The man born to money expects riches for a lifetime, just as the man born with good looks assumes they will always get him by. But if the gold or good looks disappear, most such men learn to accept it. Even the vainest of men succumb at last to the reality that their physical gifts are gone. But perhaps no man is so haunted as the one who was once stunned by instant success, for he lives thereafter with the illusion that tomorrow is bound to bring one more bolt of good fortune.
Once upon a time Jim Bouton was an ugly duckling: scrawny, pimples on his face, braces on his teeth, a pitching arm so ordinary that he was known as Warm-Up Bouton for the position he customarily filled. Then, overnight, he had an arm. Oh, but he could smoke it. He was 21-7 with the American League champion Yankees in 1963, 18-13 and twice a winner in the World Series the next year. And, just like that, his arm was gone. Dust to dust. No vehicle to overnight success can be more fragile than an arm. Not swords, not cleavage, not wit, not fraud, not nothing. Just like that: 4-15. Long relief. Sent down: 2-8 in the minors. Traded. Given up on. Quit.
Usually Forgotten follows that, but in Bouton's case, with his bestseller, Ball Four, he traded simple fame for notoriety. He became a TV sports announcer in New York and proved to be so naturally His Glibness that soon he sat on the What's My Line panel, cheek by jowl with Arlene Francis and Bill Cullen themselves. Jim Bouton was a name.
But all the dumb sonofabitch ever wanted was to be an arm again.
This is why, in the middle of his life, when all the children he grew up with have turned in their mitts and marbles, Bouton plays the boy again in the Class AA Southern League, starting every fifth day for the Savannah nine, throwing against the bats of certified prospects who can tell the correct time of life. One motive for this mad indulgence is, surely, a search for vanished youth—Bouton will be 40 years old next March 8. Also, there is the fantasy of playing Peter Pan, and the real escape from the responsibility that a wife and three children press upon a man. But mostly, it seems, the dream of being an arm, only briefly fulfilled, has never left Bouton.
"It's all face value," says Vic Ziegel, Bouton's old friend and writing partner. "Jim was simply never better as a human being than when he had a uniform on." Bouton subscribes to that. Someday, he says, it will be time to move on again from baseball, but do not ask exactly when. Bouton is honest enough to sense what Oscar Wilde divined, that "the only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer."
THE OLD MAN
Savannah is but the latest way station. Bouton has been there since mid-May, and his knuckleball (mixed with a palm ball and cut fastball—"cut" apparently being a euphemism for "slow") has brought him a 4-4 record, with a 3.46 ERA. But in the last year or so, Bouton has hired out for whoever would take him on to pitch, in whatever backwater on the North American continent. He even had a deal set for The Netherlands, if no team in the New World wanted him. His comeback has been so painfully extended that no one can any longer seriously suggest that Bouton has been tramping through the bush leagues merely to research another book. One might as well say that Richard Nixon orchestrated Watergate merely to obtain anecdotal bestseller material.
"Someday I may want to do a book," Bouton says, "but I have absolutely no intention of doing so now. I wouldn't want a book as a saving thing. I'd lose the fun of the experience if I had that to fall back on. If with each setback I could say, 'Well, it really doesn't matter because it's another good chapter,' then the experience itself would be devalued.
"People have got to understand—I want to get to the highest level of competition I possibly can, but I swear I am not trying to get to the majors. It's sort of like Zen. I don't want to aim for the target. The way to hit it is not to aim for it. All I know is that this experience has been satisfying in every respect. It was even satisfying last year when I couldn't win a game. So I know I've made the right decision whether or not I ever get any higher. I've been happy most of my life, but never more than now. Of course, the minors are not as good as the majors, but the question to me is whether the minors are better than much of the rest of life. And to me, they are.
"I remember when I first quit TV to go back and everybody said I was crazy. There was a producer at CBS named Eric Ober, and he said, 'Hey, I know why you're doing this.' I said, 'Yes?' and he said, 'Because when you die, you're dead for a long time.'
