Odd Man Out (cont.)
Bobby and I sat next to each other for the rest of the game, talking baseball. He's a good kid, I thought, probably just misunderstood. We went out for burgers that night, and he told me that this demotion was a wake-up call, that he was going to take baseball seriously and stop causing so many problems off the field. I believed him.
The next day Bobby and I were assigned to pitch back-to-back for our team in the exhibition game. He pitched the first two innings and hit 100 mph three times. No one was able to make solid contact with his pitches, and he finished without giving up a hit or a run while striking out five. He was a tough act to follow, but I convinced myself that the batters would have a hard time adjusting to my slower velocity. I chugged a Red Bull, took a deep breath and went out to the mound to make my minor league debut.
I threw two scoreless innings, allowing two hits while striking out three. I walked off the field confident in my ability to play baseball professionally. With each passing day I'd felt I was inching closer to the big leagues. When the Provo roster was announced, my name would be on it, along with those of Saunders, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo and Matthew Brown, all of whom would play in the majors.
In the clubhouse I found Bobby splayed out on a trainer's table reading a magazine. I walked over to the ice machine and filled up two bags. I applied the bags to my left shoulder, clumsily wrapped them in gauze and returned to Bobby. "What are you reading about?" I asked.
"Me," he said flatly. He put down the magazine and let out a deep breath. "Everybody's got something to f------ say about Bobby Jenks. One day I'm an alcoholic; the next day I'm the second coming of Christ." I laughed awkwardly, trying to think of how I would describe him. "I'm a damn bargain is what I am," he continued as he rolled onto his stomach. "Hundred-and-seventy-five-thousand dollars for a guy with my s---?
"And what do they do? They send me to this hellhole with guys who don't even belong in pro ball." It wasn't a stretch to imagine that he was talking about guys like me.
"How many guys can throw a hundred miles an hour?" he asked me as he tossed the magazine on the floor.
"Probably a dozen," I offered.
"How many guys on this planet can throw a ball a hundred miles an hour?" he said in a much louder voice as he sat up.
"I can think of one," said a large man with shoulder-length brown hair as he sauntered into the room and calmly submerged himself in a vat of ice. It was Angels reliever Derrick Turnbow, in Mesa on a rehab assignment. A year earlier he had suffered a displaced fracture of the ulna while throwing one of his 100-mph fastballs.
"Now, I can't say that I've ever seen you hit triple digits," Bobby said playfully.
"Go to hell, Jenks," Turnbow said as he took off his hat and parted his long brown hair. Turnbow looked a lot like legendary Tigers pitcher Mark (the Bird) Fidrych, but the players in Mesa had taken to calling him Ringo, though only behind his back. "Talk to me when you've pitched a game in the big leagues," Turnbow added.
For the next 15 minutes we sat in silence, until Turnbow finished with his ice bath and left the room. "They always said Ringo was an a------," Bobby muttered. "Did you see his arms? He's so 'roided out, it's ridiculous."
"I've seen all those supplements in his locker," I said.
"That's just for show," Bobby said. "He's juicing."
I didn't know what to think. Turnbow did have the physique of an amateur bodybuilder, but I had never actually known someone who used steroids. In time I would see that Bobby's comment precisely summed up the era we were playing in. No one really knew for sure who was using steroids, but we were all skeptics, and we all had our theories. Naturally, we were most suspicious of the players we were directly competing against. I didn't give a damn which hitters were juicing, but if you asked me which pitchers were, I could've given you a list of two dozen without batting an eye.
As it turned out, Bobby was right about Turnbow. A year and a half later he was the first major league player publicly identified as having tested positive for a banned steroid, 19-norandrosterone.
"Any interest in hitting the weights?" I asked Bobby, knowing that there was no chance. He shook his head.
"I'll let you in on a little secret," he whispered. "Tell 'em you have a bad back, and they don't make you do a thing. Lift weights? Not with a bad back. Run? Not with a bad back. Stretch? You can't with a bad back. It's the life, man."
"That's great," I said as I exited the room and Jenks returned to his magazine. It was the last conversation I would have with Bobby Jenks.
Alcohol continued to be a problem for him; he showed up for more than a few games hung over. He'd be suspended for bringing beer onto the team bus. He married a woman he met at the drive-through window of Dick's. In December 2004 the Angels washed their hands of him. Bobby was claimed on waivers by the White Sox, for $20,000. Chicago provided the change of scenery that he desperately needed. In '05 the White Sox called him up to the big leagues. He would pitch in each game of the '05 World Series and get the very last out, after which his teammates charged the mound to celebrate the franchise's first title in 88 years. He was named to his first All-Star team in '06, the same year that Derrick Turnbow made his first All-Star team, as a Milwaukee Brewer.
