Josh Paul attended Vanderbilt University, an English major with a soft spot for "Beowulf" and Yeats. "They taught me," he said of his English professors, "how to express myself through writing. What a gift that is. It opened up a whole new world to me." These days, whenever his day job -- as the Los Angeles Angels' third-string catcher -- permits, Paul spends long hours writing his first book, a work of nonfiction on a subject close to his heart.
"It's about catching strategy -- all the subtle things that go into the job," Paul said Wednesday afternoon, as the Angels took batting practice at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field before Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
As part of his research, he has interviewed several former and current major league catchers -- including his Angels manager, Mike Scioscia, and Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, the former Chicago White Sox catcher who was Paul's idol as a kid growing up in suburban Buffalo Grove, Ill.
"And," Paul said, before jumping into the batting cage to take his hacks, "I've got some pretty cool interviews set up this winter."
Some five hours later, near the end of that night's game, Paul would be part of a bizarre and critical play that may force him to rework the introduction to his book, or at the very least, add another chapter. He could call it, "Never Assume -- Or, Why You Should Always Tag the Batter On a Pitch That Might Have Been In the Dirt, Even If It Really Wasn't."
With the Angels and the White Sox tied at 1, and with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Paul -- who, unlike the Angels' starting catcher, Bengie Molina, is entrusted to call pitches -- caught what appeared to be the third strike of an inning-ending strikeout, a split-fingered pitch that Angels reliever Kelvim Escobar threw past White Sox batter A.J. Pierzynski.
But in a sequence of events that has dominated the discourse around the ALCS the past 24 hours, and that has given Paul by far his biggest measure of fame as a big leaguer -- albeit for reasons he would rather not be famous for -- Paul rolled the ball back to the mound, Pierzynski ran to first base, and home plate umpire Doug Eddings ruled that the pitch was in the dirt and Pierzynski was safe at first.
The third out would never come. With the winning run now on base -- technically, on an error charged to Paul -- the White Sox' next batter, Joe Crede, lined a game-winning double off Escobar into the left field corner to send the series to Anaheim tied at one game apiece. Game 3 is Friday night.
"I caught the ball," Paul said in measured tones after the game. "When you catch the ball, you just walk off the field."
Paul, 30, was not available to the media on Thursday. The Angels were given a day off following a grueling travel schedule that has seen them play four games in four nights in New York, Anaheim and Chicago.
However, in Buffalo Grove on Thursday, Paul's parents were greeted all day long by a parade of local television and newspaper reporters, who remembered Paul fondly from his days as a high school star and also from the years he spent with the White Sox from 1999 to 2003.
"The majority of people realize the umpire made a mistake, that [the umpiring crew] tried to cover up," Bill Paul, Josh's father, said Thursday in a telephone interview. ". . . If the ball had been in the dirt, Josh would have reached over and tagged A.J. on the rear end."
Still, in places other than Southern California and the Chicago suburbs, Paul is taking almost as much heat for the Angels' loss as Eddings, whose possibly errant ruling that the pitch was in the dirt (video replays were inconclusive) was compounded by the fact he made the signal for "you're out" -- a raised fist -- which the Angels took to mean he had called Pierzynski out.
With so much ambiguity, Paul, according to the critics, should have just tagged Pierzynski immediately -- even if there was only the slightest bit of question whether he had caught the ball above the ground.
"If anybody's putting the blame on [Paul], that's unfair," said White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, Paul's former teammate, on Thursday. "He's as innocent as the guy playing right field. Any catcher in the league, they're going to do the same thing."
However, when Pierzynski was asked what he would do in a similar situation as the one that Paul faced, he said, "Usually, you'd tag the guy, or whatever."
It was almost comical that the other protagonist in this drama was Pierzynski, himself a catcher, with a personality that is the polar opposite of Paul's. While Pierzynski often grates on opponents and teammates alike with his annoying chatter and mannerisms -- a Pierzynski specialty is elbowing batters and stepping on their bat as they leave the batter's box -- Paul is universally beloved by anyone he comes in contact with.
The first time Paul was invited to an interview room for a postgame news conference -- after hitting his first big league homer on April 24, 2000 -- Paul told the assembled media that he had an opening statement he'd like to make, then, looking straight into the cameras, said, "I am not a crook."
In later years with the White Sox, Paul grew to be so popular with fans and left so many tickets for friends and family, he became known, mockingly, as "Pope Josh Paul." He also wrote a touching piece for the Chicago Tribune when a former Vanderbilt teammate died in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City.
The events of Wednesday night's wild ninth inning may not have done much for Paul's catching career, but for a writer there is nothing like a wealth of good material to make a story sing.