The man born to money expects riches for a lifetime, just as the man born with good looks assumes they will always get him by. But if the gold or good looks disappear, most such men learn to accept it. Even the vainest of men succumb at last to the reality that their physical gifts are gone. But perhaps no man is so haunted as the one who was once stunned by instant success, for he lives thereafter with the illusion that tomorrow is bound to bring one more bolt of good fortune.
Once upon a time Jim Bouton was an ugly duckling: scrawny, pimples on his face, braces on his teeth, a pitching arm so ordinary that he was known as Warm-Up Bouton for the position he customarily filled. Then, overnight, he had an arm. Oh, but he could smoke it. He was 21-7 with the American League champion Yankees in 1963, 18-13 and twice a winner in the World Series the next year. And, just like that, his arm was gone. Dust to dust. No vehicle to overnight success can be more fragile than an arm. Not swords, not cleavage, not wit, not fraud, not nothing. Just like that: 4-15. Long relief. Sent down: 2-8 in the minors. Traded. Given up on. Quit.
Usually Forgotten follows that, but in Bouton's case, with his bestseller, Ball Four, he traded simple fame for notoriety. He became a TV sports announcer in New York and proved to be so naturally His Glibness that soon he sat on the What's My Line panel, cheek by jowl with Arlene Francis and Bill Cullen themselves. Jim Bouton was a name.
But all the dumb sonofabitch ever wanted was to be an arm again.
This is why, in the middle of his life, when all the children he grew up with have turned in their mitts and marbles, Bouton plays the boy again in the Class AA Southern League, starting every fifth day for the Savannah nine, throwing against the bats of certified prospects who can tell the correct time of life. One motive for this mad indulgence is, surely, a search for vanished youth—Bouton will be 40 years old next March 8. Also, there is the fantasy of playing Peter Pan, and the real escape from the responsibility that a wife and three children press upon a man. But mostly, it seems, the dream of being an arm, only briefly fulfilled, has never left Bouton.
"It's all face value," says Vic Ziegel, Bouton's old friend and writing partner. "Jim was simply never better as a human being than when he had a uniform on." Bouton subscribes to that. Someday, he says, it will be time to move on again from baseball, but do not ask exactly when. Bouton is honest enough to sense what Oscar Wilde divined, that "the only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer."
THE OLD MAN
Savannah is but the latest way station. Bouton has been there since mid-May, and his knuckleball (mixed with a palm ball and cut fastball—"cut" apparently being a euphemism for "slow") has brought him a 4-4 record, with a 3.46 ERA. But in the last year or so, Bouton has hired out for whoever would take him on to pitch, in whatever backwater on the North American continent. He even had a deal set for The Netherlands, if no team in the New World wanted him. His comeback has been so painfully extended that no one can any longer seriously suggest that Bouton has been tramping through the bush leagues merely to research another book. One might as well say that Richard Nixon orchestrated Watergate merely to obtain anecdotal bestseller material.
"Someday I may want to do a book," Bouton says, "but I have absolutely no intention of doing so now. I wouldn't want a book as a saving thing. I'd lose the fun of the experience if I had that to fall back on. If with each setback I could say, 'Well, it really doesn't matter because it's another good chapter,' then the experience itself would be devalued.