SI Vault
Jim Bouton
April 09, 1979
On his way back to the bigs last season, the author found today's players aren't like the ones he met his first time up. They're looser and lazier and prefer pot to potables
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April 09, 1979

Son Of 'ball Four'

On his way back to the bigs last season, the author found today's players aren't like the ones he met his first time up. They're looser and lazier and prefer pot to potables

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Ted said, "What the hell! Sure, why not?" He told me to come on down to Florida, and he'd give me a chance to make one of his minor league teams. So what if I was 39 years old? He said he was 39, and he wasn't washed up. Besides, he already had one 39-year-old knuckleballer—Phil Niekro—so why not one more? He also had a 5'9" guard on his pro basketball team. Ted said he believed in the American way, that everyone should get his chance, and let the best man win in fair competition. I told him I believed in the same thing. Later on in the summer, a sportswriter said that Ted gave me a chance because he was hoping I would write a book. And mention Ted.

Why would a 39-year-old man with a good job in television even want to go back? It's hard to explain. I felt a certain restlessness. It seemed like I had to find something, but I didn't know what. Besides that, I love pitching a baseball. And I like a good challenge. A tiny voice in the back of my head said I could make it. The voice wouldn't shut up, so I had to try.

It was almost a decade since I played in the big leagues with the Astros. And it was 20 years ago that I started out in the Yankee farm system. I'll tell you one thing, baseball sure has changed a lot in that time.

Take the competition in spring training. It used to be much fiercer than it is today. That's because there were more players back then. Lots more. Now there are only four levels of minor league competition—Rookie, A, AA, AAA. Most organizations have just one team at each level. There used to be seven levels—D, C, B, along with the surviving four—and when I first signed, the Yankees had eight farm teams and also shipped players out to unaffiliated teams. That's a lot more bodies to climb over on your way to the top. I used to keep a list of pitchers who were above me on the ladder. My first year I wrote down 134 names. Guys were running around with numbers on their backs like 78 and 84. Football numbers. One spring my number was 68. I was a pulling guard. There were so many players, I once lockered in a broom closet. Make that half a closet. I shared it with an outfielder named Jim Pisoni. The coaches couldn't remember all the names, either. One year they kept calling me Mackenzie. I don't know what they called Mackenzie.

Last year at the Braves' minor league camp, no one called me Mackenzie. They called me other things. In my first exhibition game, I was in the middle of winding up for my first pitch when my shortstop hollered, "Come on, Mr. Bouton." I had to call time out to laugh. Actually, the players were very kind to me. They called me Dad. Or Oldtimer. "Take it easy, Oldtimer," they would say during wind sprints. "We don't want to have to give you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation."

Then they stopped kidding me about my age. That's because I was running them into the ground. I made their tongues hang out. On purpose. First, I wanted to prove that my advanced age didn't matter. Second, it was fun knowing I was in better shape than these kids.

I made it look easy, but actually it wasn't. I had worked out all winter long at Fairleigh Dickinson University near my home in Englewood, N.J. I'd go to the gym from midnight till two in the morning, when nobody else was using it. I worked out four nights a week, even if there was a blizzard. I'd run and pitch to a friend, Johnny Belson, and when John couldn't make it, I'd throw against a wall. Some nights my knuckleball was really jumping. I was 14-0 against the wall.

I knew I had to look good in spring training. Real good. I had two chances of making it. Slim and none. There's no margin for error when you're 39. Especially if you've been away for eight years and your first name is Controversial.

Also, I didn't exactly feel welcome. Early in the winter, before I met Ted Turner, General Manager Bill Lucas had told me the Braves weren't interested. In spring training I had a hunch that they still didn't want me after Farm Director Hank Aaron told the press I was there only because Turner had invited me. And I was the only player who didn't have a locker with his name stenciled on. I found an empty one in a corner and wrote my name on top with a Magic Marker.

At least the players were nice to me. In the beginning I was a real curiosity. They would sneak glances at me and whisper a lot. But they seemed to respect me. Maybe that's because I was old enough to be their father. Also, they were minor-leaguers, and I had eight years in the big leagues or, as they call it, "the show." "At least you got some time in the show," they would say. Because of my vast experience, they called me Rook.

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