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Boston Globe Home Section

AT HOME WITH JIM BOUTON
 
 
October 17, 2002

NORTH EGREMONT - The first thing Jim Bouton did before he and his wife, Paula Kurman, bought their property here was climb a tree. From there, he saw that the wooded lot on a hill had a fairly large, flat expanse.

"I don't like the perched look," said Bouton. Besides, you can't throw a baseball on a slope.

The former New York Yankees pitcher and author of "Ball Four" moved to the Berkshires nine years ago because the western reaches of Massachusetts seemed a good place to write. However, the memoir about his New Jersey childhood soon took a back seat to a book about Wahconah Park in Pittsfield.

Like "Ball Four," which is about more then just baseball, "Foul Ball," to be published next spring by Public Affairs, is about more than just a ball field. It promises to be a wry and insightful jab at small-city powerbrokers who want to spend taxpayer money on a new baseball stadium rather than restore one of the world's oldest shrines to the game still standing. Baseball has been played at Wahconah Park since 1892.

The quest by lawyers, politicians, and a newspaper publisher to build a new stadium caught Bouton's eye. He calls it "America's new hostage crisis: Build us a stadium or you'll never see your team again."

Bouton and two other Berkshires residents, investment banker Chip Elitzer and sports entrepreneur Eric Margenau, made a proposal they thought Pittsfield officials would love: They would renovate Wahconah Park and help create a homegrown baseball team. Pittsfield pols turned them down, however, and asked them not to take their idea public because it might "confuse the voters," as Bouton recalled.

When a referendum on a new $18.5 million stadium failed, Bouton's team tried again to persuade the city to let them renovate the old park. After his offer was rejected again, Bouton was shocked to hear Berkshire Eagle president Andrew Mick say stadium opponents hadn't advanced any alternatives.

"That's when I started taking notes," said Bouton.

Anyone who has read "Ball Four" knows that when Bouton takes notes, somebody is going to get skewered and a furor is bound to follow.

All through his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots, Bouton kept a pad and pen in his pocket. Each night he read his notes into a tape recorder and sent them to his editor for transcription. "Ball Four" appeared the next year and the outrage could be measured on a Richter scale. He exposed everything from the peccadilloes of popular baseball stars to the greed of owners.

One scribe called Bouton "a social leper, Judas, and Benedict Arnold" in three successive columns. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn demanded a retraction. Bouton's mother cried as 50,000 New Yorkers booed him when, by then in an Astros uniform, he emerged from the Shea Stadium bullpen.

Vindication came in sales (readers loved the book as much as sports tycoons hated it) and accolades (the New York Public Library named "Ball Four" one of the top books of the 20th century).

"Foul Ball" will be a crowd-pleaser too, predicts Bouton: "Ninety-seven percent of the people of Pittsfield will love it." The long-term future of the park still is not certain.

The campaign to save the ballpark became a full-time obsession for Bouton during much of 2001, drawing him away from the domestic pursuits he loves. Except for last year, he had embarked on a stone building project every summer since moving to Massachusetts. At 63, he also makes a living as a motivational speaker.

His wife, 64, once a professor of interpersonal communications, heads the Fairview Hospital Gala and practices ballet. They are building a dance studio in their basement. This is the second marriage for both.

Bouton invites children for occasional pitching clinics in the couple's relatively flat hilltop yard. He shows them the knuckleball, which kept him in the game past his prime. It involves releasing the ball with no spin, so it bobs unpredictably. Like a language or a musical instrument, a knuckleball is hard to perfect unless you start young. Bouton learned it at age 10 and threw thousands to get it right.

"I finally figured out what I am," said Bouton. "I'm a craftsperson." Whether it's throwing a ball, writing a book, or piecing large stones together, it all involves crafting, honing and "trying to make it just right."

He's also still a baseball fan. Having pitched for the Yankees in two World Series (1963 and 1964), and winning two games in the '64 series against the Cardinals, Bouton had his favorite team this year.

He said he'd been "rooting for the Minnesota Twins to go all the way as any good baseball fan would. I started rooting for them the day they were slated to be contracted."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 - eric.goldscheider@gmail.com