This column was published Sunday, August 11, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.
“I’m 30 years old and I have these dreams.”
Those are the first nine words of a book that changed my life.
It’s safe to say that other than my mother and father, no single individual has had more influence on my development, than Jim Bouton. And I never met the man. He died last month, of vascular amyloid dementia, at 80, in his home in the Berkshires.
In the spring and summer of 1969, Bouton was a 30-year old big-league pitcher who had lost his fastball and was trying desperately to salvage his career by getting hitters out with a knuckleball. After early career success with the Yankees (back-to-back World Series wins in ’63 and ’64) Bouton had landed a roster spot with the expansion Seattle Pilots. He kept a daily diary, which became Ball Four, a book which will go down as a Rubicon crossing, watershed work, with respect to public perception of the nation’s pastime.
Irreverent, brutally honest, intermittently LOL funny and achingly heartbreaking, Bouton offered what today we would call a transparent glimpse into the daily foibles and idiosyncrasies of Major League Baseball, and the people and circumstances associated with the game.
A year into my baseball fandom at age 12, I stumbled across it at the Sweetbriar branch of the Wichita Public Library, searching, no doubt, for Andy Hardy Strikes Out. My poor mother almost certainly wondered what in the world I was reading, when I’d innocently ask her the meaning of some of Bouton’s saltier passages. With a belief that this is how kids learn, she chose purposefully, not to snatch the book from my sticky-with-baseball card-bubblegummed hands. Thanks, Mom.
I have devoured it dozens of times since. My most recent version is an autographed copy procured by my wife, who caught on to Bouton’s impact on me, after I read Ball Four to her out loud at bedtime, laughing myself to sleep.
Jim Bouton was an iconoclast. He was one-off. Written in the midst of a countercultural, norm-shattering upheaval in this country, Bouton wrote a book that “boggled the little minds.”
There are two ways of thinking, and consequently, writing, about systems. Never question the hierarchy, flow chart or authority, defend the status quo. Or, an honest, unvarnished examination of the way people act and what they actually say. Before Ball Four, writing about big league baseball was exclusively the former. Spin and propaganda in service of The Man.
No wonder I ended up in journalism and politics.
Though it makes a compelling lede, on second thought, I guess it’s not really accurate to say Ball Four changed my life. Jim Bouton wrote a book that legitimized thoughts, feelings and attitudes I already possessed in adolescence that have stayed with me.
The way I think about systems is informed by the way Jim Bouton thought about systems. Ball Four is nothing, if not an exemplar of questioning human motivation at every turn.
My writing style can be credited to Bouton. It’s not so much formulaic English Composition 101 as it is Advanced Stream of Consciousness. Or Carefully Edited Word Vomit. I was already a baseball fan, but my passion for the game is deeper, because of Jim Bouton. When I wrote a book myself, Bouton was my touchstone.
As pitches go, fastballs, sliders, the wicked curve, they’re all mainstream. They all require physical strength and manual dexterity to find the plate. The knuckleball is the iconoclast. It’s one-off. It got its name by gripping the ball with the knuckles, but evolved to fingernails dug into the ball, Bouton’s method. It takes nothing out of the pitcher’s arm and minimizes the spin of the ball in flight, causing an erratic, unpredictable motion.
I’m sad that Jim Bouton died, but immensely grateful for his life, his gifts and his influence. He wrote a book about hanging onto a dream, literally, by his fingertips.
I hope I haven’t lost my fastball. If I ever do, I intend to adapt to the every-other-Sunday Manhattan Mercury columnists’ equivalent to a knuckleball.
I’m 61 years old and I have these dreams.
Top photo courtesy Focus on Sport/Getty Images