Lying Around With Brandon McCarthy
It doesn't take too much to be the funniest guy in the major leagues. Fortunately, the Arizona Diamondbacks' pitcher, fresh off a little brain surgery, doesn't feel like doing too much right now anyway.
Brandon McCarthy has some ideas for how a profile of himself should read. He knows the formula cold: a quirky intro that sets the tone and lays out the big idea; background info on a life-altering event that shapes or cements a cogent personality trait; if you're lucky, some fleeting trash talk that becomes the one thing in the piece everyone remembers, all leading up to a scene that ties everything up in a nice bow. Slumped on the living room couch in his downtown Dallas townhouse, he explains, as someone who likes to control his own narrative, that he'd prefer to go with a day-in-the-life structure. It could be based on yesterday, he says. The story would start out with him playing golf, sinking his fourth hole in one of the week, a little off his usual pace.
"Then he donated another million to a children's charity," he says in a booming omniscient narrator's voice. "He lifted more weight than he ever has, beating all the combine guys in bench press for the third year in a row." Now that he's rolling, he doesn't stop. "He finished writing a television show, pitched it, it got picked up, and they said it's going to be the greatest thing ever."
Without missing a beat, he switches to first person. "Time-wise, I couldn't commit, so I turned it down," he says. "Then I came home, made the best dinner anybody's ever had, pleasured my wife, went to bed, and got a perfect eight hours of sleep.
What percentage of that is true?
"Well," he says. "I did work out yesterday. I came home and went to Fuel City and ate tacos." He's referring to a popular Dallas taco joint that's inside a gas station. "They were really, really good. Then I came back to get my golf clubs to go to the range, but ended up falling asleep on the floor for two and a half hours." He says he woke up with heartburn, then met some friends for drinks, and did, in fact, get a lot of sleep.
He nods. "And that was a productive day."(The Big Idea)
In the world of sports, Brandon McCarthy is something of an anomaly. So many successful athletes are guarded and consumed solely by the sport they play, or by the profit-driven hero-making machine of sports media. But the Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher, who will begin his eighth season with his fourth different organization when he takes the ball Opening Day, comes across as genuine and unaffected, whether it's to his 100,000+ Twitter followers or in his living room. It's helped him maintain control of his own story, his image. More than nearly everyone else in sports — with the possible exception of Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe — McCarthy seems to understand the nuances of modern mythmaking, the calculated randomness, the subtlety, the cultural value. And while Kluwe is, well, a punter, McCarthy is among the better pitchers in baseball.
Last September, after getting hit in the head with a line drive that fractured his skull, he was rushed to the hospital, where he endured two hours of brain surgery to relieve the cranial pressure. He spent nearly a week in and out of consciousness, his wife, Amanda, worrying at the edge of his hospital bed. When he finally got to go home, his first tweet to the world was: "WELL IF BEING DISCHARGED FROM THE HOSPITAL ISNT THE BEST TIME TO ASK ABOUT A THREESOME THEN IM FRESH OUT OF IDEAS."
McCarthy's humor is part of a particularly neoteric skill set that includes, by his own listing, the ability to weave in and out of highway traffic efficiently, being able to get through a crowded mall quickly (he tells people he has the moves of a world-class running back), finding spelling errors and typos, and doing a spot-on British accent. And there's another thing he says he excels at: doing nothing.
"I can sleep 'til 1, and do nothing, and finally brush my teeth at 5," he says. "Basically what today would be like if you weren't here."
It's his last Saturday at his offseason home before he reports to spring training in Arizona. In December, McCarthy signed a two-year contract with the Diamondbacks worth a reported $15.5 million. Two days from now, he'll be meeting his new teammates, learning all about another new city, another new organization.
McCarthy lives with Amanda and their fluffy West Highland white terrier, Hobbes, in a small gated community a few hundred feet from the American Airlines Center, where the Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars play. His posh, modern townhouse once belonged to Brett Hull, and there are stories of old legendary rooftop parties. He's got his own small weight room, a large bedroom, and one of his prized possessions, an expensive toilet Amanda ordered from Japan. Downstairs he has an entire room dedicated to Ping-Pong and shuffleboard, and a framed picture of Nolan Ryan punching Robin Ventura in the head.
