Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Literary Comparison of Out of My League and Odd Man Out

For someone who writes a lot about baseball, I don’t read too many books on the sport. Although I have my favorite books such as “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” and "Boys of Summer", my baseball reading is usually pretty sparse.

This year however, I’ve been on a bit of a baseball literary kick. Before the season I read Jonah Keri’s "The Extra 2%", the story about the assembly of the Tampa Bay Rays. I’m a Rays fan, so that was a must-read. I also of course read our book “The Bus Leagues Experience” (cheap plug).

But in the last month, I’ve turned it up a notch, put down the books on international politics or ancient Greek warfare, and read not one, but two books about baseball: “Out of My League” by George Plimpton and “Odd Man Out” by Matt McCarthy.

Written in 1961, “Out of My League” is legendary writer George Plimpton’s account of being a big leaguer for a day. As part of an assignment for Sports Illustrated, Plimpton is able to take the mound for a charity event prior to an MLB all-star game. “Out of My League” talks about the conception of his idea, how he pitches it to his editor, how he gets his equipment, and how he fares facing the likes of Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and former Pirates slugger Frank Thomas (not the ex-White Sox great).

Matt McCarthy’s “Odd Man Out”, written in 2009, is in some ways the opposite of Plimpton’s book. Whereas Plimpton played professional baseball player for a day, McCarthy is a former Yale pitcher trying to make baseball a career after being drafted by the Anaheim Angels in 2001. “Odd Man Out” is McCarthy’s account of his trials, tribulations, struggles, and successes in a year playing for the Provo Angels of the Pioneer League.

There is an interesting dynamic between these two books as both authors take the perspective of outsiders. And to a point they both are. Plimpton of course is the consummate outsider, an everyday Joe put on the mound for the sole purpose of eventually describing the feeling of playing baseball at the highest level.

McCarthy is also outsider, albeit to a lesser degree. His outsiderness comes from the fact that he is a college graduate (from Yale, no less) on a team full of recent high school draftees and “Dominicans” – a catch-all phrase for all Spanish-speaking players in the low minors. But McCarthy is part of the system as he does make a few friends and there are people he can lean on and relate to as he faces life as a minor leaguer. Although the struggle to the big leagues is a solitary one, McCarthy is definitely not alone.

Plimpton, on the other hand, is definitely alone. He is completely uncomfortable every step of the way, and he writes about his struggles to find a mitt, the help he needs in the clubhouse, and the fear and nervousness of standing on the mound and pitching to the greatest names of the early 1960s.

Neither Plimpton’s attempt and McCarthy’s minor league career end well. They both face the tragic reality that they are not fit to do what they are trying to do. But both of their failures gives us a perspective that we wouldn’t normally be privy to and we are reminded how supremely difficult it is to be a successful pitcher at the big league level.

As someone who once tried out for a Major League organization, I enjoyed both Plimpton and McCarthy’s books. Both are great writers who made it further in their baseball careers than I did.