Braves’ McCarthy a gifted conversation starter

A conversation with Braves starter Brandon McCarthy has more twists then a Ludlum novel. There is a veritable orchard of topics from which to choose, and not nearly enough time in which to pick them.

So, getting to know the new guy is a little bit of a challenge, if only because once you start going down the switchbacks and alleyways and roundabouts, you’re going to need a GPS to get back home.

One minute you might be talking about the very practical need the Braves have to add the 34-year-old McCarthy’s experience to their callow rotation. And, toward that end, for this 6-foot-7 totem of human frailty and occupational trauma to stay healthy enough to contribute over a long, hard season.

The next, you’re talking about the bountiful future of soccer in America.

If you want to discuss McCarthy’s current status, all that’s available is the meager evidence of spring training. His has been uneventful as of earlier this week, a mixture of a half-dozen exhibition innings (just one run allowed) and some shut-down work on the back fields in simulated games against players without pedigree.

And, honestly in his case, uneventful is good.

“I’ve settled in pretty comfortably,” he reported. Comfortable is good, too.

But if the subject is resilience, there is a much thicker book on McCarthy.

Knock him down, and he keeps getting back up. Even though knocking him down has been certifiably difficult.

There was the line drive back through the middle in 2012 that struck him in the head, fracturing his skull and leaving him with a little brain bleed, if there can be such a thing as a little brain bleed. Never doubt his toughness – he walked off the field that day.

There was the obligatory Tommy John surgery three years later. That took care of the better part of both 2015 and ’16. Last year with the Dodgers he had three trips to the disabled list with ailments ranging from blisters to an injury to his non-throwing shoulder suffered in the weight room.

Simply put, even as he wandered into his athletic dotage, McCarthy went about healing like it was just another part of his job description.

“There is nothing else I would want to be doing these last few years, so even when things get really low it’s, ‘Let’s get back to work, let’s keep going,” he said.

“That’s really the essence of this game, can you get up for the next thing?”

“My book is getting very complete on experiences. I just need to put All Star game and Cy Young Award in there somewhere. Then I’ll have it all filled out,” he smiled.

Resilience and a sense of perspective were both required following his final outing as a Dodger, before he was traded to the Braves as part of the get-Matt-Kemp-off-the-payroll movement. L.A. included McCarthy on its postseason roster as bullpen help. And then brought him on in Game 2 of the World Series in the 11th inning of a tie game. He gave up a one-out, two-run home run to George Springer on a relatively new addition to his array, a slider.

So, to recap, his last baseball memory before reporting to his new team was a kick to the groin.

But you don’t get to be a 12-year veteran (lifetime 63-72 with a 4.15 ERA) without being conversant with the Zen of Pitching.

“There was a strange calmness after,” McCarthy said, when asked how he processed that last outing. “I knew I was supposed to be disappointed with it, and I was. But I fell back on everything that happened the last few years. There had been enough ups and downs that the downs are what they are - they’re the same as the ups.

“I have a daughter now that I love to death. I go home to my wife – my parents were in town, too – there was a whole bunch of people there who loved me, and they don’t love me because of what I do out (on the field). My daughter was happy to see me. My dog came running up to me. They don’t care that I gave up a home run in the World Series. It’s hard to continue a bad mood when that’s what greets you at the door.”

And, he added, “I thought about it after the fact in a very rational, clinical way: That pitch wasn’t good enough because X, Y and Z happened. The next time I go out I’m going to work on how I’ll make it better.”

The Braves took a flier on a starter who hasn’t cracked more than 100 innings in the past three seasons. McCarthy counts reaching 200 innings combined in 2014 with Arizona and the Yankees as his greatest professional accomplishment.

Every goal he might set for this season is based on trying to get back to that level of reliability. “I know if I’m healthy, the results will come with it,” he said.

As a bonus, the Braves also acquired what might be the best Twitter follow in the big leagues.

He’ll have some work to do to get certain members of his new team to join his more than 200,000 followers.

Freddie Freeman, for instance, eschews Twitter. Young starter Sean Newcomb said he hasn’t started following the veteran yet, but “my dad did, and he’s telling me (McCarthy) had some good content on there.”

A personal favorite, which is a cultural observation, not political, is: “I think Shaq answers his cellphone with, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Otherwise, you might get McCarthy’s thoughts on anything from the Oscars to figure-skating costumes to gun violence.

While walking that fine divide between comment and insult, McCarthy is more sensitive how he uses the medium than some.

“It’s just making sure I don’t say anything that’s offensive, that hasn’t been thought out. If I’m going to say something on there – whether it’s politics or anything else – it has to be something that if they put you on TV and made you defend it, could you defend it rationally? Do you feel this is a talking point you want to stick by? Otherwise it’s not really worth putting out there.”

And at the same time, it’s important not to take yourself or this instantly unleashed spray of characters too seriously.

This may tempt the definition of an oxymoron, but he sounds almost like a mature Twitter user, one who takes none of it too seriously.

“It’s a little throw-away thing, that’s what we’re all doing. We’re throwing our garbage thoughts out there and seeing if people like them or not,” McCarthy said.

“And then we all move on, and by a couple days later everyone has forgotten everything people have written and have moved on to something else.”

And, finally, no conversation with Brandon McCarthy would be complete without some mention of soccer. For it is not every day – as a matter of fact, it hasn’t been any day – that you find a Major League pitcher who’s part owner of a soccer team.

When McCarthy bought into the Phoenix Rising, a second-level United Soccer League outfit near his home in Arizona, it was with the idea he was investing in an emerging growth stock. (And perhaps a future MLS site?)

“When I originally invested in it I saw it as investing in the NFL in the 1970s. This is something that can really explode. It is going to take a while to get there, but it’s going to grow and grow and grow,” he said.

So, while he might not exactly fly an Atlanta United flag from his car window this season (it, too, has a team in the USL), McCarthy is quite anxious to get to Atlanta and study what’s going on with the Atlanta United brand.

And, not that Atlanta United needs anyone else to push soccer in the south, but it will have at least one willing spokesman in the Braves clubhouse.

“When I was growing up – even the generation after me – (soccer) was kind of this afterthought. Probably still will be in most people’s minds for a while,” McCarthy said. “But if you’re 12 now, and you’ve gone to an Orlando game or an Atlanta game, it’s a very real thing. It’s not 7,000 people sitting around, joking around. It’s 70,000 people in a football stadium going nuts.

“Kids at your school wearing those jerseys – that’s a very legitimate thing. Soccer is not a joke to you at that point, whether you play it or not. Eventually that spreads.”

Yes, there are myriad topics this new fellow in the clubhouse can address, and the Braves will be happy to hear about them as their season rolls on. All save one, that is. No one needs to learn anything more about life on the disabled list.