'Foul Ball' is ex-Yankee's new diary
Jim Bouton's next passionate pitch
often spills out in unexpected ways. Jim Bouton the ballplayer,
for instance, will be remembered as a writer.
I'm your Pilot: Bouton played for Seattle's one-year wonders
and kept a diary.
Bouton won 41 games for the New York Yankees in
1963-'64, including two in the '64 World Series.
In 1969 he kept a diary.
The diary became "Ball Four," which chronicled
a big-league season mostly spent with Seattle's hapless, short-lived
Pilots. A 30-year-old Bouton described baseball's avenues and
alleyways in witty, knowing and never-before-told detail.
"Ball Four" eventually wound up as the
only sports title on the New York Public Library's list of last
century's greatest books.
Bouton's new diary is "Foul Ball," a vivid
and passionate account of a plan to renovate Wahconah Park, a
stadium well into its second century and to save the financially
strapped western Massachusetts town of Pittsfield from spending
nearly $20 million in public funds on a replacement.
The Bouton plan is to pour private money into renovating
the beloved old ballpark and arrange for the people of Pittsfield
to buy a minor-league team rather than allow the town to
be held hostage by opportunistic, nomadic owners who shamelessly
shop for public-money stadium deals.
(Portland, Oregon: please take note.)
Bouton contends that upwards of $16 billion tax
dollars have been spent on stadiums over the last 15 years. No
fewer than 113 minor league stadiums, he adds, have been built
with taxpayer dollars since 1985.
That, he reasons, is not unlike Hollywood insisting
on new theaters being built with public funds.
The affable Bouton comes off like a cross between
Columbo and Michael Moore as he uncovers a plot whereby the park
board, city council, mayor, daily newspaper, politicians, bankers,
media moguls, lawyers and General Electric are all in cahoots
and trying to strong-arm 42,000 townspeople into something
they've voted down on three separate occasions.
In essence, Pittsfield's powers-that-be are intent
on building a new stadium to cover up a nasty toxic waste dump.
Meanwhile, Bouton and a pair of seasoned business
partners jump through endless administrative hoops while marshaling
enthusiastic support from much of the town. But they never sway
the all-important park board, which sends Bouton and his ambitious
friends after a series of witch's brooms.
The board eventually gives stadium rights to a lackey,
who runs a temporary team and lets the old ballpark further deteriorate.
The power structure continues to pursue its unpopular new stadium
all the while.
"The tragedy in Pittsfield," writes Bouton,
"is that the citizens, in order to survive, must rely on
the very same people who've harmed them. The best paying jobs
are doled out by those in power, leaving the citizens no choice
but to help keep the lid on their own grievances."
Bouton weaves a variety of heartfelt tangents into
the story, including his return to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers'
Day (he'd been banished for nearly 30 years because of the fallout
from "Ball Four") and the ongoing anguish attached to
losing his adult daughter to a car accident.
The upshot is that after the book is finally finished,
the publisher's big-city lawyer with ties to G.E.
insists that all references to the company be removed.
So Bouton published the book himself earlier this
Adaptation, of course, is a key to life. Bouton's
own career went from fireballing youngster to 30-year-old relief
pitcher with a knuckleball on Seattle's expansion team. He'd lost
his fastball but used the novelty pitch to continue playing in
the big leagues.
Bouton retired after the 1970 season but, amazingly,
he and his knuckleball returned briefly to the big leagues in
1978 with the Atlanta Braves. His trump card was the fact that
the knuckleball, thrown softly to float and dance toward home
plate, puts little stress on an arm.
Indeed, life spills out in unexpected ways.
When my dad was well into his 60s, he lost a smalltown
city-council election after cleaning up in the primary. What went
wrong? The local daily paper, the only game in town, preferred
another candidate. So they baited dad into saying something and
reported it out of context. From then on, no matter what dad would
say, the paper got the last word.
Sure, dad was a political neophyte. But he was also
a jack of all trades and master of many.
The paper never let up, but dad figured out the
game and won the seat two years later after knocking on
every door in town. With a spot on the council he was reborn just
short of his 70s.
Thanks for the lesson, dad.
Similarly, Bouton has enjoyed his post-playing days
as writer, actor, announcer and motivational speaker. He never
strays far from tapping deep into his passions.
Bouton (and his wife) put life on hold to spend
the better part of a year pursuing a dream and fighting for what
he believed. The dream didn't come true, but he ended up
unexpectedly with another fascinating book.
"You spend your life gripping a baseball,"
Bouton wrote a third of a century ago at the end of his first
book, "then find that it's the other way around."
Substitute whatever you will for "baseball"
and we've got ourselves a universal truth. There's little to lose
and everything to gain as long as we make the right substitutions.