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A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
Frank Deford
July 03, 1978
Jim Bouton, the former World Series hero, best selling author and TV star, is back pitching in Double A. At 39 years old, he has junked his other careers to knuckleball his guts out in the game that he loves
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July 03, 1978

A Magnificent Obsession

Jim Bouton, the former World Series hero, best selling author and TV star, is back pitching in Double A. At 39 years old, he has junked his other careers to knuckleball his guts out in the game that he loves

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One day last month, Bobby Dews, 39, got a call from Atlanta that Jim Bouton, 39, was being assigned to his team. Dews would have to cut a player and bump the last starter to the bullpen so that Bouton could work in rotation. The funny thing is that Dews, who has given up his whole damn life for the love of baseball, could not understand how Bouton could give up 50-grand TV work to come back to his love. Mostly Dews was concerned for Al Pratt, who was sent to the bullpen. "Al's a prospect," Dews says. "He was 11-8 for me at Greenwood last year." But then, love is blind.

THE COMEBACK

Bouton's full-time comeback began last spring in Veeck's White Sox system. It was not immediately auspicious: 0-6 at Knoxville, Double A, released; 1-4 at Durango, Mexico, Triple A, released; at last, 5-1 at Portland in the depths of Class A. But Bouton contends that it takes years to perfect the knuckler. Niekro and Wilhelm put all their effort into it, because they never woke up with an arm one morning and were diverted to fastball orthodoxy. Bouton would need more time. He cashed in his children's college savings, sold his house and his lakeside vacation home and worked out all winter in a college gym—at midnight, so he could be alone. With Turner as his angel—Turner, like everybody else in this saga, happens to be 39*—Bouton eventually ended up pitching batting practice for meal money at Atlanta's Triple A farm in Richmond.

Then the Braves came to town for an exhibition, and Turner had two ideas: he would umpire third and Bouton would pitch. The park was packed with 13,000 witnesses, including Bobby Bouton, who drove down from Jersey with Michael, 14, and David, 13. (Laurie, 12, had a gymnastics meet.) Bouton trotted out his stomach to do the pitching. As he recalls:

"It was my greatest day in a baseball uniform. I never had more pressure, because if I didn't come through, I was gone. You lose in a World Series, you'll still be a starter next spring. I hadn't pitched in competition for a month, and nobody would let me throw my knuckler in batting practice. And I walked out on that mound cold, and I stuck it to the Atlanta Braves before 13,000 people. They got one run off me in six innings, and I struck out seven of them.

"And those kid pitchers who had thought I was some kind of pathetic old man, when they saw me control that game from the first, I know that everyone of them would have liked to have been able to do what I did with my stomach." He sighed. "That night I was magic. I've had other great moments, but that night I felt I was omnipotent, and once you've done that you've got to think that you can be magic again."

His two sons watched, enthralled and disbelieving. If nothing else, it eased the pain of having to give up their pool so their old man could follow his dream. Past a certain age, comebacks are group efforts.

"Look," Bouton snaps rather testily, well prepared for this defense, "it's not like I sold a $20,000 house and put my family in a shack. We went from a $125,000 house to a $75,000 house, and as I keep telling the kids, there's still food in the refrigerator. [As a flanking action, Bouton follows this with a long outtake on the tyranny of the American banking community, which refused to spring for his advanced knuckleball education.] Anyway, I can spend my own money the way I want to."

Bouton also advances the proposition that the relative deprivation and the unsettling experience that have been forced on his children are for their own good. "Ideally," he says, "if you could program this kind of controlled crisis into a kid's life, you would. I think it is going to be better for them that they have seen their old man struggling."

While all this may sound calculated—pure rationalization—in Bouton's case it is consistent with the rest of his life. He is, perhaps, too sure of himself, occasionally smug and the zealot, but he is honest in his actions and sincere in conceding that he does act. It is not just that he passes up sugar, thank you. A fervent McGovern supporter in 1972, he became one of the Senator's delegates to the Democratic convention, though he knew his direct participation in politics would require him to absent himself temporarily from the public air waves. He and Bobby planned a large family, but after they had a boy and girl, Jim got a vasectomy and they adopted David, a Korean orphan. The Boutons reside in Englewood, N.J., a once elegant suburb that has suffered many inner-city problems. The high school is 60% black, and while many liberals have moved or transferred their kids to private schools, the Bouton children not only remain in the public schools, but the parents also go out of their way to celebrate the diversity of their town.

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