"Dead for a long time. That's the truth. And they say I'm old now. That's funny, because when I really am old, I'm going to have a lot of fun. I'm going to have some stories to tell. All the kids on the block are going to want to come over and listen to strange old Jim as he sits in his rocker and talks about the old days. And professionally, when I get to be an old man, I'm going to be a terrific actor. I know that. All this stuff is just getting me ready to be an old man. I am going to be one great old man."
In fact, at this juncture, Bouton is a very youthful middle-aged man, towheaded and shiny-faced, with a countenance and form belying his four decades. He is not quite six feet tall. When he starred with the Yankees in a previous generation he weighed 185 and threw with such velocity that unseemly grunts—backfires—emanated from his throat, and the force of his delivery kept knocking off his cap. He appeared stocky and blurred, whereas now he is lithe and defined, with pectorals and biceps bulging out of a 165-pound body that never, never knows the backslider's joy of tasting refined sugar. As a young Savannah teammate said in the dugout one evening, "There's no fat on him except in his head." Or, as Bouton's wife says, "Have you seen those thighs? Aren't they something?"
Yes, besides the mistress baseball, there is indeed a wife—Barbara Bouton, usually known as Bobby. Her husband identifies her as a good scout, inasmuch as she tabbed him as a husband prospect when he was still a homely and insecure little fellow who was hoping to make the freshman squad at Western Michigan University. Bobby is pretty, sweet and fun, and not so very long ago she had a husband in the 50% bracket who came home nights, and did fine handiwork on weekends about their 20-room mansion, which stood upon a choice acre of land with a kempt lawn, flourishing trees and a swimming pool. Now her husband resides in an efficiency in Georgia, and her days in New Jersey have been filled with trying to fix up a turn-of-the-century house that they picked up from a widow, because they sold their estate to pay the food bills while Daddy pursues his search for temporary happiness. To put up with this, Bobby Bouton is obviously either a saint or as nutty as a fruitcake. Notwithstanding, she explains quite evenly, "I'd feel terrible if we held him back. I agreed he needed a break at this point in his life. Of course it's been tough on me. I miss him very much. It's hard. But whether or not what Jim is doing is fair to me or the children doesn't matter, because for now he's doing what I want him to do."
Bouton is not merely indulging some quixotic daydream. He is a 39-year-old athlete with a knuckleball; Phil Niekro, of Savannah's parent team, the Atlanta Braves, is a 39-year-old knuckleballer who leads the big leagues in innings pitched. Hoyt Wilhelm labored successfully in the majors till age 49. A knuckleball (in fact, it is thrown with the fingertips digging into the ball, so the knuckles loom over it like a parapet) is shoved plateward with little stress on the arm, and even the most cursory inspection of the American League's premier knuckleballer, the corpulent 36-year-old Wilbur Wood of the White Sox, shows that the knuckler does not require a well-honed body. Sexy thighs are quite optional. Moreover, Bouton first tamed the pitch at age 12, and although he shelved it when he got his arm, he actually won a handful of games with it in the major leagues after he lost the arm. So, theoretically, Bouton can make a comeback at 39.
In fact, the Zen business and the testimonials to inner happiness in Double A are probably delivered as verbal waste pitches. It is difficult to believe that Bouton, who in his Yankee days was called the Bulldog, is not striving to go back up, even if he knows that the odds are against him—geriatrically and culturally. Of the latter: for having written Ball Four, he remains a pariah to many of the higher-ups in the national pastime. Though Bouton volunteered to pay all his own expenses, only two major league teams would so much as agree to cast eyes on him. Seattle, which has a team ERA of 4.41, tendered the most thoughtful turndown: "If we gave you a chance, we'd have to do it for everybody"—and thereby handed Bouton a title, even if he doesn't have a book.
