One afternoon at a barbecue, he and a friend hatched an idea to save a wonderful but decaying old ballpark in Pittsfield, Mass. Jim Bouton had pitched at Wahconah Park and had fallen in love with the stadium. To him, it represented a simpler time when fans could reach out and touch the players, and the beers didn't cost $7.50 apiece.
After deciding to renovate the ballpark, Mr. Bouton and his partners-Chip Elitzer and Eric Margenau-paid a visit to Pittsfield municipal leaders. That's when the former pitcher's serene lifestyle began to be turned upside down.
What resulted from a several-year foray into small city politics was a plan for a $1.5 million renovation of Wahconah Park that would be paid for with private funds-a plan that was eventually consigned to ride the bench, collecting dust.
It became apparent to Mr. Bouton and his partners that most local politicians and certain business leaders wanted Pittsfield to have a brand new,18.5 million stadium complex at a different site, even though voters had rejected the plan.
The proposal that Mr. Bouton put forth for Wahconah Park flew in the face of progress, well-placed opponents argued. In the end, neither project became reality.
Singed by rejection in Pittsfield, Mr. Bouton returned home to his computer and keyboard and began the laborious process of reviewing copious notes, correspondence and copies of official documents gathered during the lengthy process.
That process has now resulted in a startling, and often amusing, tale called "Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark." (Bulldog Press, 405 pages) The former hurler hopes the book will shed light on the inner workings of Pittsfield politics, which he suspects are being repeated in countless cities around the United States to the detriment of residents in each locale.
"The story touches several levels," Mr. Bouton said in a recent interview, "one of which is how public financing of sports stadiums benefits wealthy team and league owners. Story number two was how we were treated in an anti-democratic manner, and how city government works against the interests of the people. And, I wanted to show the behavior of the local newspaper [The Berkshire Eagle], which was collaborating with local government to push an issue against the interests of the people."
David Scribner, editor of the Berkshire Eagle, whom Mr. Bouton called "Mr. Misinformation" in his book, said the paper's coverage was balanced and fair.
"We bent over backwards in being fair to the opponents of the new stadium," he said. "We were criticized by our own publisher for giving them too much attention. I think Bouton is looking for people to blame."
Certainly, Mr. Bouton is no stranger to controversy. "Ball Four" caused a firestorm when it was published in the mid-1960s for its description of the locker-room and off-the-field lives of major league ball players. The pitcher became something of a pariah, although "Ball Four" seems tame when compared to today's kiss-and-tell books.
What has gotten lost over the years is the fact that the man who earned the nickname "Bulldog" for his toughness on the mound was a pretty darn good pitcher. He won 21 games for the Yankees in 1963, and 18 the following year, when he added two victories in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. But he blew out his arm and would finish his career as a mostly unsuccessful knuckleballer, although he was a hot story again when he returned to the Majors with the Atlanta Braves in 1978 after being away from the big time for eight years.
Mr. Bouton didn't give up the game when he left "The Show." He played in a number of sandlot leagues, including the Tri-State League, which has teams from the Northwest Corner of Connecticut. His worn glove now hangs on a wall, though. The 64-year-old motivational speaker spends his free time ballroom dancing with his wife, Paula, playing tennis and building stone walls. He deflects criticism that "Foul Ball" is self-serving and merely a way to get his name back in the spotlight.
"Our reason for wanting to renovate Wahconah Park were completely altruistic and maybe a bit Hardy-Boyism. Chip and I both work at home and we were looking for a bit of adventure. Chip is an investment banker, Eric owns five minor league baseball teams and I was to be the front guy. It was going to be a locally-financed, locally-owned team. While we weren't going to get rich, we were hoping to make some money and save an old ballpark in the process. We thought the city could spend the $18.5 million on something other than a ballpark. But they said no."
Writing a book didn't occur to the North Egremont, Mass., resident until well into the process.
"I felt at some point during the process that I had no choice [other] than to write a book. I felt I owed it to the people of Pittsfield, those who don't have easy access to the freedom to do what I did. I know the people of Pittsfield will read this book and say, 'Yes, this is how we are treated.'"
A passage on page 358 of "Foul Ball" aptly sums up Mr. Bouton's feelings: "When I started out on this adventure, I just wanted to save an old ballpark and have some fun. I knew that building stadiums with taxpayer dollars was fundamentally wrong. What I didn't realize was the extent to which a pathological optimist could be made so suspicious that it is scary."
He also quotes social activist/author Arundhati Roy in the front pages of "Foul Ball," "Like me, you could ... be unfortunate enough to stumble upon a silent war. The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. Either way, you're accountable."
The initial response from reviewers and readers has been positive. Those who pick up the book because of Mr. Bouton's reputation as a funny, straight-shooter are delighted in the tale and amused by the accidental humor of the main characters opposed to the ballpark plan. Those who seek enlightenment on the inner workings of government are amazed at how well Mr. Bouton details his foray into the belly of the beast.
Mr. Bouton has appeared at book-signings at various locations in the Berkshires, and plans to visit Northwestern Connecticut this summer to discuss the book and his experiences.
"Just like 'Ball Four' turned me into something else, I think this book may turn me into something else again," he said. "With 'Ball Four,' I became a spokesperson for truth in advertising and telling it like it is. I wasn't looking for the attention, but I became sort of a social guru. And, just like with 'Ball Four'-where I was caught in a wave of anti-establishment feeling questioning authority-'Foul Ball' comes along at a time when people are starting to question the political process, the role of the media, and the influence corporations have in this country. I may end up being a spokesperson for freedom of the press, which wasn't my plan. I've been contacted already by free speech and consumer groups. This book is important to them because it is not based on theory, but rather [says], here are the rules and here's what happened."
Officials who backed a new stadium claimed the project would have brought people into the city and bolstered the local economy. Pittsfield ended up with a slightly-enhanced Wahconah Park, now home to the Black Bears of the Northeast League. But the controversy has still another dimension.
"Foul Ball" was originally to have been published by Public Affairs of New York. But the author ended his relationship with the publisher after he said it requested that he seek responses from the General Electric Company, a backer of the new-stadium plan and a target of Mr. Bouton's criticism in the book. At least one General Electric official has financial ties with Public Affairs Press, Mr. Bouton has claimed.
"I had to self-publish the book. ... I was going to have to stifle the book, edit it and take the guts out of it," the former pitcher claimed. "That had already been done in stories that appeared in the newspapers. I told the publisher I wasn't going to remove references to pollution and General Electric and said I will publish it myself. It really was my only choice."
GE has reached a consent order with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to cleanup PCB contamination in Pittsfield and in the Housatonic River.
Despite all of the local politics involved, Mr. Bouton calls "Foul Ball" first and foremost "an adventure story."
"I'm not trying to hit readers over the head with a social tirade," he explained. "That would be too much heavy slogging for the reader. I'm hoping people will be drawn into a baseball story and then don't mind that it isn't just about baseball. I tried to combine baseball with reaching into a deeper level. The fun comes when I quote the opponents of our plan. I didn't have to say much about them, they say it themselves. As someone told me, you can't buy opponents like these."
He added, "The story of trying to save the stadium was compelling enough for me to write about it. It moved me through my day, and I hope it will move the reader through the book."
© Litchfield County Times 2003