erik lundegaard

Saturday July 13, 2019

Jim Bouton (1939-2019)

I was surprised that he was 80. He always seemed so young to me. He was young at heart—the perennial rebel. 

Even so, he was hardly the iconoclast everyone made him out to be. If you read “Ball Four”—and you really should—you‘ll see that half the time he’s just a guy trying to fit in. “I don't like people to think terrible thoughts about me,” he writes early on. “Despite my efforts to be one of the boys,” he writes after his roommate Gary Bell is traded midseason, “the fact that I was Gary's roommate is what helped most.” 

That's what makes the book so good. It's that tension. Bouton wants to fit in but he can't because 1) he is different from most ballplayers (he reads, he writes) and 2) he has a low tolerance for stupidity. And within the 1969 Seattle Pilots organization he kept finding it. 

Coaches question players for taking baseballs out of the ballbag: “What are you using them for?” they ask. The Yankee clubhouse manager refuses to stock orange juice because “If I get it, you guys just drink it up.” Bouton is interested in a new sports drink called Gatorade, and buys several cases for the team, but the Pilots’ GM not only won’t compensate him he launches an investigation into this so-called “Gatorade.” 

My favorite example of managerial ineptitude is during a late April game against the Minnesota Twins when pitching coach Sal Maglie yells at pitcher Darrel Brandon not to worry about Rod Carew leading off third. “For crissakes, get the hitter,” he yells. “The runner isn’t going anywhere.” So of course Carew steals home. And of course there's no mea culpa from Maglie. “You know you’ve got to pitch in the stretch from that situation,” he tells Brandon.*

(*Should we forgive Maglie somewhat since, though Carew tied a Major League record that year by stealing home seven times, it is early in the season? Sure, somewhat. Except Carew had already stolen home twice. This was his third. He was off and running. And not just him. In this game, the Twins had four stolen bases—including one by Harmon Killebrew, who wasn't exactly Lou Brock. That was all Billy Martin, by the way. Up to this season, Killebrew had 7 career SBs with 8 CS. Under Martin? In 1969? Eight SBs and 2 CS.)

The Pilots were a bad team and management made them worse. During the course of the year, Seattle sends to the minors one of the best relief pitchers of the 1970s (Mike Marshall), and they trade the future 1969 Rookie of the Year to Kansas City (Lou Piniella). “Lou wasn't their style,” Bouton says simply. Exactly. He wanted to win.

That's also part of the beauty of “Ball Four”: Bouton held a job most of us only dream about, yet his story is also ours: My boss is an idiot. Who can’t relate?

On Facebook, on the day Bouton died, I wrote this: 

Rest in peace, Jim Bouton, lover of baseball and books and Mount Rainier. You were less iconoclast than a man with a low tolerance for stupidity; but that marked you in Major League Baseball. Hell, it‘ll mark you almost anywhere. The last line of BALL FOUR is as good as any last line of any book ever published: “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

This is the Rainier reference. In “Ball Four,” it’s from the July 26 chapter—a few days before he's traded to Houston. He writes:

It's still hard to get used to playing baseball again after the All-Star break. Three days off reminds you how much tension you live under playing baseball every day. During the break Harmon Killebrew can't get you. Reggie Jackson can't get you. It's peaceful. Like looking up at Mt. Rainier. That's the great thing about our ballpark. When a home run hit off you disappears over the fence your eeys catches a glimpse of the majesty of Mt. Rainier and some of that bad feeling goes away.  

Godspeed, Jim. Keep giving them the ol' Rufus Goofus.

Posted at 04:27 PM on Saturday July 13, 2019 in category Baseball  
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