"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.
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
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
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
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.