The striking part about Ball Four’s appeal that Jim Bouton’s critics routinely missed is perfectly stated by Charles P. Pierce in one succinct sentence at Deadspin.
Jim Bouton made it acceptable — even, maybe, cool — to love baseball again.
As usual, baseball’s current ownership cadre is working overtime to miss this lesson. Meanwhile Pierce’s tribute to Bouton is spot on, as usual, though not to ignore Tyler Kepner’s fine thoughts in the New York Times.
In particular this passage from Kepner turned my head. As always when it comes to writing, if you can find the words that hit your reader in the gut, you’ve won the game — then you start all over again, next time.
I had first talked to Bouton 25 years earlier, in 1992, when I was a teenager and had just read “Ball Four” for the first time. I was an aspiring sportswriter but also a frustrated high school pitcher — a warm-up guy. When I read his book, Bouton seemed like a friend. It was good to know there was someone like him out there.
“I don’t think any teenager feels comfortable in his group,” he told me then, when I mentioned how deeply I connected with the book. “You’re trying to figure out how the world works: ‘How do you get from here to there, who am I and how do I fit into things and what the hell am I going to do with my life? I don’t have any answers.’ And so to read a book by a guy who’s in the same situation, who’s 30 years old, they have to say to themselves, ‘Hey, it’s O.K. to be on the outside.’”
On the outside, forever and always; I’ll be 59 in August, and yep, that’s me.
I’m still unsure about who I am, still trying to figure out the world and determine how I might fit into it, still completely baffled as to what I might do with my life, and still reacting viscerally to Quadrophenia by The Who because after all, I’ve no more clue than the protagonist Jimmy as to why this uncertain feeling is still here in my brain.
Pierce again, grasping fundamental points.
Ever since Bouton passed on Wednesday at the age of 80, of a particularly vicious form of amyloid dementia—Americans of a certain age have been dropping lines from Ball Four as though it had been published last week, instead of nearly 50 years ago. Many of the primary reactions on the electric Twitter machine to Bouton’s death was some variation of Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz’s philosophical pondering—“shitfuck” or, alternatively, “fuckshit.” Friends consoled friends, advising each other to smoke ‘em inside and then go pound some Budweiser. There were some mournful renditions of “It Makes a Fella Proud To Be An Astro.” Ball Four did more than sell a lot of books and corrupt a million young American baseball fans. It implanted a conception of being a fan that was totally different from anything that had come before it, a strange but hilarious commingling of unbridled affection and informed cynicism that mirrored Bouton’s own, a love for the game energized by an enthusiastic disrespect for the people who run it, and for some of the “unwritten rules” that had deserved to be mocked for decades.
Perhaps I’ve never realized the extent to which Bouton was a role model for me. Lest we forget, in Ball Four writer Bouton reminds us that a college term paper written by fellow pitcher Mike Marshall was called “Baseball Is an Ass” — not the game itself, but the authority figures attached to it.
“With (Steve) Hovley gone, Mike Marshall is probably the most articulate guy on the club, so I asked him if he had as much trouble communicating as I’ve had and he said, ‘Of course. The minute I approach a coach or a manager, I can see the terror in his eyes.’ ”
Just like in Nawbany when they see you coming and cross the street to walk on the other side.
Let’s conclude with these words by Bruce Markusen in 2015, and the two retrospectives he composed.
“All these years later, many of us still care about the characters of Ball Four. And I suspect we always will.”