“What you say here, what you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here when you leave here.”
— Vince Lombardi
The third rail of professional baseball is what happens within the sanctity of the clubhouse. Talking about the private affairs of your teammates off the field is like talking about what happens in the bedroom with your partner. You just don’t do it.
Jim Bouton famously broke that rule in 1970 with Ball Four, the first of many “tell-all” books in the baseball world. The book documented his early career with the New York Yankees, but was largely about his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots. It’s noteworthy for having exposed what truly happens within the clubhouse.
For his efforts, Bouton became a baseball pariah, shunned by many of his former teammates. He was banned from the Yankees’ Old Timer’s Day until 1998.
Bouton made a nice life for himself with the book, providing a steady income, an occasional pundit appearance, and lasting notoreity in the history of a game that otherwise would have forgotten him once he retired.
A nice living won’t be an issue for Matt McCarthy, who is currently an intern at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. A Yale graduate, it’s clear his future is secure without having to worry about whether his former baseball friends will shun him.
So the question is, why did McCarthy feel motivated to write a “tell-all” book about his one season with the 2002 Provo Angels?
Matt’s book, Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, will be published by Viking (Penguin Group) on February 19. The book has already been reviewed by the Orange County Register, and will be featured in the February 23rd Sports Illustrated issue.
McCarthy doesn’t answer the motivation question in the book, nor does he conclude by explaining why he thinks his career flamed out after one season. Was it injury? An absence of talent? A failure to train him properly?
The book, apparently, is a fleshing out of a personal journal he kept while employed by the Angels. According to the promotional material:
“Odd Man Out” is a gripping tale of Matt McCarthy’s thrilling ride, from playing in college with an abysmal Yale baseball team, to getting the unlikely call that he had been drafted to play professionally. Through the course of one year in the minor leagues, Matt saw it all, from rampant use of steroids to bigotry in the locker room (white players and Latino players wouldn’t even attempt to speak to each other). Most baseball stories involve a highly sought after phenom who gets paid a record-breaking sum at the age of 18 to be a starter for a major league team. Matt’s story goes to the heart of the game, and shows that most of the players who get drafted struggle to make it through the minor leagues for the shot at making “The Big Show.” Matt never got that shot, but many of his teammates have gone on to make a major impact in the sport.
The steroids and bigotry claims turned out to be more hype than reality, which is what I suspected.
McCarthy recounts a story told him by catcher Alex Dvorsky. Alex was 23 at the time, which is really old for the Rookie-A Pioneer League. He was one of the team’s top hitters, finishing the year with a .321 average, a .453 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage. According to Matt, Dvorsky quoted manager Tom Kotchman as telling him, “You’re doin’ a good job and all, but we don’t need a catcher who hits singles. We need a catcher who drives in runs and hits the ball out of the park.”
Matt claims that teammate Heath Luther, a pitcher, told them this meant Dvorsky needed to use steroids. That’s quite a leap to “rampant” steroid use.
McCarthy was friends with Brian Barnett, the team’s third-string catcher. Matt never gives Barnett’s last name, just referring to him as “Brian” or by his nickname “Sunshine.” He writes that “Sunshine” told him, “I know of five white guys and one Dominican” on the team who are using steroids. Yet he also writes throughout the book that Barnett often exaggerates, so it’s hard to believe anything he says.
Again, hardly “rampant.”
As for the bigotry charge, it seems that a couple teammates from the Deep South had some predictably prejudicial attitudes towards the Latin players. And naturally, when there’s a language barrier in the clubhouse, the people who speak the same language tend to talk to each other, simply because it’s easier. But that’s not bigotry, which is defined by Dictionary.com as “stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.” I really didn’t see much of that in the book, more like two radically different cultures clashing in the claustrophobic environment of the clubhouse. Other than one clubhouse fight between a white player and a Latin player, both sides pretty much seemed to tolerate each other’s presence.
The book will be controversial not because of the hype, but because it exposes the dismal and sometimes crude life style of a minor league ballplayer. In particular, it alleges embarrassing antics by future major leaguers, including Joe Saunders, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, Chris Bootcheck, and Bobby Jenks. I wouldn’t want to be Aybar when he takes the field in Anaheim this April.
