Matt DeSalvo isn’t your typical professional athlete. A 28-year-old right-hander currently pitching for the Triple-A Durham Bulls, DeSalvo is just as comfortable discussing philosophy and classic literature as he is delivering fastballs. Originally signed by the Yankees as a non-drafted free agent out of Division III Marietta (Ohio) College in 2003, DeSalvo made it to the big leagues in 2007, appearing in seven games, six of them as a starter, logging a record of 1-3 with an ERA of 6.18 before being released. Subsequently a member of the Braves‘ and Mets‘ organizations, the native of New Castle, Pennsylvania was signed by the Rays in late May. DeSalvo talked about his cerebral approach to life, including how novels by Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky relate to the game of baseball, and why he was reading Lao Tzu in the clubhouse prior to his major league debut.
David Laurila: How would you describe yourself?
Matt DeSalvo: I am a thinker and I like to learn. I like to learn first, and then I like to think about the things that I’ve learned. I like to tie everything into a web-all of the information I get. I like to see what information can relate to other things. That’s kind of how my thought process goes. For instance, I read a book called The Book of Five Rings, which is about samurais and their codes of conduct, and I applied it to the world of baseball.
You know, as a person, it’s kind of difficult to describe yourself, because it’s usually an interpretation of other people-what they think about you. If I were to watch myself, I would say that… shit, I’m a funny guy. I’m shy at first; I’m very quiet. I have a sense of humor where I’m very sarcastic, so sometimes it looks like I’m an asshole. I get that a lot from my friends, that I come across like that. I’ll say, “No, I’m joking,” and people are like, “Oh, wow.” I guess my facial expressions make me seem like I’m an asshole, or whatever. But I think I’m kind of a funny guy.
DL: When I first interviewed you four years ago this summer, you said that if you tried to throw 95 mph, your arm would probably fly into the stands.
MD: It would, even more so now, four years later. Yeah, that’s what it was, about four years ago. I like to help people. That’s another thing. I’m charitable. I’ve tried to help a lot of people in my day.
DL: You were in Double-A when we first spoke. How did your life change when you made it to the big leagues?
MD: Well, I shed that childhood dream. There’s something about spending 20-some years attempting to reach this goal, and then, all of a sudden, you’re there and it kind of morphs into a dream of staying and having a successful career. I think that when people set goals it should be more of a step-like process, to where it isn’t just one pedestal you’re trying to reach. It should be steps to where… OK, you make it to the big leagues, but if that’s your ultimate goal, then you don’t have any more steps to take. With me being a starter, maybe that next step would be to stick in the big leagues, and if I do stick, my next one might be to win 10 games and so on and so forth, all the way up. But personally, I like to keep my goals to myself. They’re really for no one else to share. It’s kind of my own thing. That way, no one can tell you, ‘You said you wanted to strike out 100 guys this season and you only struck out 99. Damn, you didn’t strike out 100 guys.’ So I look at goals as personal things that you don’t have to prove to other people. And it’s difficult, because a lot of people don’t understand the game. There are a lot of guys out here, and a lot of egos and great minds, who are trying to reach goals that only a few people can. I don’t think that a lot of people would be able to understand the goals and dreams that guys have at this level.
DL: You said something similar in our earlier interview, adding that you have acute goals and chronic goals. After a season is over, do you reflect upon them?
MD: Yeah, I do, but I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve learned how to kind of roll with the punches. This game is rough at times, and sometimes it can be the greatest thing ever. I’m kind of game to game now, instead of season to season, when it comes to goal-setting. Yesterday I threw fastballs and sliders, because my curveball and changeup were horseshit. It’s one of those things where, in my next start, I want to keep the command I had of my fastball and slider, but I want to add on to them. Or maybe I want to hold the running game better, or this or that. Guys that have made it to the big leagues may not necessarily know that they do that-they may not purposely set their goals like that. I don’t know. But I think that the successful ones, the ones that stick for many years, are the guys that set the game-to-game goals, like ‘Okay, my goal was to go out and establish my fastball early and then put guys away with my slider,’ and if they don’t do that, they can say, ‘OK, what did I do wrong there? How did I get away from that game plan?’ They know how to make an adjustment for their next start.
DL: You threw 5
MD: My debut was against Seattle, and they had an aggressive offense, so I got away with a few pitches. A few starts later, Chicago was more patient, and had more of a see-a-lot-of-pitches offense. Against Seattle… I don’t know the stat, but I probably got a lot of outs within three pitches. And someone may disagree with this, but I honestly believe that if you make your pitch, it doesn’t matter if there is a Little Leaguer or a big-leaguer up there. You’re going to get a good outcome. If you paint a four-seamer or a sinker on the outside corner, it’s going to be difficult for a major leaguer to hit that pitch. If it’s down and way, at the knees-if you put it in a perfect spot-the difference is that… in Triple-A, [pitchers] most often don’t hit that spot regularly. In the big leagues they can. That’s what separates Triple-A from the big leagues.
