Failed pitcher brings the heat
Matt McCarthy’s professional baseball career flamed out after one season, 2002, with the Provo Angels in the lowly Pioneer League. He was quietly released the following spring. Now, McCarthy has published “Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit,” and the notoriety the memoir has generated ensures that he will be enshrined in baseball and publishing lore.
In this raucous and occasionally profane book, McCarthy chronicles the chilling racial division that Latino athletes face in the clubhouse, details conversations with teammates about sexual high jinks and taking steroids, and describes an object he calls the “Rally Penis” that his manager used to inspire his charges.
The backlash has been furious. Manager Tom Kotchman and many former teammates dispute the accuracy of McCarthy’s account. “I’ve gone through it multiple times,” Kotchman says. “In so many places it’s just flat-out wrong or fabricated.”
The book has also been put under the microscope by the New York Times, among other media outlets. Reporters Benjamin Hill and Alan Schwarz scoured old box scores and transaction listings and confirmed dozens of errors. “[M]any portions of the book are incorrect, embellished or impossible,” they concluded.
McCarthy concedes that he made factual errors, but he stands by the book’s veracity. “If you’re somebody who needs your sports stories sugarcoated, don’t read the book,” he says. “But if you want to feel closer to the game, then that’s what this is about.”
Still to be determined is McCarthy’s legacy. Will he be remembered as this generation’s Jim Bouton and Pat Jordan, authors, respectively, of the baseball classics “Ball Four” and “A False Spring”? Or, is he the latest iteration of James Frey, author of the faux memoir “A Million Little Pieces”?
Now 28, McCarthy is a trim 6-footer with close-cropped brown hair. He wears a blue-and-white striped Oxford shirt and a harried expression as he perches on a couch in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton hotel.
The previous day, the bombshell article in the New York Times had appeared. The newspaper wasn’t the first media outlet to weigh in; articles disputing elements of “Odd Man Out” have run in the Orange County Register, the Chicago Tribune and Stephen C. Smith’s blog FutureAngels .com.
But the Times’ thoroughness and harsh tone shook McCarthy, who says he offered the reporters a “point-by-point” rebuttal.
“This is a book that has tens of thousands of details in it,” he says. “The article doesn’t mention that, of the 200 details from one game, there’s 199 that were accurate.”
McCarthy was a standout high school player in Florida and earned a spot in the rotation at Yale. He developed into a solid left-handed starter, with a decent slider and a fastball just north of 90 miles an hour. The Angels drafted him in the 21st round, gave him the minimum $1,000 signing bonus and sent him to the lowest level of the minors.
What he discovered was a culture far removed from the Ivy League. Many teammates were high school grads away from home for the first time; young Latino ballplayers, who typically speak little English, were segregated and mocked. McCarthy discussed steroids with teammates and, in the book, intimates that several players used them. He depicted Kotchman as, alternately, a father figure who doled out money to needy players and a maniac. All this in a conservative community dominated by the Mormon church.
McCarthy doesn’t shy from relating personal humiliations. He admits to avoiding interactions with Latino players as well as an embarrassing stomach ailment. He performs poorly, with a 6.92 ERA in 15 appearances. “I loved my time playing professional baseball,” he says. “I realized -- and the Angels realized -- that I wasn’t good enough to be one of their big leaguers. I don’t have an ax to grind.”
McCarthy’s post-baseball career has been more successful. A molecular biophysics major, McCarthy attended Harvard Medical School. He traveled to Cameroon, Malaysia and South Africa to study tuberculosis and AIDS. Now, he’s an intern at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital, specializing in infectious diseases.
He says he was inspired to write “Odd Man Out” after former colleagues began making contributions on the field. Guys like pitcher Joe Saunders and second baseman Howie Kendrick, who now play key roles for the big-league team in Anaheim.
The book, McCarthy says, came from two Mead notebooks of material he kept during the 2002 season, writing at night and during mind-numbing 17-hour bus trips. Four years later, he began to shape the narrative. He showed a draft to a college friend, Sports Illustrated staff writer Ben Reiter, who gave it to Chris Stone, the magazine’s baseball editor. Stone steered McCarthy to Scott Waxman’s literary agency, which sold it to Viking.
In February, or around the time that Sports Illustrated published a 6,000-word excerpt, Kotchman read a pre-publication copy. A successful minor league manager who has worked in the organization for 26 years (his son, Casey, played first base for the Angels until last year, when he was traded), he was disturbed by the contents.
Kotchman and his lawyer, Tampa, Fla.-based Jonathan Koch, compiled alleged errors and sent the publisher a 13-page, single-spaced letter outlining what they claimed were mistakes and demanded the publisher make appropriate changes.
Some are relatively minor. McCarthy mistakenly describes strength and conditioning coach Clayton Wilson as a trainer. Pitcher Blake Allen underwent surgery on his knee, not his arm as McCarthy wrote.
But much of the disputed material is salacious. In one scene, McCarthy describes Kotchman quoting an obscene routine by comedian Andrew Dice Clay. The manager admits showing a tape of “The Diceman” but denies acting it out. “If it was said that I did an impersonation of The Rock, then that’s true,” Kotchman says. “But that would be rated PG. That wouldn’t be good copy.”
As for the obscene object Kotchman reportedly employed, it was “one of those stupid, weird, funny, get-everyone-going baseball things,” Saunders says. “It wasn’t really degrading, just one of those things we’d use to get fired up.”
McCarthy also describes a conversation Kotchman had with catcher Alex Dvorsky which some interpreted as Kotchman encouraging Dvorsky to take steroids.
“Under no circumstances did any conversation like that happen,” Kotchman says.
Kendrick asserts that other stories are false. “That conversation that supposedly took place between Casey Kotchman and I at TGI Friday’s would have never happened, because Casey and I never hung out then,” he says.
Infielder Matt Brown denies that he was involved in two controversial incidents, one involving the son of talk-show host Larry King punching him in the groin and one involving underage drinking.
“[They] never happened,” Brown says, noting that he was not on the team’s roster at those times. “He either mixed me up with someone else or flat-out lied.”
Angels General Manager Tony Reagins, who also appears in the book, says, “A lot of things were embellished and overly exaggerated. When guys write books, the object is to sell the book.”
Tom Kotchman still manages the Orem Owlz (the team moved from Provo in 2005). He says that he’s weighing his legal options. If he were to run into his former pitcher, he says, he’d ask him one question: “Why? Why’d you do it?”
McCarthy knows that, in violating sports’ most sacred code -- what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room -- he has infuriated members of the Angels organization. He also believes that his notes trump their memories. But the number of errors cited in the New York Times and other places troubles Sports Illustrated’s Stone.
“There’s no such thing as an excusable error,” he says. Still, Stone thinks it’s unfair to connect McCarthy with James Frey. “To suggest that the book is fraudulent is a stretch and unfair,” he says.
According to a statement from Carolyn Coleburn, director of publicity at Viking, “We rely on our authors to tell the truth and fact check, and the book was vetted by our legal department.”
For Viking’s corporate parent, Penguin, “Odd Man Out” is the third controversial memoir in the last year. Last December, imprint Berkley Books canceled publication of Herman Rosenblat’s fabricated Holocaust memoir.
Last March, imprint Riverhead published Margaret Seltzer’s fake account of growing up among gangs in South Los Angeles.
The controversy appears to be driving sales, with “Odd Man Out” climbing the bestseller lists. But with McCarthy’s credibility undermined, it’s clear that this book is no “Ball Four” or “False Spring.”
Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed additional reporting from Tempe, Ariz.