As with Ball Four, the clubhouse humor is not what anyone who was there would want published for the world to read. I suspect Kotchman, who still manages the franchise (renamed the Orem Owlz), will feel betrayed by what’s in the book. How Kotch runs his operation is no secret to those hundreds of ballplayers who’ve come through Happy Valley since 2001, and to those of us trusted to get a glimpse of it now and then. But the public who see Kotch and the players only on the field may be quite offended by some of the passages.
Professional baseball is really all about entertainment. Customers pay to watch a live performance. Only it’s not theatre, it’s not a play, it’s a sport.
How much is the public entitled to know beyond what’s on the field? It’s the same question as how much is the public entitled to know about movie stars, politicians, and other public figures and celebrities. My personal opinion is that they’re not entitled to anything beyond the entertainment they paid to see, but as we all know there’s a huge industry out there that profits from exposés and gossip.
Does the public have any more right to know what Tom Kotchman does in the clubhouse to motivate his players than they do to know what Steven Spielberg might do to motivate his performers? How much do we have a right to know?
The book is as much about Kotchman as it is about McCarthy. I’ve written a lot over the years about Kotch’s success with developing young players. It’s no secret I admire the man for his success, but also his dedication to his family.
That said, since I don’t believe the public has a right to what goes on in private, I won’t comment on the accuracy of what’s in the book about Kotchman. That’s up to Kotch, if and when he chooses to address the book’s contents. I suspect that time will come when he reports to Orem in mid-June, although once the February 23 SI issue hits the stands, he’s likely to be approached by plenty of media types for comment.
How will Angels management react?
I doubt anyone will get fired or punished. But I suspect an organization that already tightly guards the sanctity of its clubhouse will restrict access even more.
McCarthy’s book isn’t the only tell-all about to hit the shelves. Joe Torre has a book about his years with the New York Yankees. According to MLB.com, the Yankees may include a “disparagement clause” in future player and manager contracts to prevent similar leaks in the future.
It’s questionable whether the Yankees could impose a contract clause on their players without the approval of the players’ union, but they could certainly impose it on their manager, coaches, clubhouse attendants, and front office staff.
And they could probably do it to their minor league players, who don’t belong to the union and play for every little.
That’s where I expect this to go. The Angels, and other organizations, will develop legal documents which they will require their minor leaguers to sign that are similar to a non-disclosure agreement.
There’s a certain irony to a player publishing this tell-all book. A couple years ago I had a conversation with a certain Angels staffer about his concern that the players and coaches trusted me too much, that I might see or hear something I shouldn’t. After pointing out that I’ve never violated that trust, I noted that technology is evolving to where we really never have privacy any more. We now have cell phones with built-in still cameras and camcorders. What’s to keep a fan from leaning over a rail, snapping an embarrassing photo of a player in the runway, and then posting it all over the Internet? In fact, there’s a photo making the rounds right now on fan sites of a certain Angels prospect with a hookah pipe in his mouth, apparently at a party. And several players have started their own blogs.
On page 201 of Odd Man Out, McCarthy writes that pitcher Jaime Steward wrote a complaint diatribe on FutureAngels.com. Someone printed it out and taped it to each locker in the clubhouse. Personally, I have no recollection of the episode, but then I’m middle-aged and increasingly forgetful. I can’t find it in my archives.
In any case, the running theme here isn’t who’s trusted with access, it’s the failure of the player to properly conduct himself. That’s where the blame lies.
And that’s really the soul of this book.
McCarthy spends much of his time in the company of teammates who would never amount to anything. They spend their free time drinking heavily, chasing girls, or drinking heavily while chasing girls.
Is it any wonder why they had no career?
Sure, talent has a lot to do with it. Bobby Jenks managed to survive his demons and find a big-league career as a closer with the White Sox.
When you don’t have talent, then you have to work hard if you really want that big-league career.
And as smart as McCarthy is, apparently he never figured that out.
He hangs out with the peripheral players, lets himself be talked into binge drinking, tries chewing tobacco after giving into peer pressure, and seems to do everything except take his career seriously.
Yet he and his buddies wonder why it is they don’t play regularly. They grouse that they’re not given their shot. It couldn’t possibly be their fault, could it?
As a general rule, if a player gets drafted (or signed as an undrafted free agent), he usually has at least one projectable tool. For McCarthy, he was a left-hander who managed to throw a 90 MPH fastball during a tryout. He also had a slider and changeup.
When he pitched, his mechanics were terribly inconsistent. He writes that he was so nervous on game day, he frequently had to sit on the toilet.
