03.03.09

First Do No Harm To Easily Checked Facts: The “Times” on Matt McCarthy’s Memoir

Posted in Baseball, Reading Is Fundamental, Sports Journalism at 1:58 am by

Odd Man Out, former Angels semi-prospect-turned-Harvard-med-school graduate Matt McCarthy’s book, was mentioned here last month; I thought the Sports Illustrated excerpt was vivid, frank, and pretty much fantastic. Well, according to the New York Times’ Benjamin Hill and Alan Schwartz, it was fantastic in the other sense:

…statistics from that season, transaction listings and interviews with his former teammates indicate that many portions of the book are incorrect, embellished or impossible. It comes during a difficult period for the publishing industry, which has recently had three major memoirs ” James Frey™s infamous œA Million Little Pieces and the recollections of a Holocaust survivor and of an inner-city foster child ” exposed as mostly fabricated. The authors of those books have acknowledged their fraud.

When presented with evidence of his book™s wide-ranging errors and misquotations in an interview Monday morning, McCarthy said that he stood by the contents of œOdd Man Out. He said the book, which was published last month by Viking Press and was ranked No. 29 on the most recent New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, was drawn from detailed journals he kept during his year in the Angels™ minor league system. He declined to show how those journals corroborated his stories.

You’ll have to read the story for a total rundown, including a separate three-screen point-by-point list of the errors. But here’s one highlight:

In early July, while the broadcaster Larry King was in the stadium as the team™s special guest, the young infielder Matt Brown is depicted as being punched in the groin by King™s 8-year-old son, and then profanely threatening to kill the child. Brown is also shown chugging beers while under age and talking with McCarthy on a long mid-July bus ride to Medicine Hat, Alberta. But Brown did not report to Provo until July 30, according to Major League Baseball™s official transaction log. 

Tony Reagins, now the Angels GM, then its director of player development, disputes several details in the book, while a lawyer for McCarthy’s former manager Tom Kotchmann sent publisher Viking Penguin a 13-page letter prior to its publication.

Is this a James Frey deal? Probably not, but clearly McCarthy’s note-taking ability is not what he thought it was, or – and this just has to be assumed until he can prove otherwise – those journals simply don’t exist. Memories are unreliable, and reconstructing dialogue and scene (and putting thoughts in people’s head) for the sake of literary effect while still producing actual non-fiction is a tricky game indeed.

But if we’ll never know for sure whether Reagins shed real tears the day he cut McCarthy loose (it’s basically “he said/he said”), or if Brown was simply confused with another player, there are still enough basic errors to require a new edition, if not retractions or apologies. And you would think that both McCarthy and his publisher would have learned from Frey et. al (or any of the steroids-in-baseball stories for that matter) that stonewalling as the first position almost never lasts with further scrutiny.

But most of all, I would think this situation is a problem not because it reflects badly on McCarthy as a writer, but because “hey, isn’t that the doctor who wrote that sloppy, hyperbolic baseball book” is something that you want to hear on Scrubs, not the floor of New York Presbyterian/Columbia. One might prefer the Beat the Reaper guy.

6 Responses to “First Do No Harm To Easily Checked Facts: The “Times” on Matt McCarthy’s Memoir”

  1. Maybe the bad note-taking all boils down to M.D. penmanship issues. Ahem.

    For his part, Bobby Jenks denies his appearances in the book as well.

    http://futureangels.mlblogs.com/archives/2009/02/odd_man_out_jenks_denies_meeti.html

  2. Jason Cohen says:

    The sad part is, I don’t really believe all these ex-teammates either, some of them are surely covering their ass, and I doubt Bobby Jenks’ memory is any better than Matt McCarthy’s, but now McCarthy lacks the goods. If nothing else shouldn’t have named names on anything didn’t have down cold – there still would have been room for lore, exaggeration and apocrypha.

  3. Rog says:

    And you would think that both McCarthy and his publisher would have learned from Frey et. al (or any of the steroids-in-baseball stories for that matter) that stonewalling as the first position almost never lasts with further scrutiny.

    Ha, post of the year! Are you kidding me?!? Frey’s book sold pretty goddamned well after the controversy. Hits are hard to come by in the book industry. Even if they defend against lawsuits, the cliche about there not being any such thing as bad publicity holds true.

  4. harry says:

    You think the times article might have been MLB push back to the book? NYT owns a stake in the Red Sox…They put three reporters on a book about the minors at the same time the
    A-rod scandal and the Nationals domincan issue was being raised…Give me a break!

  5. GC says:

    The Times can hardly be accused of shying away from A-Rod coverage, Harry. That story’s been a daily fixture since the Roberts/SI article was posted online.

    And it isn’t as though they’ve ignored the Nationals’ front office problems or shady biz being conducted in the world of player development, either.

    Three reporters seems like a lot, but I am guessing there was a fair amount of research involved when it came to refuting McCarthy’s allegedly tall tales. A better question might be, how come the NY Times could so easily find so many instances where McCarthy’s fish stories and historical facts didn’t add up, but Viking Penguin and Sports Illustrated couldn’t be bothered?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Have you bothered to follow-up on this so-called baseball hoax? It turns out the New York Times invented many of the errors in McCarthy’s book by taking things grossly out of context. The book isn’t being retracted. They’re not even printing a revised edition. All the Times article did was keep the book on the best seller list for a few extra weeks. Don’t believe everything you read! The New York Times should be held accountable for such irresponsible journalism. I feel bad that you fell for it.

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