McCarthy watches golf with his laptop open on the cushion next to him, his phone buzzing on the other side. He's a slender, 6-foot-7-inch 29 year-old with dark hair that's prematurely turning silver in flecks. Today he's wearing jeans, a blue Superman T-shirt, black socks, and no shoes.
"When you procrastinate, it's a chemical reaction," he says. "There's a release of dopamine the longer you procrastinate, and then when you're forced into action. So it becomes like a little hit to you. Anyone who's a procrastinator knows that exact feeling of,Oh yeah, I got this. So you enjoy that. And it drives people who are with you who aren't that way nuts."
To McCarthy, it's about optimum efficiency — he can focus when he has to, and not waste a bit of energy when it isn't necessary. And the way he analyzes how he relaxes, that's the same way he analyzes everything, from the pitches he throws to the tweets he sends out to the new sitcom script he's been trying to write with the help of some admirers, who just happen to be among the most successful comedy writers in Hollywood.
He's maybe working a little harder than he'd care to admit.
Growing up in Southern California and Colorado Springs, he was a smart aleck, the kind of kid who lives in a town full of evangelicals but tells his parents he isn't going to church anymore because it doesn't make sense. He was the kind of kid who waits until the last second to do his homework, gets up as late as he possibly can every morning, does every project the night before it's due, and still figures out a way to get decent grades.
By the time he was 13 or 14, he found himself wanting to stay up when everyone else went to sleep. He'd watch TV deep into the night. If he didn't work to control it, he would stay up until 5 a.m., then sleep until 5 and do it all over again. "Looking back, I honestly don't know what the hell I did with all that time."
In various "alternate universes," McCarthy thinks he also could have been a professional golfer, or possibly a writer or a stand-up comedian. See, while McCarthy talks a lot about how he spends so much time just sitting around, he's ambitious in a way most athletes aren't. He's already thinking, analyzing what he might be able to do after his baseball career is over. Which it almost was, ahead of schedule. A couple of times, actually.
Of course, baseball also suits his analytical approach to things. He fully embraces newer, more comprehensive advanced statistics (Moneyball stuff, to be reductive) and talks about individual wins and losses and earned run average with a loathing derision you might usually see reserved for flat-earthers. He was recently mocked by some of his fellow stat lovers for saying that team chemistry contributed at least something to the A's surprising success last season. But McCarthy's fondness for analytics isn't just a geek streak — he actually owes his career to it.
"This approach saved me," he said.
Three years ago he was nearly out of baseball. He had started his career buzzing through the minor leagues, becoming a highly touted prospect with early success in the Chicago White Sox organization. In 2004, he led all minor league pitchers in strikeouts. But he bounced between three teams and three serious injuries in five years. He was headed for a career of complete irrelevance.
He studied statistics. "I became addicted to Fangraphs," he says, referring to a popular stat-head website. "If I wanted to stop sucking, I knew I needed to change something." He looked at which pitches lead to more runs. At the end of his stretch with the Rangers, he made the conscious decision to remake himself as a pitcher. He had always thrown a lot of fastballs high in the strike zone — pitches that for him resulted in more strikeouts, but also more fly balls and more home runs allowed.
"I had to evolve," he says. "I had to figure out a way to apply this kind of knowledge." Now there would be more movement on his pitches. There would be less focus on trying to strike batters out and more on maintaining his control and getting them to ground out. In his second year in the league, with the White Sox in 2006, McCarthy averaged three and a half walks and almost two home runs allowed for every nine innings he pitched. In 2011, with the A's, those numbers dropped to 1.3 walks and 0.6 home runs. McCarthy led the American League in fielding-independent pitching (what real stat-heads prefer to ERA). These days, he's often compared to future Hall of Famer control specialist Greg Maddux.
McCarthy's transformation landed him on the cover ofESPN the Magazine for last spring's "Analytics" issue. Amanda posed next to him, brunette hair flowing, shirt unbuttoned just enough to barely titillate the bloggers who had already enshrined her into the Hot Baseball Wives Hall of Fame. The cover line: "Chicks Dig the Ground Ball."
