Doctor's tall tales fail to stand up to examination


AMERICA AT LARGE:A FEW weeks ago, to somewhat glowing praise, Sports Illustratedpublished a lengthy excerpt from Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, Matt McCarthy’s account of his brief fling with professional baseball in the year between his graduation from Yale and his 2003 matriculation at Harvard Medical School.

McCarthy’s wry, self-effacing recollection of life in the bush leagues, circa 2002, as a relief pitcher with the Provo Angels of the Pioneer League, seemed refreshingly entertaining, and I’d made a mental note to pick up a copy next time I found myself at the bookstore.

Ivy League-educated ballplayers are a comparative rarity in the professional ranks, but then so are left-handed pitchers who can hit 90mph on the radar gun, which is how McCarthy, fresh off the New Haven campus, came to sign with the team now known as the Anaheim Angels, who promptly exiled him to Utah for a summer filled with interminable bus rides, in the company of fresh-off-the- farm country bumpkins and wide-eyed Caribbean teenagers (universally labelled “Dominicans” in baseball parlance) who were his team-mates, and the crotch-scratching, tobacco- spitting baseball lifers who presided over this travelling road show.

At first blush McCarthy seemed the spiritual heir to Henry Wiggin, the fictional southpaw and protagonist of Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly. That wonderful novel appeared half a century ago, an age in which a ballplayer dabbling in literature was almost unthinkably far-fetched, and while Wiggin’s team-mates deferentially address him as “Author” (or “Arthur”, in the case of Bruce Pearson, the “doomded” catcher who doesn’t know the difference), an endearing aspect of Harris’ book is that Wiggin reveals himself to be only marginally more literate than the other men who make up the New York Mammoths, whom he never disparages for their intellectual deficiencies.

Matt McCarthy views himself as a stranger in a strange land, and doesn’t shy from making sport of his cultural inferiors in Odd Man Out, but his salacious recollection of the sexual peccadilloes, steroid use, barely-disguised racism, and plain old teenage angst encountered among his fellow Provo Angels seemed refreshing, which made it all the more disappointing when, in recent days, his book became the latest casualty of the truth squad.

In Tuesday’s editions, the New York Times reported the results of an investigation confirming significant events described in Odd Man Out to be provably false. (“Many portions of the book,” said the Times, “are incorrect, embellished, or impossible.”)

As of last Sunday, the book stood at number 29 on the Times’ list of best-selling non-fiction. It probably won’t be there for long.

Since it was published two weeks ago, some principals unflatteringly depicted had disputed its veracity, but that is to be expected. When, a generation after Bang the Drum Slowly, Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton published Ball Four, the seminal clubhouse tell-all, players and managers skewered in the book reacted with predictable outrage. Unable to prove Bouton a liar, they eventually settled for labelling him a Judas.

Ball Fourbecame a best-seller, spawning dozens of imitators and initiating another new phenomenon in the publishing industry. Reacting to his team-mates’ embarrassment at certain revelations in his 1979 confidential The Bronx Zoo, another Yankees pitcher, Albert (Sparky) Lyle, became the first, but hardly the last, sporting figure to claim that he had been misquoted in a book of which he was purportedly the author.

In recent years, everyone from Charles Barkley to Terrell Owens and Joe Torre has tried to weasel his way out by blaming his ghostwriter.

Torre, the former Yanks boss who now manages the Dodgers, and whose The Yankee Yearsis currently number one on the non-fiction charts, even pulled off the publishing industry’s version of the old double-switch this winter. When his description of Alex Rodriguez as “A-Fraud” seemed overly provocative, Torre tried to hang his co-author, Tom Verducci, out to dry, but then when, a few weeks later, A-Rod was fingered for a positive steroid test, Torre evidently wanted credit for his prescience.

As the sole author, Matt McCarthy can’t blame any sportswriters for the fabrications and inaccuracies between the covers of Odd Man Out– and, according to the Times, there are plenty of them. It’s not just that a whole host of erstwhile Provo Angels have come forth to dispute McCarthy’s tales (that, again, was somewhat predictable), but that readily verifiable facts and dates contradict him.

In numerous instances, conversations and events depicted simply could not have occurred when he said they did because the principals were not even with the team at the time. In another instance, there is an account of manager Tom Kochman ordering one of his pitchers to throw at an Ogden Raptors’ batter in retaliation for two Provo hitters having been hit by Raptors’ pitches, but a check of the box scores revealed that no batter on either team was hit by a pitch during the entire series.

“There’s just one thing after another that I know didn’t happen,” Kochman told the Times. The manager, who had seen pre-publication galleys of the book, directed his lawyer to send a 13-page letter to the publisher, Viking Press, detailing inaccuracies and discrepancies, but his request that publication be delayed was rebuffed.

That Viking (an imprint of Penguin USA) chose to proceed so incautiously in what seems to have become the Age of the Fraudulent Memoir is remarkable in itself. In recent years, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieceswas exposed as the product of a fanciful imagination.

Berkley Books (another Penguin imprint) cancelled the publication of holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat’s poignant memoir Angel at the Fenceafter rampant fabrications were exposed, mostly by other holocaust survivors.

Another critically-praised memoir, Love and Consequences, the autobiography of a half-breed American Indian girl running drugs while being raised as a foster child in the gang-infested inner-city ghetto of South Central LA, turned out to be the work of a lily-white 33-year-old private school graduate raised in the San Fernando Valley.

If the publisher’s failure to exercise due diligence is troubling, Dr McCarthy’s (having graduated from medical school last spring, he is a first-year resident intern at New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital) motivation is even more baffling.

Facts, figures and dates are easily verified in the age of the internet, and given the recent spate of fakes, he had to know it was only a matter of time before someone got around to checking them – and if he thinks these revelations will have no impact on his medical career, he is clearly deluded.

Would you want him operating on you? We’d have asked him ourselves, but attempts to reach Dr McCarthy yesterday revealed him to be out on the West Coast, in the middle of his book tour.