Legendary pitching coach Howie Gershberg, who at the time was suffering from the cancer that would take his life the next year, has a cameo in the book. He visits Provo and takes McCarthy to the bullpen. Howie quickly spots flaws in Matt’s mechanics, and tells him what to do to correct them. Yet apparently Matt never does.
The next spring, Casey Kotchman and Howie Kendrick quickly spot flaws in McCarthy’s pickoff moves. Matt tips when he’s going to home, or when he’s going to first. Again, no indication he ever fixed the flaws.
The bottom line is that McCarthy was his own worst enemy, and the same goes for his buddies.
Were the Angels complicit in their failure?
Yes and no. It could be argued that coaches might have failed to detect a flaw in time, or might have suggested a change in mechanics that injured a player.
For the most part, though, my personal observation is that they get it right. Tom Kotchman’s track record speaks for itself. Over two decades, he’s taken teams to the post-season almost every year, some with a lot of talent, some with very little.
McCarthy wrote that none of the players in the clubhouse cared about winning. He claimed they only cared about themselves, and secretly rooted for each other to fail, viewing their teammates as rivals for the next rung on the promotional ladder.
This is one of the problems I have with the book. McCarthy frequently makes gross generalizations that he couldn’t possibly prove. Did he survey each and every teammate? Or was that his opinion? Frankly, I think it was the attitude of the people he hung out with.
Sure, there may be individual instances of players who root against teammates, but my personal observation over eleven years of covering Angels minor league baseball is that it’s the exception, not the rule.
Matt’s perspective may also have suffered from the fact that he never played in the upper minors. That kind of attitude isn’t tolerated in Triple-A, one step away from the majors. The lower minors serve as a weeding-out process. If you have a lot of talent, the Angels will probably be more patient, but if you’re not a Bobby Jenks or Jose Arredondo you’re on very thin ice. Nobody owes you a career, and if you can’t prove you deserve one, odds are you’ll be out of the game pretty quick.
Had Matt concluded with a warning to future minor leaguers not to screw up like he did, the book would have concluded with a clearer focus. Instead, we’re left to conclude that six years later he’s moved on to his medical career and now wants to tell the world about what happens behind closed doors.
Register sportswriter Sam Miller interviewed McCarthy for his article. He quotes Matt as saying:
“I wanted to write an unvarnished book of what it’s like to go through this really intense experience,” he says. “There are some people who just don’t like being written about, no matter what the subject…. I just tried to write a book for people who wonder.”
Apparently McCarthy didn’t contact any of his former teammates to give them a head’s up about the book. Miller wrote that Heath Luther knew nothing about the accusations until the reporter contacted him. Heath said he’s 30 now, married with two children, his life on an entirely different career path. What happened six years ago has little relevance to who he is now. The same is probably true of Brian Barnett, Alex Dvorsky, Brett Cimorelli and others quoted at length. Their names will be on display for all the world to see in a few weeks, and an upheaval come into their lives due to immature behavior by immature people. They’re no longer immature (hopefully), so why hold them up for public derision not just in a book, but in a national sports publication?
I also worry about what this will do to the Orem Owlz operation. McCarthy quotes his teammates as having a lot of nasty (and, frankly, ignorant) things to say about the local Mormon population. Matt was lucky enough to be taken in by a host family who happened to be Mormon, and he figured out pretty quickly that his preconceptions were groundless. But I can imagine that Orem’s host parent program is going to have a lot of problems this year finding volunteers after the comments in the book circulate through the community.
McCarthy apparently hasn’t kept in contact with any of his teammates, so the pain caused by this book won’t affect him personally — unless someone files a lawsuit, which Luther suggests might happen. But as he embarks on his medical career, I have to wonder if Matt has considered what this book might do to the trust his patients will have in him. Doctor-patient confidentiality is as sacred as the confidentiality of the clubhouse. If McCarthy couldn’t be trusted to keep to himself the X-rated antics of his teammates, how will his patients know he can be trusted with embarrassing information?
Matt was right when he described his book as “unvarnished.” I can’t vouch for specific incidents, because I wasn’t there, but for the most part he’s got the look and feel of what life is like in the lower minors. If that interests you, then read the book. But that could have been accomplished without revealing information that will embarrass people who invested a lot of time in trying to help his career. Maybe that would have made the book a less interesting read. Maybe SI wouldn’t run excerpts. Maybe it wouldn’t sell at all.