It is instructive that the only ones who would permit Bouton, at his own cost, to soil their practice diamonds were those two prize eccentrics. Bill Veeck and Ted Turner. Veeck's White Sox organization released Bouton last year, and Turner's farm director, one Henry Aaron, released him earlier this season. Bouton survived only because Turner in a gesture of noblesse oblige ordered his underlings to take Bouton back. "I already had a 39-year-old knuckleballer [Niekro] and, besides, Bouton's entertaining just to have around," Turner says with a chuckle, just as the lord of the manor might explain why he had added another dwarf or concubine to the castle manifest.
But Bouton is undeterred. Despite the fact that The Netherlands is only an owner's whim away, he possesses an unholy belief in his ability to thrive by rising to the occasion. "I can pitch with my stomach," he declares proudly. Is i magen, the Swedes call it—ice in the belly. While Bouton believes that he has always had this super quality, now he knows he is almost impregnable to failure: win, he goes up to major league baseball; lose, he goes up to major league television.
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."
It was while he was in this dejected spirit that Bouton decided to return to a familiar haven. Baseball does, after all, appeal to the more introspective side of an athlete. Young sports stars discover early that high school football and basketball games are occasions for hero-worshipping that are woven into the emotional fabric of the community. By contrast, high school baseball games—and even college and minor-league games—are attended for the most part by a coterie of kind relatives and connoisseurs. Football and basketball players tend to be sensitive to their team and the crowd, baseball players to their game and the experience.
But even beyond that, Bouton was a pitcher, the most independent figure in a team game that with every pitch is played one-on-one. When Bouton sighs how he loves baseball, he means the green gardens, a slide into third, the laughing and spitting in the dugout. When he says he loves pitching, he is talking more about destiny. "From the time I was a kid, I had to be out there determining what happens in the game," he says. "In pitching, you are initiating the action, you are in full control. Pitching is the thinkingest of all positions in sport. Pitching most challenges your ability to put mind and body together. At this age, I couldn't be coming back as a rightfielder. I'd be bored."
Certainly one of the most telling terms in the game concerns the pitcher's responsibility—"Bouton leaves, but the runner on second remains his responsibility." Seldom elsewhere in life is responsibility clearer than in pitching. In the real world of flux and situational ethics, responsibility is blurred and shifted. The very command and initiative that Bouton has exhibited to his advantage on the mound are precisely the qualities that have left him a cropper in other endeavors. But pitching is neat, doubtless, perfect for Bouton. There are just outs and runs, and if another fellow makes a mistake, it isn't tabulated into your earned run average. Ultimately, it seems, the mound is just a well-lighted sanctuary that Jim Bouton has returned to for some peace.
Bouton is something of an odd duck, certainly, but he isn't the only guy who has sacrificed for the love of baseball. It might be easier to understand Bouton if you also consider the life of Bobby Dews of Edison, Ga., who was born (this is a little eerie) on March 23, 1939, only 15 days after Bouton. Probably you have never heard of Bobby Dews, unless you grew up in the Peach State and remember him from 20 years ago as the bowlegged basketball guard who played at Georgia Tech alongside Roger Kaiser, the All-America. Dews had to play defense against the opposition's better guards, so Kaiser might be spared for scoring points.
But Dews took it in stride. He was all the things Jim Bouton wasn't; he was a natural athlete, the son of a baseball pro, and basketball was merely a recreation he had mastered on the side. Baseball was his game, and the Cards signed him out of Tech for $10,000. It has been 18 years since then, and Dews has never left baseball, to make 50 grand on TV or to do anything else. He has never gone anywhere, either; he just stayed in the bushes. He has his college degree and he could do a lot of things, but he scuffles by on $15,000 a year, helping prospects. He has never gotten a cent of hospitalization, life insurance, pension funding or profit sharing. His first wife left him when he wouldn't give the game up. And for what? He knew 14 years ago he didn't have a chance.