A lot of people laugh extra hard around celebrities, even when they're not really funny. And he knows a lot people in sports who are hilarious, but for some reason their humor doesn't translate to a medium like Twitter. But he understands the constantly evolving culture of the internet, how before a concept has even reached true social saturation, it's already passé where it began.
He was on the A's, playing in Anaheim, when he watched as it was time for yet another session of the cringe-worthy Kiss Cam. "I cannot stand the Kiss Cam," he says. "It's so, so awkward already. Then they always end it with two guys that they show. And then everybody laughs and they giggle and the guys are embarrassed. I just started thinking about how this is homophobic at its base." He can imagine how it might look to gay people. "What if I'm there with my partner — what are you all laughing at?"
He had thought about it a few times before the night last April when he finally decided to tweet something about it: "They put two guys on the 'Kiss Cam' tonight. What hilarity!! (by hilarity I mean offensive homophobia). Enough with this stupid trend."
His message was retweeted hundreds of times within only a few hours. Then CNN picked it up. Then dozens of other news outlets. Even NPR, hardly a bastion for sports debate, did a segment on McCarthy's remarks. The San Francisco Chroniclinterviewed him about the topic and called his comments the dawn of "the age of enlightenment" in sports.
McCarthy saw how it sparked discussions across the country. He saw the potential good Twitter could do. He says a lot of pro sports organizations "get it" too, and they encourage the players to engage with fans. But some — he doesn't want to name names — are just scared. "It's a missed opportunity."
When you hear him talk, he seems more like the kind of person you'd find working in the office of a start-up than in a locker room. He knows which times of day will get the most action, which subjects will generate more negative response, which people he's better off not retweeting. But the point isn't just that he's funny or laid-back: McCarthy is the model of what we were told the modern, media-savvy athlete would be. His mere presence in the world of sports means something. He, of course, does not see it that way.
Between his irreverence and his laid-back social activism, he also uses Twitter to flirt with his wife. Amanda has more than 25,000 followers herself, and the husband and wife aren't afraid to tease each other in public. Not long ago, he tweeted that he had found something in her ass. When reminded now, she just laughs and shakes her head. "Neither one of us gets too bothered about things," she says.
Of the two of them, he is actually slightly more likely to be upset. "I'm an over-sharer," she says. At one point, Amanda had posted a photo of an expensive bottle of wine they were drinking.
"I don't like showy-ness," he says. "It's understood who makes money and there's nice things and all that. But right now, when people are looking for jobs, tweeting about a $2,000 bottle of wine probably isn't a wise move." He says it's a little like Phil Mickelson complaining about his taxes. After seeing something like that, some people might not think his next joke is quite as funny.
By the way, since we're at that point, is there anyone he wants to talk shit about?
"Nancy Grace," he says. "She's the absolute worst." He remembers a game last year in Seattle. He started the game off cruising, but at some point he gave up a home run. "I was sitting in the dugout after the inning," he says. "And I was like, What the fuck was that? How did my brain just turn off for a second? What the hell could have caused that?"
After thinking about it for a while, he says he realized what it was. "That was the day that Nancy Grace's nipple popped out on TV," he says. "Her nipple popping out was what caused that home run."
He thinks he remembers the whole thing. He's not sure, and he could be piecing things together, but he thinks he remembers it all. It was last Sept. 5, in Oakland. They were playing the Angels, down 3-1 in the top of the fourth inning. McCarthy was facing Angels shortstop Erick Aybar. There were three balls, one strike, one out, nobody on base. The pitch hung high in the strike zone and Aybar hit it square-on, a line drive straight at McCarthy's head.
He had just enough time — milliseconds, really — to turn his face slightly to the left, meaning the ball struck the right side of his head. He'd stuck his hands and glove up too, but he was too late. The sound of the impact alone was sickening, something akin to an egg cracking, but audible throughout the stadium.
