at Toad’s was a blur, but I do remember being introduced to dozens of people as “Little Pope,” “The Pope’s Little Brother,” and “Undersecretary to the Papacy.” I would come to know Toad’s much better as the years wore on.
The next day at the airport, Chris Young made his intentions clear.
“What’d you think of Yale?” I asked as we waited to check in for our flights.
“You really want to know?” he replied grimly. He was reaching for his wallet with one hand and tucking in his shirt with the other.
“Well, I can safely say that I never met so many arrogant, self-centered, spoiled assholes in my life.”
“Things definitely got a little crazy last night.”
“Crazy? You want to know what’s crazy? Those jackasses aren’t good enough to play baseball at a big-time program and they’re not smart enough to get into Yale on their own. So what are they?”
I didn’t have a response. I was still thinking about all the fun I’d had.
“What are they?” he insisted, becoming angrier.
I shook my head.
“There’s no way in hell I’m going to Yale,” he said finally.
Chris opted for Princeton and within three years had signed a contract for $1.7 million with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He made his first Major League Baseball All-Star team by the age of twenty-five and went on to become one of the best pitchers in professional baseball.
The Yale nine, it turns out, could have used his services. The university has a sterling reputation in many arenas; unfortunately, baseball is not one of them. I went on to suit up for the Elis and was a part of several record-breaking teams during my four years in New Haven. We eclipsed the mark for losses in a season with 29 in my freshman year, only to outdo ourselves the following year by losing 31. After those two seasons, our coach finally came upon a solution to stop all the losing: he scheduled fewer games. In my four years, the team’s record was 53-109, the worst four-year span in the history of the university.
I took in the carnage from atop the pitcher’s mound. As a left-handed pitcher, my teammates expected me to be irreverent and eccentric, and it was a reputation that suited me. It’s unclear exactly how southpaws gained the distinction as oddballs—undoubtedly the “Spaceman,” Bill Lee, had something to do with it—but I’d embraced it for as long as I could remember.
Conventional wisdom says that every baseball team needs a left-handed reliever in the bullpen, and I spent my senior season trying to convince major league teams that I was the guy they were looking for. Professional scouts will tell you that as a lefty, you need to throw 90 miles per hour at least once to have a shot at being selected on the first Tuesday in June at the Major League Baseball draft. Since I’d reached 92 in my first game of my senior season, a handful of scouts were showing up when I pitched to chart my progress, despite my team’s dismal play.
I knew from the beginning that the scout/player relationship was a tenuous one. Conscious that they could turn their backs on me at any moment, I was willing to say or do just about anything to please these khaki-clad men. And since they held such sway over my professional aspirations, I of course felt the need to mock them, too. At Yale we used to say that you could spot a scout from a mile away—emerging from a Chrysler LeBaron convertible, invariably flipping through a team-issued notepad while talking on a team-issued cell phone to one of the higher-ups at the organization about some new prospect. The outfit was always the same: hat and tucked-in polo shirt with the logo of the team they represented, dark sunglasses, the slick haircut of a graying politician, and, of course, a radar gun. And they shared a common vernacular, casually using phrases like “live arm-action,” “plus secondary pitches,” “clean repetition of delivery,” and “excellent makeup.”
Their appearance and affect was somewhere between golf professional and used-car salesman—they never told you exactly what you wanted to hear but it seemed like they’d be good with a sand wedge. They were the head cheerleader and the varsity quarterback; you detested them, but deep down you’d give anything for a sign of their approval.
In dealing with scouts, I quickly learned that being a Yalie was not going to work in my favor. When I spoke to a scout after a game or before a workout, the first question was typically some variation of “You’re a biophysics major at Yale—how serious are you about baseball as a career?” Over the course of the season, my answer had evolved from “I’m very serious” to “I can’t imagine doing anything else in my life other than playing baseball, sir. I eat, breathe, and sleep baseball,” followed by a few made-up stories about skipping class and watching baseball instead of studying.
In mid-May, a day after my collegiate career ended and another disastrous Yale season had mercifully been put to rest, I received a call from a scout for the New York Yankees named Cesar Presbott. He began the conversation by announcing, “It is I, Cesar Presbott, scout for the New York Yankees.” His self-importance oozed through the phone. I’d seen him at several of my games, but never spoken to him. He had a booming voice and an impeccably manicured goatee, but what made him stand out was that Yankees hat and the radar gun. He was calling to invite me to a predraft workout that the Yankees were holding in Staten Island on June 1, three days before the draft.
As I hung up the phone, I started for the kitchen and a celebratory beer. A number of thoughts swirled through my head as I glided across the living room, but before I reached the refrigerator, I remembered that I had two phone calls to make.