That was 1964, the year Dews made it to Tulsa, Double A, the year Bouton beat the Cards twice in the Series. "I hit .277 and stole 30 bases," he says. "I was the MVP—the team MVP. Joe Morgan was the league MVP. And I played everywhere they needed me, fielded everything. I knew somebody in the majors had seen me, the kind of year I had, and they'd draft me. I knew. And they didn't. Nobody did. I played another five years, but I knew it was all over then. I knew it.
"My grandfather was a lawyer. When I signed, he said, 'Give it five years, and if you don't make it, get out. I'll get you into a good law school, give you my books.' These kids now, they try it three or four years, and if they don't make it, they phase themselves out. A few years ago, when I was managing Modesto for the Cards, I had a kid named Bobby Corcoran. He had signed for a $1,500 bonus out of Harvard or Yale, one of them. He was with me two weeks, and he called me up and asked if he could meet me at three. When we met, he said, 'Look, I got a problem. This is not for me.' And so he left—went to law school, as a matter of fact. The next day I opened the paper and saw that a reporter had asked the kid why he wanted out. The kid had said, 'Because I don't want to end up like Bobby Dews.' "
Somehow, Dews laughed. He is remarried, happily, and after managing eight years in Class A, at last he got promoted a notch this year. When he pitches batting practice he works without a glove, so he can get to the balls more expeditiously, save a few precious seconds, give everybody a few more swings. "It's a small thing," he says. "You pitch hours of extra batting practice, a kid's average goes up, and they say he's a natural. He stays at .250, then I can't coach. All the kids who have gone up that I've had, I've never heard one of them mention my name. Wouldn't you think?
"Sometimes I think I ought to take stock. There's a lot of things I could do for $15,000. But you see, I'm obsessed with this game. My God, but I love it. There've been times I've been with a team 15, 20 games out in August, but the minute I get to the park I'm completely in the game. Win, we're 14 out. Right? I come home in November after working in the instructional league, and I'm exhausted. And my friends say, Bobby, will you give it up? We can put you in real estate. We can get you into this or that business. But I'm obsessed. February, I'm back for spring training. I don't know why I love it so, but I do."
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.
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.
Yet the flip side is that there seems to be something of the flagellant in Bouton. It is as if the fame and easy success he unexpectedly found have left him feeling guilty. It's good to see their old man struggle? Yeah, but it's even better for the old man to struggle. He remembers the month in Durango last summer as an ennobling family experience in which all of them were forced to cope in an isolated mountain city in a foreign land. Bobby Bouton remembers it differently, recounting with horror the awful night when Laurie ran a frightful fever—it was strep throat—while Jim was away on a road trip. She and the kids were stranded without telephone, without car, without friends and without the ability to speak the language.
So far the Boutons have not even discussed how much longer the provider might go on coming back. The Netherlands is still on hold, and there must be area codes for Italy, for Japan, for Finleyland. For Bouton, the knuckleball is a timeless challenge, an enigma like the cure for the common cold or the itinerary of Leon Spinks.
"All right, I will admit that the person who suffers in all of this is Bobby," Bouton says. "For whatever benefit this may be for the kids, she's the one left alone to take care of them. But I feel a need to be away from my family for a while right now. I need to be by myself at this point in my life. Look, I'm in my mid-life crisis. This is all part of that. It's more than just wanting to pitch. It's wanting to prepare myself for the rest of my life. When Ball Four was canceled, I had a lot of good options, but my body told me to play ball again. My body knows more about me than my conscious mind. On the mound, my instincts have often determined for me what pitch I should throw. It was those feelings that told me to pitch again."