The hit spun him around. His eyes were dazed and vacant, and his jaw dangled open slightly. His right arm reached to his head out of instinct, but because of the head trauma, it looked like a signal wasn't connecting. His wrist locked awkwardly next to his cheek as he fell to the ground. For a split second, it looked like he was taking a relaxing nap right there on the mound. (The image would later turn into a meme, and McCarthy would make it his Twitter avatar.)
His teammates, manager, and the trainers were at his side immediately. McCarthy rubbed his head, feeling for blood or brains or — he didn't even know what. But his hair seemed dry. Within a minute or two, they had him up, walking to the dugout. He passed the concussion tests they gave him — similar to the tests NFL trainers use on the sidelines — but the organization still sent him to the hospital for a CT scan. The scan revealed an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion, and a skull fracture. After a second examination and a second scan, he was prepped for brain surgery.
Amanda had been at the game. She sat nervously at the hospital during the two-hour operation. There were no tweets. No jokes. "I assumed at the time baseball was over," she says. "We were worried about more important things."
He spent six days in the hospital, mostly sleeping. It was worse for her, awake, watching, wondering, feeling helpless. But he was back to joking around by the time of his release. That's when he put out the threesome tweet. He'd actually typed it up a few hours earlier — "I'd just been thinking that a lot and thought it was funny," he says now — and shown it to her before he posted it. She laughed, but suggested he at least wait until the team put out the official statement saying he'd been released from the hospital.
When he did finally post it, there were more than 6,000 retweets. Amanda responded to him on her own account: "I WILL strike someone with a brain injury."
To be clear, he tells me he feels totally, 100% better now. He has a little nervousness about going out there, but nothing he won't be able to deal with. He knows the video was all over SportsCenter. He knows that despite all the analysis and thought he puts into so many aspects of life, he'll probably always be associated with this one random event. For all his forthrightness, he doesn't want to become some sort of spokesperson for head injuries or have to answer questions about this forever. (He's already been asked dozens of times about things like helmets for pitchers. He thinks the technology is still way off, and that pro athletes all assume a certain level of risk every time they step on the field.) But he also knows there are some things he can't control, and he's good at not worrying about what he can't control. "What's the point if you can't do anything about it," he says.
We talk about watching football, and how it's become so much harder now that the public knows more about head injuries. The worst part, we agree, is when you see a player has been knocked unconscious but his fists are still clenched in balls.
Within a few weeks of the injury, he felt well enough to join his team in the dugout for the playoff run. But he couldn't play. The first time he got on an exercise bike, he felt miserable. "Once you exert yourself, you have a bad headache," he says. "You just feel completely out of sorts. I felt like I was on a tape delay, like everything was happening a second before I was registering it."
He was told that the best thing he could do was rest and let his brain heal. He was told he should sit on the couch and do nothing. It was like he'd been preparing for this his whole life. When he went back to a concussion specialist a few weeks after the season ended, the doctor was astonished at how well McCarthy had healed. "He couldn't believe it," McCarthy says. "Everything was just normal. I didn't have one issue." It meant his baseball career wasn't over after all.
In the offseason, he and Amanda took a short trip to California to see friends. While he was there, he decided to meet up with a few of the television writers he'd gotten to know over Twitter, including Michael Schur, a producer and writer for The Office and co-creator and executive producer of Parks and Recreation; they bonded over a mutual affinity for analytical statistics and Schur's stat-friendly, haughty-sportswriting-skewering site FireJoeMorgan.com.
"Brandon is legit funny," Schur says. "Not 'athlete' funny, or 'rich person' funny. "Athletes, by and large, don't engage the world of pop culture the way Brandon does, for obvious reasons. Their jobs demand a singular focus on training and practice." He says McCarthy "also has a healthy amount of skepticism and irony, which is pretty much a prerequisite for being funny."
McCarthy doesn't want to say who, but someone — not Schur — wanted to know if he'd ever had an idea for a TV show. He said he had a vague one in his head, but that he didn't really have much time. Except now his schedule was wide open. So McCarthy started working on a script.