DL: You were reportedly reading Confucius in the clubhouse prior to your first big-league start. Is that true?
MD: I don’t think it was Confucius. I think it was Lao Tzu, on Taoism, and someone in the East might be pissed off about that [mistake], because they’re different. Confucius is all about the political and how the state should run, while Taoism is more natural.
DL: Were you reading Lao Tzu for relaxation, or to help you prepare for the game?
MD: It had nothing to do with the baseball. It was more of the personal, trying to… I like to learn from different cultures and different philosophies-what it takes to be a good person. Not that I was reading it for someone to tell me-I was looking for different perspectives on what other cultures think a good person would be. I was reading it for that purpose.
DL: I understand that you’re a fan of Albert Camus’ work. What does Camus mean to you?
MD: A certain author doesn’t necessarily mean anything to me, because I barely remember authors. It’s really just the spoken or written word that I concern myself with; it’s what they say. I’ve read a few of his books. I recently read The Plague, which was good, because I like to read stuff about how people react to terrible situations. The Plague could mean a different thing for a different person. The author may have it meaning the Bubonic Plague, but someone reading it may be going through, ‘Aw shit, I had a bad month of baseball,’ and that could be their plague. Or you could have a bunch of stories that you wrote and your editor says, ‘Rewrite them,’ or ‘This is horseshit, I’m not printing it.’ That could be your plague. So, it’s all on who reads it and how they interpret it. I don’t read Camus because he’s a philosopher and people will think that I’m intelligent because I read Camus. I read it because I heard it was a good story, and if it speaks to me, it speaks to me. If it doesn’t, I just give it away or throw it away. No big deal.
DL: The protagonist in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was a tragic figure who possessed a Napoleonic complex and felt that he was above the law. Are you familiar with the story?
MD: I am. The basic human nature doesn’t change. You’ve got people… from a baseball perspective, you’ve got characters. I’ll read a book and think, ‘Wow, so-and-so acts like the character in this book,’ and that will kind of make me chuckle. But you can look outside the culture of baseball and see the same thing. You can walk into a company and watch the different people who work in the cubicles, and you’ll see personality types just like you do here in baseball. There’s the same competitiveness. I think that what it comes down to is people trying to be happy, and baseball is a little tougher to be happy in, because it’s such a pessimistic sport. Shit, it’s tough to succeed. Look at the statistics that people focus on, like batting average. If you’re successful 30 percent of the time… it’s based on failure. It takes a special mentality to be able to succeed in this game, coping with the ups and downs that come with it, especially day to day. As a pitcher, can you give up five runs in four innings and then sit for four days of rest, and then come back with a positive outlook for your next start? Or if you’re a hitter, can you strike out four times in a row and then come up in the bottom of the ninth inning, down by one run, and the bases loaded, and tell yourself, ‘OK, I believe in myself. I can get a base hit here to win the game?’ Those are life lessons, and I think that a lot of baseball players could take those ups and downs, and the lessons they learn on the diamond, and apply them to life, if they really listened closely enough. The game can teach you things if you listen.
DL: A number of years ago you wrote an unpublished novel. If you go back to it someday, will it change given that you’ve evolved as a person since that time?
MD: It could, because when I wrote it… it’s a love story about a girl, really the only girl that I was ever in love with. It talks about how a person’s ideas of love change, and how that philosophy kind of evolves throughout their life. I haven’t even looked at it in five years, because what I’ve wanted to do was let it sit so that I could go back and read it and say, ‘This is terrible,’ or ‘There’s something here.’ I don’t even know where it is, but the plot is in my mind, so I could probably just rewrite it.
DL: What has changed more since you wrote it, the way you view love or the way you view the game of baseball?
MD: I think it’s both. Before, with baseball, I just put so much pressure on myself to make it, to get there. Now I’m just trying to enjoy the game; I think I’m starting to appreciate the players I play with more. That’s something you miss when you’re just focused on what is almost a selfish goal, which is making it to the big leagues. Now, after being there, I’m kind of like, ‘OK, there are a lot of good guys; there are a lot of friendships that I missed out on because I was just focused on doing my thing and trying to get to the big leagues.’ Now I’m more laid back and if it happens, it happens. I’m just going to enjoy myself now. That takes a lot of the pressure off, because if you’re just pressing to make it, pressing to make it, people look at you differently, because you react to certain situations differently. If you have a bad game, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit,’ and you don’t want to talk to anybody and maybe you come across as an asshole. But if you’re laid back and just playing your game, you’re going to be happier, and people can admire that and will respect you more.
DL: Is there anything else that you’d like people to know about you?
MD: No, not really. I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but I’m from a small town and am a very mind-my-own-business kind of guy. What people think about me doesn’t really matter. It’s what my close circle-my friends and family-think about me that really matters. I just go through life being myself, whatever that is.