His body, sweating, suggested to Bouton's mind that he move his chair out of the midday summer sun. The chair rested by a swimming pool at the Hilton Inn in Orlando, Fla. You see, minor-leaguers stay at the same places as tourists and salesmen and weekend lovers. Bouton has not gone to Coventry. As Bobby Dews says, "It's really not all that hard to take. You can sleep in and read the sports pages." Players only get $7.50 a day to eat on, which is impossible unless you think French fries are the staff of life, and the locker rooms are too crowded, but the parks are generally clean and the uniforms fit. Of course, travel is by bus, and everybody in the national media who hears that—buses!—swoons and screams, "Get shots of the bus!" But, for goodness sake, it is a nice modern bus with rubber tires and air conditioning, and the Apaches haven't attacked it once all season. There are worse environments than the minor leagues in which to endure mid-life crisis.
Although no one else on the Savannah Braves has seen the dawn of 25. Bouton, in his dotage, fits in as well, if not better, with this crew as he ever did with his teammates in his first incarnation. Then he was viewed as a peculiar fellow because he read books without pictures, made jewelry and roomed with Latin players so he could help them and improve his Spanish. Today's players, those who read Ball Four in their formative years, are more apt to accept his individuality. Besides, they discover that Bouton is a likable chap who works hard and demands no favors.
For that matter, just about everybody but the hidebound baseball traditionalists have been rooting for Bouton wherever he has pitched and regardless of how well. Generally his record has been marred only by slow starts: like most knuckleballers, Bouton gets better as the game goes along. In the wake of the Richmond resuscitation, he opened in Savannah in a blaze of national publicity before an unusually large crowd—an imaginative management let a fan in for free if he brought along a copy of Ball Four. Responding to this pressure, Bouton struck out eight and won 5-3. In Orlando in his next start, the inscrutable knuckler failed him at the outset; he fell behind and was yanked in the sixth. Bouton came off running, and the crowd, swelled to double the usual for his appearance, applauded so generously for him, an opponent in a garden-variety defeat, that he doffed his cap and waved it to the good people. Some stood for him, and all of the applause was warm and telling.
At sporting events there are three kinds of ovations. The first is the most common, the spontaneous happy roar for the home team. No. 2 is the studied courtesy cheer reserved for beloved opponents, coaches who field foul grounders, uninvited dogs and umpires who either fall down or retrieve errant paper napkins. The third is a special, generous cheer, filled with rare, warm appreciation.
None of these cheers may be distinguished simply by decibel count; the identifying characteristics are much more subtle. For example, when John Havlicek was trooping the NBA in his farewell tour this spring, he received standing ovations—all prolonged and loud—at each stop, but they were strictly No. 2 courtesies. What the hell, he was getting a Cuisinart and a leisure suit at halftime, and a tape deck and a 10-speed bike in Detroit tomorrow night. On the other hand, when Havlicek was playing on the road and he did something singular, diving for a loose ball after sprinting 43 minutes straight, opposing fans often could not help crowning him with No. 3, that cheer of affection, which was not so long and loud...but was so much nicer.
This third type of cheer can be detected by the fact that it swells with no pattern. Instead it grows in choppy bursts. Hollering is out of place, and people pause from clapping to exchange happy talk with their neighbors: "Isn't that great?" or "Good for him." Stuff like that. Then they clap a little more and pause and smile. It's a tender cheer.
And that is the sort of cheer Bouton has been getting, good nights and not so good. People seem to respond to his obsession, even if they don't necessarily comprehend it. "Hell, if he's a prospect, then I'm a prospect, too" is what Dews said late one night. "He makes me think somebody is going to take me up there." Prospects are not just kids with arms that scouts want or customers with orders that salesmen want. Bouton evokes the thought that a prospect can be anybody who wants to go up, wherever up may be.
"I told him last year, 'The odds are with you because it's never been done before,' " Bobby Bouton says. "And sometimes now it's easy to dream that it will happen." The next time out after she said this, Bouton came back to Knoxville, where he was 0-6 last year, and pitched a 1-0 two-hitter. He had told them at Knoxville that it would take a while to get the knuckleball to behave. And here it was, falling off the table. Falling off the proverbial table! Now, perhaps, everybody will get a chance in Seattle.
*THAT INCLUDES THE AUTHOR.