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Books | Sports

March 30, 2009

Controversial Memoir's Slice of Minor-League Life

Medical intern Matt McCarthy chronicled his year in the minors, stirring debate about his accuracy.

dan fleschner

Last month, former minor-league and Yale pitcher Matt McCarthy published Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, a memoir of his 2002 season with the Class-A Provo Angels. It turned out to be his only season in professional baseball before he headed off to Harvard Medical School. (McCarthy is now an intern in internal medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.) McCarthy's performance on the mound wasn't particularly noteworthy—he compiled a 6.92 ERA in 15 appearances—but his experience on and off the field offers readers an inside look into the life of a struggling low-level minor leaguer playing alongside and against glittering first-round draft picks and future major league all-stars such as Joe Saunders and Prince Fielder.

Matt McCarthy. Photo by Timothy O'Connell.
"I was so nervous that I'd pitch poorly. I know Prince Fielder was always very excited to see me on the mound."

Matt McCarthy. Photo by Timothy O'Connell.

McCarthy chronicles the wild times of his eccentric teammates and coaches, as well as his own quiet struggles and crises of confidence. But shortly after the book's release, a story in the New York Times called into question the accuracy of some of his writing, indicating that "statistics from that season, transaction listings and interviews with his former teammates indicate that many portions of the book are incorrect, embellished or impossible." Some of the characters from the book, including his former manager, Tom Kotchman, claimed that McCarthy had made up certain parts of the book.

In an interview conducted via email with Gelf Magazine, McCarthy responded to some of the allegations in the Times story and shed further light on the publication process. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can hear McCarthy and other baseball writers—including Alex Belth, who has written about the McCarthy book controversy—read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, April 2, in New York's Lower East Side. Plus, listen to McCarthy's conversation with Gelf's podcasters, the Hack and the Flack.

Gelf Magazine: First of all, your book got some unwelcome attention on March 2, when the New York Times published a story casting some doubt on some of the claims in your book, saying "many of the portions of the book are incorrect, embellished or impossible." Before we get into some of the specifics with that, what was your reaction when the Times called to ask you for comment? Did you know something like that was coming?

Matt McCarthy: I had no idea anything was coming. I actually met with a reporter for the Times to discuss the book over breakfast, but he didn't mention ahead of time what the interview would be about. He just asked me to bring the journals because he said it would be "a nice photo-op." In hindsight I should have been more prepared for it.
There's no doubt I should have fact-checked my book better, or that I made some sloppy errors, but the tone of their article was way overboard. I think what happened is pretty simple—the Times reporter found some of those errors and convinced himself he'd discovered another James Frey. But it's just not the right comparison. James Frey invented stories which crucially change the entire fabric of his story. I got some box scores wrong, some dates, but I stand by everything I said about the experience, about the characters, about the atmosphere. None of that is made up. And frankly I think it was grossly unjust of the authors to come out, guns blazing, and make the James Frey comparison in the second paragraph of their article. What's even weirder is that the article somehow tries to condemn me for not showing the reporter my journals, as if that's proof I was lying. I find that preposterous. These are my personal journals we're talking about, which contain details about my teammates that might have been far more injurious to them than anything that I published. But I've received an overwhelmingly positive response from people who have read both my book and the Times article.

Gelf Magazine: Some of the reported errors that the Times story lists were factual points that could have been corroborated via box scores or team transaction logs. You said that you based what you wrote on detailed journals that you kept during the season. Did you attempt to fact-check your journals during or after the writing process? Do you know the process by which the publisher did its fact-checking?

Matt McCarthy: I was much more interested in what was happening off the field and as a result I wasn't as careful checking the box scores as I should have been. There are many times when I write that something happened "a week later" when in reality it happened six or eight days later. Other times I remembered details of games slightly differently from what the box scores indicate happened, or mixed up a few chronologies. I wish I had double-checked them more thoroughly, but to say that this sort of mistake calls into question the fundamental nature of the stories in the book is, to me at least, quite a leap.

Gelf Magazine: There are also characters in the book—teammates, coaches, executives—who claim in the Times story that they were either misquoted or that scenes in the book never happened in real life. Do you have any way of corroborating your anecdotes?

Matt McCarthy: I receive a handful of emails each week from former teammates and Angels minor leaguers who thank me for sharing their experience in the book. Probably the nicest one came from a player who said he'd spent four years trying to explain to his wife what it was like to play for Tom Kotchman and he wasn't able to capture it, but I captured it. I received an email this week from a guy who played for Kotchman in 1994 and said he still thinks about Kotch's Andrew Dice Clay impression.

