Writer Mike Murphey teamed up with Keith Comstock, a former minor and major league baseball pitcher who currently works as a pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, to write THE CONMAN, a fictionalized account of Comstock’s 16-year professional career. The novel begins with Comstock’s fictional stand-in, Conor Nash (nicknamed “The Conman” by a teammate), climbing up Camelback Mountain near Phoenix, Arizona, to gain some perspective on who he is now that his life in baseball has come to an end. What follows is a largely chronological recounting of Conor’s upbringing, friendships, and playing experiences. The story is told through a mix of narration about the protagonist, on the one hand, and Conor’s own direct addresses to Saint Rita, the patron saint of impossible causes whom he recasts as his “baseball angel,” on the other.
Growing up with a speech impediment, Conor makes his pitching debut in the San Carlos, California Farm League as a seven-year-old, adds a curveball to his repertoire during high school, plays junior-college ball at Cañada College, and begins his professional career when he is drafted, in 1976, by the California Angels. Conor reports to the Idaho Falls Russets, one of the Class-A minor-league clubs used by the Angels to cultivate talent, and thereby begins his baseball odyssey. Over the course of his career, before and even during the period in which he makes it into the majors, he plays for multiple minor-league teams, ranging from the Quad Cities Angels, in Iowa, to the Toledo Mudhens, in Ohio, to the Birmingham Barons, in Alabama, to the Las Vegas Stars, in Nevada, to the Calgary Cannons, in Calgary, Alberta. He also plays overseas for two years, pitching for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. Major-league teams for which he pitches, with more or less success, include the Minnesota Twins, the San Francisco Giants, the San Diego Padres, and the Seattle Mariners.
The novel provides a lively, detailed account of the difficult, hand-to-mouth existence that minor league players (and their families) are forced to lead while struggling for a chance to break into big-league baseball. Salaries are low, job security is nil, and the amenities enjoyed by the players’ major-league counterparts are nowhere to be found. But THE CONMAN devotes disproportionate attention to Conor’s and his teammates’ antics—stealing the team bus to make a run to a local bar, cementing shut the gate to an opposing team’s bullpen, donning the suit worn by a mascot and then riding onto the field in a motorized cart—at the expense of other key aspects of the story. Many readers will want to know more about the motivations and experiences of Conor’s long-suffering spouse, the organizational culture that tolerated or even promoted the overuse of cortisone shots to enable players like Conor to “manage” chronic injuries, and exactly how the protagonist goes about answering the question he himself formulates: “Who is Conor Nash if he can’t pitch?”
THE CONMAN is a revealing, but fictionalized account of a minor-league pitcher’s baseball career, and though lively and readable, it at times devolves into too many tall tales from the clubhouse.
~David Herman for IndieReader