* * *
On a cool Thursday morning late in March 2003, as I was walking to the clubhouse in Mesa, Alex Dvorsky, a catcher who'd been a teammate of mine the previous summer in Provo, grabbed me by the shoulder and stopped me dead in my tracks. "I am sorry," he said before shaking my hand and walking away.
With those three words I knew that my baseball career was over. I walked like a zombie to my locker and found the pink slip taped to a clothes hanger. See Tony Reagins immediately, it read.
I experienced a strange tingling sensation around my lips and in my fingertips as I read and reread the note. I was hyperventilating.
A few moments later Kernan Ronan, my pitching coach in Provo, came over. "Mac," he said, "I'm sorry." He put his hand on my shoulder, as he had done so many times in Provo.
"It's OK," I said, putting my head down.
"If you want me to make any phone calls for you, Mac, I will. I know a guy with the Giants, and I could probably get you signed right now. On my recommendation alone I could get you back with another team."
Several seconds passed as I considered his offer. "It's OK, Kernan," I said, looking back up at him. "I'm done. You don't have to make any phone calls."
I gathered up my belongings and put them into a navy Angels duffel bag and walked down the long corridor to Tony Reagins's office, where I found eight players in the hallway crying, talking on the phone, or both. I wasn't used to seeing guys my age weeping. I wondered if I should be crying too. I didn't feel like crying. I was trying to think about things rationally, and rationally I knew that my average fastball -- I was only hitting the mid-80s by the end -- and average off-speed pitches just weren't going to get me to the big leagues. In 15 appearances in Provo, I had a 6.92 ERA and walked more batters than I struck out.
Tony Reagins was sitting behind his desk with his head in his hands. I stood at the door for a moment before taking a seat across from him. Ten seconds passed before he looked up. When he finally raised his head, I saw that his eyes were bloodshot and there were tears streaming down his face. He clasped his hands together and said, "I'm sorry." Then he burst into tears.
"You have no idea how hard this is," he said as he stared at his desk. "I love all of you guys. Every single one of you."
I nodded. This was not the Grim Reaper I had expected.
"Days like today kill me. They just kill me. To know that I'm ending some kid's dream ... a dream that he's spent his whole life working for...." He trailed off and put his face back in his hands. I cracked my knuckles and crossed my legs. "I was up until 4 a.m.," he said. "Poring over stats, reading and rereading scouting reports, watching video, talking to scouts...."
I waited for him to continue, but he didn't. "We appreciate all of the work you guys do," I said awkwardly. The tears continued to dribble down his face. I reached into my pocket for a Kleenex but found only an old ATM receipt. Comforting him somehow made this process easier. He let out a deep breath and produced a file from his desk. It had my name on it.
"Matt McCarthy," he said gently. "You're a good pitcher, Matt. You've shown us some good things. Some real good things. But your velocity is not what it was when we drafted you."
"And your command isn't where we need it to be. You're walking far too many guys." Tears streamed down his cheeks.
"You had a difficult time getting batters out in Provo last year. And that was rookie ball. There were times when...." He choked up and took a sip of water.
"Mr. Reagins," I said, "I want to let you know something. I'm going to be fine. I appreciate all that you and the Angels have done for me, but I'm going to be OK. I realize this is a numbers game and that this time, I'm the odd man out."
When I boarded the plane home that afternoon, I learned that the Angels had just released another minor leaguer from central Florida, Kevin McClain, a right-hander with a shaved head and bright green eyes, and the two of us were seated next to each other on the flight. Kevin was 25 and in his sixth season with the Angels when Reagins had called him into his office earlier in the day.
"I can't believe it," he said to his tray table. "I put in five good years and then this happens. Comes out of nowhere.
"I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do," he murmured.
"Try to get back in the game?"
"I don't know," he said. "I'm 25."
For the life of me, I couldn't think of the right words to say.
"I suppose I better," he added, "because I got a wife and kid at home, and we need the paychecks. I got no work experience ... no education to speak of.... I guess I could get a job at Target."
"This is a crazy time," I said.
He lifted his head up and looked me in the eye.
"What about you?"
"I don't know," I said as a tear rolled down my cheek.
From the book Odd Man Out by Matt McCarthy, published by Viking Press, a division of Penguin Group USA. Reprinted with permission. To purchase Odd Man Out, click here.