Gelf Magazine: A lot of the controversy at this point is he said-he said, and there are certainly people in the book who received negative portrayals. So you must have expected some negative reactions. Did you have any reservations about publishing private conversations in this book? Did you talk to anyone—teammates, coaches, etc.—before you decided to publish the book?

Matt McCarthy: I spoke with a handful of people in the book as I was writing it and the general sentiment I received was to just portray people fairly. My teammates were complex individuals who had a lot going on and I wanted to bring that to life.

Gelf Magazine: One of your teammates, Blake Allen, said that your characterizing him as, the Times puts it, "crassly disparaging Kotchman, Dominican players and the Mormon citizens of Provo" was false. He also said that your comment that he was faking an injury so he could "just sit back and cash the checks" could impact his life. How do you respond to Allen's questioning your story?

Matt McCarthy: I stand by my characterization of Blake. And he wasn't faking an injury—he was injured and believed he would never be healthy enough to pitch again.

Gelf Magazine: You have an anecdote in the book saying Joe Saunders was on the team bus making fun of disabled children when in fact the book itself said that Saunders had been promoted off the club. So was Saunders guilty of making fun of disabled children at an earlier date or was the timing right but it was a different player?

Matt McCarthy: I have acknowledged a handful of chronological errors in the book. This is one of them. The event occurred before Saunders had been promoted.

Gelf Magazine: In another anecdote, you write about drinking beers with Matt Brown, who was underage at the time, on a mid-July bus ride to Medicine Hat, Alberta. But the Times story reports that Brown did not report to your team until July 30. Your response?

Matt McCarthy: One of the themes in the book is that the days began to blend together as the season wore on. That's why I avoided using dates in the book. We were actually on a bus ride to Montana, not Alberta, Canada.

Gelf Magazine: You write that your manager, Kotchman, ordered a pitcher to hit an Ogden batter in retaliation for one of your Provo teammates being hit twice. According to the Times story, box scores from the local newspaper show no Provo player being hit in the series. What happened with this anecdote?

Matt McCarthy: My teammate, Erick Aybar, was hit by 11 pitches that summer and the Times reporters identified a series in which he wasn't hit and said the event never happened.

Gelf Magazine: As a reader, I was curious throughout the book about how you were able to reconstruct scenes of dialogue—and much of the book is dialogue—until you mention that you were keeping a journal late in the story. Why did you decide to keep the journal? And why/when did you decide that to turn it into a book?

Matt McCarthy: I started getting attention from scouts during my senior year at Yale. I was hitting 90 miles per hour with enough regularity that I figured someone would draft me. My friends realized that professional baseball was likely to be a short-lived experience for me and suggested that I keep a journal. A few years later, in 2006, I revisited the journals and decided to write a manuscript. I felt like I was in a unique position to triangulate since I had this detailed account of a brief season in the minors, but I had also seen what everyone went on to do with their lives. Some made the big leagues, others washed out. One became a professional wrestler.

Gelf Magazine: How did you end up getting an excerpt published in Sports Illustrated?

Matt McCarthy: I gave the manuscript to a close friend from Yale, Ben Reiter, who writes about baseball for the magazine. He enjoyed it and gave it to the baseball editor, Chris Stone, who let it sit on his radiator for three months but eventually said they wanted to run an excerpt. From there, Stone put me in touch with an excellent agent, Scott Waxman, and he worked out a deal with Viking. Once that was in place, Sports Illustrated acquired the rights to run an excerpt.

Gelf Magazine: Had you read Ball Four or any other insider baseball memoirs? What about Harvard Boys?

Matt McCarthy: While I was editing the manuscript, Chris Stone asked me if I had read Ball Four or A False Spring. I said that I hadn't and he recommended that I stay away from them, to avoid being influenced in one way or another. So I really can't say that I based my book on anything I had read before.

Matt McCarthy

Matt McCarthy with the Provo Angels. Photo by

Gelf Magazine: You played with a lot of great players—not just in the Angels organization, but also in high school in Florida. Having seen which guys made it and which guys didn't, do you have any understanding of why some guys succeed and some don't? Do you feel like you're a better talent scout, having gone through this experience with the Angels?

Matt McCarthy: They tell every minor leaguer that he has the talent to make the big leagues, but what sets certain players apart is the mental toughness, and I write a lot about my own battles with self-confidence. I was frequently rushing to the bathroom before an outing because I was so nervous that I'd pitch poorly. And it's difficult to fix that when you genuinely believe the batters you're facing are better than you. I know Prince Fielder was always very excited to see me on the mound.
I make a point of writing about my good buddy, Craig Breslow, who was in a situation similar to mine—we were both long-shot lefties from Yale and no one expected either of us to succeed. But where I floundered, he flourished. And now he's one of the most reliable relievers for the Minnesota Twins. I really think what set us apart was his composure. He doesn't get rattled facing A-Rod or Bonds.

