Book excerpt: Odd Man Out
The author spent an unforgettable year as an Angels minor leaguer in Provo
A graduate of Yale, McCarthy went on to Harvard Medical school after baseball
When I was 21, I could throw a baseball 92 miles an hour.
This led to a strange courtship between my left arm and a series of pencil-mustached, overweight, middle-aged men. I eventually gave up the game, and later I found myself as far from the diamond as one could be, living in rural villages in Cameroon and Malaysia -- colorful places that nonetheless paled, as alien environments, next to my first home in professional baseball: Provo, Utah. That was in the summer of 2002, the height of the steroids era. While Barry Bonds was rewriting the record books, those of us in the minor leagues were trying like hell to break into the majors. In our clubhouse amphetamines were passed around like candy and the allure of steroids was ever present.
I was a relief pitcher for the Provo Angels, the Pioneer League affiliate of the Anaheim Angels, who would win their first World Series that fall. After beating the San Francisco Giants in seven games, the Angels would attribute their success to the hard-nosed, unselfish play of such low-profile team members as infielder David Eckstein, utilityman Scott Spiezio and reliever Francisco Rodriguez.
But in Provo we were a team divided. "Separate but equal" was how Blake Allen, a right-handed pitcher from Alabama, first described the dynamic to me. Blake had been taken in the 35th round of the 2001 draft and had already played one season in Provo when I joined the team. With his slack jaw, pot belly and deliberate manner of speaking, he was the yokel out of central casting who would've been ridiculed by many of my classmates at Yale, from which I had graduated that spring. But he was also a reflective man who enjoyed dissecting people. He'd been on the disabled list for the past year and confided that he thought he'd never be healthy enough to pitch again. "I've got a wife and kid at home, and I need the paycheck," Blake said one afternoon while we were finishing our Grand Slams at Denny's. "They can't cut ya when you're on the disabled list. It violates the collective bargaining agreement. So I just sit back and cash the checks."
It was from Blake that I learned about the two-party system of minor league baseball. "You've got your Dominicans, and you've got everybody else," he explained. "The Dominicans are loud, they don't speak English, and for God's sake, don't ever go in the shower when they're in there."
The Provo Angels were, in fact, divided between the Dominicans (the non-Hispanic players' catchall term for Hispanic players) and those of us from the mainland U.S. There were a dozen "Dominicans" on the team, hailing from Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama and, yes, the Dominican Republic. And Blake was right -- most of them were loud and didn't speak English. Just 17 or 18 years old, many had been rescued from poverty in their home countries and signed to six-figure contracts. Wearing large smiles, larger gold chains and designer sunglasses, they seemed to be playing life with Monopoly money. "The thing about the Dominicans," Blake told me, "is that they can play. Most of the ones on this team could play in the big leagues someday. But they won't." He stopped eating for a moment and looked out the window. "A typical rookie ball team will have 15 Dominicans. Double A will have half that. Triple A even less. As you move up the ladder you'll see that they just wash out."
Of course, many of the traits that Blake was quick to ascribe to the Hispanic players -- their long-shot odds of making the majors, their inability to speak a foreign language, their tendency to stick together, their lack of education -- could have just as easily been used to describe most of the U.S.-born players. Washing out, for example, was a recurring theme among all Provo Angels, Dominican or not. It implied that your career was cut short for no apparent reason, not an injury or a slump. One day you'd show up, and there'd be a pink slip in your locker and no one would tell you why.
Most of the U.S.-born players were from Middle American places such as Marianna, Fla.; and Broken Arrow, Okla. Most of them had signed professional contracts directly out of high school, and baseball was the only life they knew or wanted to know. They were fond of saying that Don Zimmer, then the Yankees' bench coach, had lived a model life because at 71 he had never drawn a paycheck outside of professional baseball. I was one of the few who had graduated from college, although several had attended briefly. In general these were quiet, pious men whose priorities were the Lord and the girl back home. Pregame rituals included chapel, chewing tobacco and phone calls to family members.
It took five years of distance after I walked away from pro baseball for me to write about it. Some of my former teammates became stars in the big leagues, while others washed out of the minors. Blake eventually got off the DL, was cut and returned to Alabama to run the family farm and raise roosters for cockfights. A year later I'd be on the other side of the country, in Boston, preparing to enter Harvard Medical School and to begin a new life -- a life after baseball, if that's ever possible.
* * *
Many draftees engage in protracted contract negotiations, while others agree to terms almost as soon as they're offered a deal. I fell into the latter category. I had two things working against me in the negotiation process: my age (21) and my draft round (also 21). I was a college graduate and therefore no longer draft eligible, so I couldn't threaten to return to school. With each successive round, signing-bonus money decreases significantly. First-round guys got a few million dollars, second-rounders a few hundred thousand. A player taken in the fifth round was lucky to get six figures. I was prepared for the minimum -- a $1,000 signing bonus. A few hours after the Angels drafted me, I received a call from a scout named George Biron. "This is Biron from Anaheim," he said without the grandeur of Cesar Presbott, a Yankees scout who, during a phone call to me that spring, had begun the conversation by announcing, "It is I, Cesar Presbott, scout for the New York Yankees."
"Hi," I replied to Biron.
"I'm the scout who drafted you," he said. "I wanted to deliver the good news myself. I saw you pitch against the Indiana Hoosiers and against Brown. I saw a lot of you this spring, and you really showed me something."
"Sir, this is the greatest day of my life," I said to Biron without exaggeration.
"It should be," he replied. "You're a tough kid. That's why I drafted you. And I think you've got the talent to make it. Now, I have some advice for you: No matter what happens in the minors, don't get discouraged. You're a lefty, and lefties can hang around pro ball for years if they can throw strikes."
"And there's another thing I tell all my draftees. Now, you went to Yale so I'm sure you're a smart kid...." I smiled as I heard those words, which had been thrown my way often by scouts. The last time had been a week earlier, by a roving scout who represented Major League Baseball. He'd come to New Haven to administer an intelligence test to me. It was the exam that nearly all prospects took, baseball's version of the Wonderlic test, which has been used by corporations and the NFL for decades to evaluate prospective employees. The Wonderlic is a 12-minute, 50-question multiple-choice exam, while the MLB test consisted of 100 true-or-false statements such as, "Athletic competition began on Earth in 1974."