Monday, April 13, 2009

What comes after Ball 3

Courtesy New York Daily News

The first week of April has become one of my favorite times of the year. I stop worrying about everything else for a few days and enjoy the opening of the baseball season. All is right with the world.
I used to watch a VCR of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds the day before the regular season began, considered by some the greatest game ever. The game was played before the heydey of VCR's, but the Boston PBS station showed it as part of a fund-raising drive in the `80's. Everybody remembers how the game ended, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk waving his home run smash fair; I watched the tape so many times I remember the first play of the game - Carl Yastrzemski making a sliding catch on Pete Rose's sinking liner. Announcer Joe Garagiola said ``nobody plays the outfield like Carl Yastrzemski plays leftfield in Fenway Park.'' But alas, after a few moves, including one cross country, the tape has long disappeared.
Another way to celebrate the opening of the baseball season is to re-read Jim Bouton's Ball Four. For the unititiated, it's hard to explain why this book is considered by some one of the best books ever, not just one of the best sports books. Bouton was a former star pitcher barely hanging on in the major leagues. Most of his 1969 diary involves the Seattle Pilots, the only major league team of the 20the 20th century to last only one season (it's stadium is now a Lowe's Hardware Store).
The baseball establishment was shocked by the book - players looking into women's hotel windows, playing in games drunk, and playing kissing games in the back of the bus. Bouton even said that the game's best player -Mickey Mantle- was a drunk and mean to little kids who asked for his autograph. It was a real-life MASH, or Animal House.
As the years went by, people weren't too upset with Ball Four anymore. Mickey Mantle even had fun with his boozing image. I'm sure high school and college players who read Bouton's book figured the major leagues were pretty cool.
Jim Bouton also pitched in the first major league game I ever saw- Red Sox-Yankees, Fenway Park, September 1967. Bouton didn't pitch that well in an 8-1 Boston victory. The RS third-string catcher, Mike Ryan, hit a triple off him. Time-wise this was around the low-point of Bouton's career. He spent most of the next season in the minors. Ironically, the Red Sox winning pitcher that day, Gary Bell, would be Bouton's roommate on the Pilots two years later. Bell won 13 games in `67 and would pitch in the World Series.
The 1967 RS pitcher coach was also on the Seattle Pilots in 1969; Sal ``The Barber'' Maglie, a former star pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers who always had a day-old beard before anyone ever heard of Don Johnson. When pitchers whould go over opposing batters in meetings, Maglie had the same response on how to pitch to about half the major league, ``just smoke him inside.'' Gary Bell did a great Sal Maglie imitation. Players appreciate that.
I met Jim Bouton at the Society of American Baseball Convention when it was held in Seattle a couple of years ago. I told him about seeing him pitch against Gary Bell. He liked it when I said I was 10 years old at that time but that he (Bouton) now looked younger than me. Jim Bouton wrote an inscription into my copy of Ball Four that day. ``To Ray, Smoke Him Inside.''

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