Gelf Magazine: What's it like seeing a former teammate playing in the majors, whether it's a guy you had a brief interaction with in the minors like Bobby Jenks, or a close friend like Breslow?

Matt McCarthy: It's always a thrill. Whenever Breslow takes the mound I stop what I'm doing and tell everyone to be quiet. And then I grab my phone—every time he gets a big strikeout I get a dozen texts from my old teammates at Yale. It's fun to see Jenks doing so well because I came across him when he was going through a lot of adversity. It's been great to see him become so successful.

Gelf Magazine: There are a few scenes in the book in which steroids are mentioned and you write of "the allure of steroids" as early as the first page. But you don't write about seeing anyone actually use them. How widespread do you think steroids use was among your peers in 2002?

Matt McCarthy: It's hard to say. I never saw anyone use steroids, but we were all conspiracy theorists. If someone went out and hit two home runs, we were all raising our eyebrows and nudging each other on the bench. And while I wasn't trying to give a sympathetic portrayal to steroid use, I was trying to convey just how easy it was to get sucked in. I drank a Red Bull before one game and bumped up my velocity by a couple of miles per hour and from then on I was hooked.

Gelf Magazine: The book is dedicated to your teammates. Are you in touch with any of them? We've heard about the guys who have taken offense to what you wrote, but have any contacted you to offer their support?

Matt McCarthy: I've been in touch with a good number of guys in the book. A few are disappointed that they're not featured more prominently. But they've all enjoyed thinking about our bizarre summer in Provo, Utah. I know I'll be thinking about it the rest of my life.

dan fleschner

Dan Fleschner is a producer at NBC's Today Show.

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- Books
- posted on Mar 30, 09
Stephen C. Smith

Thanks to Dan Fleschner for posing these questions. Mr. McCarthy continues to explain away the "inaccuracies" as simple chronological errors, but the facts show it's much worse than that.

I've been chronicling this story on the Blog. The permalink that gets you all the stories is:

Specifically, though, I want to draw your attention to an article I did about one key incident which shows it was more than a chronological error:

There's no doubt that the game described in the book was June 22. McCarthy described himself as being the starting pitcher the night before, and he only started a couple games before his demotion to the bullpen. He said Hector Astacio was the starter in the game in question. And he said his buddy Brian Barnett, a third-string catcher, made an emergency relief appearance in the game. Barnett pitched only once all season -- on June 22.

I also happened to be at the game, doing photography during the series.

As Mr. Fleschner notes, McCarthy wrote that Provo shortstop Erick Aybar was hit twice by pitches. The box score (in my article) shows that never happened.

McCarthy may claim he simply got a date wrong, but that's debunked because he claims that Aybar being hit twice was the reason why manager Tom Kotchman ordered Astacio to hit the next Ogden batter in the ribs with a pitch. McCarthy claims that Kotchman yanked Astacio when he refused.

If Aybar wasn't hit, then why would Kotchman order a retaliation pitch?

And if you check the box score, NO OGDEN BATTER WAS HIT IN THE GAME. The batter hit by a pitch was Ogden's Prince Fielder.

There's more that doesn't add up.

McCarthy started the night before. The typical routine in the minors is that the starting pitcher from the prior game is in the stands behind home plate, charting or working the radar gun.

Now, I can't say if McCarthy was in the stands or not, but if he was then there's no way he was able to hear Kotchman order a retaliation pitch.

McCarthy claims he went to the visitors clubhouse to use the bathroom, where he consoled Astacio.

Well, again, that doesn't make much sense.

The visitors dugout at Ogden is on the first base line. But the visitors clubhouse is accessed through a door in the left-center field wall.

For McCarthy to use the clubhouse bathroom, he would have had to run across the field in the middle of the game, which certainly would have been noticed by Kotchman and pitching coach Kernan Ronan.

If McCarthy was charting behind home plate, then he was leaving his post to use the bathroom. Nature calls, we understand that. But if he's in the stands, why not just use the mens' room on the concourse rather than go all that distance to the visitors clubhouse?

It's possible to reach the clubhouse without running across the field. You have to walk up the concourse into the front office, hang a right, and enter the clubhouse. But in doing so, you pass the mens room on the concourse.

McCarthy continues to rationalize indiscrepancies such as these by simply saying he got a date wrong. Baloney. There's no way a tale like this reconciles.

Article by dan fleschner

Dan Fleschner is a producer at NBC's Today Show.

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