Pros: Descriptions of life in the minors are always fun
Cons: Pretty routine if you read lots of baseball books
The Bottom Line: Aren't odd men always out? Mentally, I mean? That's what people say about me...
When Matt McCarthy calls himself an odd man out, he wants us to understand that he really means it. McCarthy was a Yale student at a time when Ivy schools are no longer the sporting powerhouses they were in the early 20th century. As a starting pitcher, he was merely decent. But he also had the happy sccident of being a southpaw, and as he points out several times in the book, there are few things teams want more than left-handed starting pitchers. So when he was drafted in the 26th round of the 2002 draft by the Anaheim Angels, McCarthy figured he might have a decent shot at a lengthy minor-league run and maybe even an appearance in The Show.
While hard to follow, I've long had a special spot in my heart reserved for minor league athletics. (Of course, it probably helps that my REAL baseball home team is a minor league team, the Buffalo Bisons, the current Triple A affiliate to the New York Mets. Ironic, since most of the area residents are loyal to the Yankees.) With the majors becoming so corporatized, the soul of sports - not just baseball, but any sport - survives in the minors, where the athletes play as hard as they can in the hopes of one day punching their ticket to stardom on high. These guys aren't spoiled - they're playing for dinner money, traveling by bus, and as McCarthy did with Anaheim's minor league affiliate in Provo, Utah, living with families generous enough to take them in. All of this makes for a weird culture which can make for great stories for those who haven't seen many of America's smaller places and unique quirks.
Anyway, McCarthy once tried out with the Yankees, but they obviously decided they weren't interested. He was eventually drafted by the Angels, signed for the league minimum, and banished to the Single A affiliate Provo Angels in Utah to fight his way up the ladder. Their league is rather appropriately called the Pioneer League, because the culture at some points feels so foreign and weird to some players that they probably felt like old world pioneers at times.
Southpaws have always had reputations as baseball's nuts, a stereotype probably helped along by Babe Ruth's large living philosophy and Bill Lee's spaced out weirdness. McCarthy's great oddity is the fact that he was a Yalie. Ivy Leaguers tend to be thought of as nerds who can barely lift their gloves. McCarthy spends a lot of his summer in Provo fighting the pigeonhole this stereotype places him in, as well as the idea of lefties being weird in general. He's goaded by his teammates, but it's also clear most of his teammates respect him and so their remarks appear to be made more out of endearment than malice.
Provo's players may be competing with each other for promotions up minor league baseball's merciless career ladder, but the culture of the Pioneer League serves as a union for them. Particularly in Utah, the players all are weirded out by much of the culture, including Utah's notoriously odd and restrictive alcohol laws and the idea of Jack Mormons - basically the Easter/Christmas practitioners of the Latter-Day Saints.
The union through the weird culture, however, is still a loose one at best. The Provo Angels are also faced with a racial strife caused by divisions between American players and Latino Players (who are simply called Dominicans). This runs deep because the Americans and Dominicans are not able to speak each other's languages. It runs so deep, in fact, that the Americans won't even shower with the Dominicans, although this has more to do with behavioral differences than anything racial.
As the season goes on, McCarthy begins to learn more about pitching in professional baseball. He proves to be an up and down pitcher - dominant one day, giving up 27 hits the next. His peers keep offering him pitching advice which seems to confuse the poor author and constantly do more harm than good. He is eventually bumped back to being a reliever who is lucky to make it into any games at all, and his pitching coach keeps trying to handle him in the worst ways possible. McCarthy implies he knew his pro baseball career was at an end when he was hit with the suggestion of becoming a sidearm pitcher, sidearm frequently being one of the last-ditch efforts to get anything useful out of a shoddy pitcher. (McCarthy notes that only knuckleballers are in worse positions as pitchers.)
The Pioneer League plays ball at an astounding rate - 76 games in only 80 days. While the Provo Angels are a low-level minor league team, their manager - a crotchety old hand by the name of Kotchman who still believes a phone call of inquiry will automatically vault him up to Anaheim - feels a lot of pressure and frustration. He wants to win and he wants his team to want to win as much as he does. But the relationship between the team and the manager tends to waver a lot. It isn't made clear if Kotchman is just an idealist who assumes the best of his team or if he's just trying to ignore the reality that most of his players are looking at the Provo Angels as a truck stop, but either way, he'll have none of his team not actually caring. And the Angels ultimately do fight their way into the Pioneer League championship despite a questionable record.
Along the way, there are plenty of amusing anecdotes about life in the minors, including the description of a horrific locker room, Matt being taken in by a very rich Mormon family, a friend of his going out with a Jack Mormon he meets in a bar, his girlfriend taking a vow of celibacy (though this anecdote is marred badly by what ultimately became of their coupling), navigation around Utah's alcohol laws, and long bus trips during which the prominent forms of entertainment are stand-up comedy videos.
Being in the minor leagues, McCarthy winds up meeting a number of players who end up playing major league baseball. Prince Fielder, the powerful slugger for the Milwaukee Brewers, actually casts a shadow of sorts over the book because the Provo Angels face him. Bobby Jenks, the all star closer for the Chicago White Sox, also gets into an extended conversation with McCarthy - Odd Man Out takes places in 2002, at a personal and professional low point for Jenks, and the conversation in question covers the moment when Jenks realized he needed to get his act together. Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana are Provo teammates with McCarthy, and McCarthy also writes of one or two buddies who played for the 2004 Boston Red Sox, though I can't remember who they are.
Book about the minor leagues are always fun, and Odd Man Out is certainly no exception. There isn't anything in it which you won't find in other books about life in the minors. But as the soul of baseball resides in the minors more than ever, the occasional retread isn't necessarily a bad thing.
This review, as with all of my other reviews about baseball books, was posted recently on my blog about baseball literature, Lit Bases. And as with the others, understand that by recently, I mean "earlier today." And that by "earlier today," I mean "about ten seconds ago."
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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Traces the author's tumultuous year with the Anaheim Angel's minor-league affiliate team, describing his unlikely draft in spite of his scientific studies at Yale, the racial tensions that divided his teammates, and his struggles with grueling travel schedules and steroid temptations.