THE FIRST CALL was to Florida to speak to my parents. As the child of two professors, I’d grown up in the suburbs outside of Orlando in a house where baseball was discussed along with philosophy, literature, and politics. My parents were fond of bringing their work home with them, so the typical dinner conversation revolved around the irrationality of capital punishment or what Raskolnikov could tell us about the Unabomber.
My father, Bernie, grew up in a large, working-class Irish-Catholic family in Salem, New Hampshire. He was the eldest of five children and always assumed he’d grow up to be a fireman or a police officer. After college, he took a job at a prison in upstate New York and the experience caused him to change course and pursue academia; eventually he became an expert on terrorism. In graduate school at SUNY Albany he met my mother, Belinda. They’d spent the last twenty-five years teaching at various universities around the southeastern United States. I was born in Charlotte, while they were both teaching at UNC, but we soon moved to Alabama. Shortly after my tenth birthday we moved again, this time to Florida, when my parents took jobs at the University of Central Florida. It was there—in sunny, baseball-crazed Florida—that I would spend the remainder of my childhood.
But growing up in the South was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I was able to play baseball year-round with some of the country’s finest athletes. Six of the nine starters on my Little League team were drafted to play professionally, and two—Tim Raines Jr. and Corey Patterson—made it all the way to the big leagues, with the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago Cubs, respectively.
But my time in the South also exposed me to Jim Crow-like race relations. At my middle school, Jackson Heights, a public school in Oviedo, Florida, we spent every recess in the fall playing “Blacks Versus Whites Football.” In the winter, the game switched to “Blacks Versus Whites Basketball,” and one year, when our homeroom teacher tried to teach us math through card games, we played “Blacks Versus Whites Gin Rummy.” No one ever questioned the logic of divvying up by race, so when I heard Blake’s description of the minor league team dynamic, it sounded all too familiar.
Eventually I left Jackson Heights and went to Oviedo High School, a public school just down the road. Like it is for most people, my freshman year was painful. Aside from harboring an unrequited love and fighting a losing battle with acne, I was the victim of two random acts of violence: I was shoved down a flight of stairs when a fight in the cafeteria spilled over into a hallway, and I was given the nickname “Birdman” by the freshman baseball coach, Ed Norton, who thought I looked like Larry Bird.
By the end of my freshman year I was miserable. I felt lost among the eleven hundred freshman in my class, and Coach Norton, a short man with a bloated face and a voice one octave too high for a baseball coach, kept me on the bench for almost the entire season. At the end of the school year he pulled me aside to tell me I had no hope of ever making the varsity squad and indulged me with a song he had written called “Birdman, You’re a Nerd, Man.”
So I decided to transfer to Bishop Moore High School, a private Catholic school in downtown Orlando. Students at Bishop Moore wore uniforms and were required to say a group prayer before every class, but the only thing I knew about the school was that it had a great baseball team that needed a left-handed pitcher. Though I had been raised Catholic, I never paid much attention in church and knew virtually nothing about my own religion, but I figured I could just wing it at Bishop Moore. The baseball coach, Dave Wheeler, was eager for me to transfer, but to be accepted to the school I had to pass the entrance interview with the principal, Dr. Connie Halscott.
“Everything looks great,” Dr. Halscott said as I sat with my parents in her office on a muggy July afternoon. I fidgeted with my tie as she reviewed my application. “Just a few more questions and then we’ll get to the paperwork.”
“Okay,” I said nervously.
“So, Matt, I haven’t asked . . . are you Christian?”
The sad truth was that I had no idea. I had heard the words Catholic and Christian used at home, but I didn’t know if they were mutually exclusive. I looked at my father, who was nodding.
“Yes,” I said halfheartedly.
The principal looked at my father and then back at me.
“Are you Catholic?”
I again turned to my father, who was now sitting with his arms folded. I was going to get only one free pass.
“I . . . uh . . . I don’t know. I could be.”
“You . . . could be?”
“I know I’m Irish.”
“Well,” she said, adjusting her glasses, “that’s a start. Do you realize this is a Catholic school?”
“We take religion very seriously here, Matt. I hope you can appreciate that.”
“Oh, I appreciate it,” I said enthusiastically.
“So let’s try a different line of questioning,” she said as she put my file down. “Why do you want to come to Bishop Moore?”
“Well, I know it’s a great school, the facility is nice . . . it’s on a lake, I like that . . . and the baseball team . . .”
“And he got beat up,” my mom blurted out. “He got beat up at his other school.”
I glared at my mother.
“No, I didn’t!” I said defiantly.
“Oh, yes, honey, yes, you did. Remember?”
“Jesus Christ! No, I didn’t.”
“Excuse me?” said the principal, taking off her glasses.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what she’s talking about,” I said. “I didn’t get beat up.”
“He did,” my mom whispered across the desk to the principal, “but he’s not a wimp.”
A few more awkward moments and the interview drew to a close.