"After the injury, trying to be funny was one of the things that helped me clarify my thoughts," he says, still sitting on the same couch where he came up with most of his ideas. "I always liked the idea of writing, but actually writing is harder than hell. Having an idea is one thing, but creating characters and a universe and then giving them words and all that is completely another idea all together."
Schur says McCarthy hasn't offered any details on what he's writing — "Writers like to keep their projects close to their vests," Schur says — but the pitcher did ask for some tips. "He mostly wanted to know procedural things, pros and cons of partnering up with someone, what to do once he has a script, that sort of thing."
For all his talk about relaxing and doing nothing, he's been pretty active and focused on this. Whether this ambition outside of the sports world has anything to do with the injury, he says he isn't sure. But he's worked hard. He says he kept a notebook while working on the show and wrote every day, but that he's very critical of everything he writes.
Throughout the day that I spend at his place, we talk about fodder for comic material: the swingers that live a few doors down; the fact that some straight-edge Christians like to throw parties where they stay sober, but their friends all get trashed — McCarthy has played with a few guys like that over the years. "I've never understood that," he says. "But how do you even ask someone about that and not kind of sound like a dick?"
It's getting late and Amanda reminds him that they have dinner reservations. It will be their last dinner with their Dallas friends before heading to Arizona.
"I hate the idea of dinner reservations," he says. He's thought about this. Any reservations are bad, he says. He'd rather walk around and look for places anyway. "I especially hate the advanced ones, like a week out. Dinner at 7 p.m. a week from now? I don't know if I'll be hungry then! And if I'm eating dinner at 7, that means I have to have lunch at a certain time and now my whole day is based around this."
Amanda disagrees. She doesn't get the procrastination lifestyle. "Sometimes I feel like I'm going to pop a blood vessel in my eyeball," she says. Just this morning she had to go to UPS, she says, to ship her husband's golf clubs and his baseball bag. "Because he waited so long, I'm lugging around this stuff, clunking in there, mailing it last second. And he was just OK letting them sit in the garage."
McCarthy points out that, technically, waiting didn't bring him any negative consequences. "Actually," he says with a smile, "it all worked out great."(The Tidy Ending)
The next day, he invites me to watch a Liverpool game with him at a British pub he loves. I can't go, but we agree to touch base in a few weeks, when he's situated in Arizona, for a short follow-up.
Once spring training starts, he doesn't have nearly as much time to sit around. (One fan on Twitter gets annoyed at him when McCarthy misses an Egraphs appointment.) On Feb. 27, he takes the mound for the first time since his injury. Amanda is more anxious than he is, telling reporters that while she isn't usually a nervous person, this time, "I was so nervous, I'm still shaking."
He strikes out four in two innings, throwing 22 strikes in 31 pitches. He tells reporters after the game that his rhythm, his game pace felt good. "I'm glad this one is out of the way so I don't have to hear about it anymore," he tells the cameras.
I reach out to him in mid-March to hear how spring training's been going. I wonder what it says about our expectations of modern athletes when it seems so strange to see a star pitcher, someone with a $15 million contract, interacting so naturally with everyday people — being thoughtful and composed during long interviews and interested in things like studies about procrastination and dopamine. I want to ask him if he thinks it says more about him or the state of sports in general, about how phony and self-obsessed so many sports figures seem, about the way our culture worships celebrity and opulence. I feel like he might appreciate the fact that I've procrastinated until right before my deadline to get back in touch, hoping to wrap it all up nicely at the last possible second.
We had texted a few times, so first I send him a text message. When I don't hear back from him in a day or two, I send him an email. When I don't get a response in a few more days, I send another email, just asking if they were getting through. He sends back a quick note saying they are, that he's sorry, and that he's been a little backed up recently. The next day I send him a note asking if he has a few minutes to talk on the phone. At around 2 a.m. that night, I get a reply saying sure, asking what time works for me. I don't hear back until the next night, when an email comes in just before 3 a.m.
"Sorry man," he writes. "My schedule has been all over the map so I've had to put everything like this off. But if you can tell me what works for you beginning of next week, I'll try to make it work."
We get on the phone, but only to talk about better times to talk, but it never works out. It's not that he doesn't want to talk. He's just too busy.