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Make no mistake—he is deadly earnest in what he is attempting. He is risking embarrassment and the financial and emotional well-being of his family. But it does not tarnish the sincerity of the endeavor to say that it remains, most of all, enchanting.
Bouton's whole career has been so. Unlike most successful athletes, whose skills were so apparent that they had endorsement contracts in the sixth grade, Bouton had no expectations of sporting achievement. He was just a fan who borrowed a uniform. Even when he got his pinstripes, he kept No. 56—his original minor-leaguer's temporary number—and he kept the locker nearest the door as if he didn't want to be any trouble when he was asked to leave because there had been some mistake.
Talking to Bouton and to those close to him, there is even the odd sensation that they still do not believe that the big leagues really happened. Bobby Bouton kept scrap-books during those years, but no more diligently than she did when, a couple of years back, her husband pitched indifferently in the Jersey semipros. It is all of a piece, all just some fun pitching Jim did. Some husbands bowl, some have a darkroom in the basement.
Bob Bouton, one of Jim's brothers, called up Bobby the other day to check on his brother's progress in Savannah, and when he learned of another good outing, he said, "You know, Bobby, if Jim makes it again, this time we'll be able to really enjoy it. The first time was such a surprise, it happened so quickly, and then it was over so fast. This time we'll be prepared, and we can really savor it."
No, Bobby Bouton is probably neither a saint nor a screwball. She just loves her husband and appreciates that he is possessed and that only patience or glory can exorcise the commanding spirits. What a chance he has! All those pitchers in the Hall of Fame—Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Bobby Feller, that whole crowd—they only made it up once. But Jim Bouton with his magic knuckleball, he might be able to do it twice! He'd be the one and only! Bobby Bouton a good scout? Hey, good isn't the word! She picked out this century's Faust. Only he's a lot better than Faust. Faust had to make a deal. Jim Bouton is the first free-agent Faust! Oh, that Marvin Miller!
Bouton's unlikely ascension from teen-age obscurity to the world champions in less than four years was propelled by a succession of fluke chances, each of which he met by triumphing with the ice in his belly. This power, as we shall see, appears to have returned to him, reinforcing an assurance already brimming past flood levels. Ziegel, who in 1976 was one of Bouton's collaborators when Ball Four was made into a TV sitcom, recalls in fond exasperation, "I could never win an argument with Jim because he is unshakable in his beliefs. I'm human. I have doubts. Jim doesn't have doubts. He believes: I think it, therefore it must be true."
This supreme self-confidence has been nurtured by the course of events, in which every time Bouton has been set back, he has rebounded higher. He left the majors, not as a failed pitcher but as a celebrity author with a handsome job waiting at a New York television station. Fired from that (for refusing to be a shill), he was instantly hired by a more prestigious and sympathetic channel. And given a raise. The televising of Ball Four followed in time, and while the show was a disaster, a searing episode devolving ridicule upon Bouton, he was personally rewarded with offers to go to Hollywood and write TV shows or to return to TV news as a sportscaster.
Instead, he decided to escape back to the diamond, a notion he had been flirting with almost from the day he left the sport in 1970 and discovered that he literally itched whenever he was obliged to attend games as a reporter. He kept pitching semipro, he hauled his family off on pitching vacations to Canada and Oregon, and once he and some friends seriously considered buying their own minor league club so that Bouton would be assured a spot in the pitching rotation.
Unlike television (or almost anything else, for that matter), baseball offers consummate order, plus control for the man on the mound. Bouton was pilloried as an author, fired as an announcer and then had his work perverted by network groupthink, even though he was a main writer and star of Ball Four. "From the very beginning I told CBS that we should deal with real people in real situations," he says, "but all they wanted were forced laughs. None of the writers knew about sports. Sports is one of the most pervasive elements in our society, but no one in televsion knew about them. But they knew about Gilligan's Island , so they made Ball Four into a Gilligan's Island in baseball suits. Then they would send it out to Hollywood, to the laugh room. It's called 'sweetening.' Once I counted; they put in 230 laughs in 23 minutes. Oh, it could have been so good. But after what they did to it, I was actually relieved when it was canceled."