Driving down the New Jersey Turnpike last Friday to face a semipro team he had never seen, Jim Bouton, the old Yankee and Houston Astro, suddenly interrupted himself to say: "I really shouldn't be talking, you know. I should be going over the hitters."
The irony was not that he knew nothing about the opponent but that he was pitching at all. For how many baseball players return to action 16 days after they have retired? Surely not a man who has written a bestseller and is totally involved in its aftermath—interviews, a sequel and, possibly, a movie or play.
In his last professional start in Oklahoma City, Bouton had lasted one-third of an inning. "But I did," he recalled, "face seven batters."
A right turn off Route 77 brought him past Kuhn's Jewelry Store ("I see Bowie has branched out," Bouton said). Soon he entered the parking lot at Al-den Field, the well-kempt site in southern New Jersey of the fourth annual Bridgeton Invitational Tournament, an affair that previously has attracted such former professionals as Bobby Shantz, Stan Lopata and Granny Hamner. Ernie Hubscher, business manager of the Trenton entry, Pat Pavers, had called Bouton at his Wyckoff, N.J. home. Bouton was declared eligible after a check with Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's office to determine that he was really retired.
The news of Bouton's acceptance was widely reported locally. As he left his station wagon a man in an American Legion hat greeted him with the words he is bound to grow sick of through the decade of semipro ball he claims he is going to play: "Where's Ball Four?"
Bouton ignored the question. He was preparing to pitch his first complete game since a six-hit, 7-2 win over the Chicago Cubs on May 4. Against the Washington, D.C. Black Sox—a team he described as "good Double A"—Bouton absorbed 13 hits, including a 370-foot homer, but his team eliminated the defending champs 7-5. Bouton struck out 10, walked two and finished with three shutout innings. "It was a combination," he said, "of finding my rhythm and getting tired." The pitch that initially saved him from the minors—the knuckleball—lasted just four innings. His enthusiastic, sure-handed catcher. Bob DeMeo, felt it was working but Bouton said, "Every third one was a double." "Outtasight," said DeMeo, who added that Bouton's most effective pitch was "the deuce" (curve). Bouton stayed with curves, fastballs and change-ups in the late innings with mixed results. A shoestring catch ended the game and spared him the two things he most feared: "letting these guys down and embarrassing myself."
The game was played under speedup rules. Pitchers were limited to 20 seconds between throws, batters had 10 seconds to get into the box; arguments could last no longer than 40 seconds, teams had 90 seconds in which to change sides. Once Bouton took too long between pitches. When a buzzer rang (penalty: one ball) he was startled. "I started to salivate," he said.
In the dugout during the game Bouton's new teammates bounced one-liners from his book Ball Four off him. "Smoke him inside, Jim." "Good hands." The give-and-take continued afterward as Bouton signed autographs in a ticket booth. "See any beaver tonight?" one man asked. "No. I was concentrating too hard on my pitching—honestly." An opposing player boasted, "I got the first hit off you." Bouton smiled. "Yeah, I know. And the fourth and the ninth and the 12th."
A realist, Bouton feels his future is in sports commentary—flavored with irreverent social and political observations. He intends to campaign for U.S. Representative Allard Lowenstein of New York and, judging by his folk-hero reception in Bridgeton, will, at the very least, bring out the people.
"I really enjoyed myself," Bouton said on the way home. "All morning my wife Bobbie was saying how great it was that it didn't matter if we won or lost. Then, after I kissed her goodby, she said, 'By the way, call me and let me know how you did.' "
It was Strike Three for a change, but barely.