My company, through reasons best left undiscussed because that's a whole 'nother post that isn't really about what you come to this blog for, sponsors a table at an annual charity auction and banquet held by Major League Baseball. Normally we're able to fill that table with execs, clients and the like, and said folk get to meet and greet the players and ex-players. They are mostly hustle and community spirit award winners, as well as local MLB dignitaries. This year, the table was light, so one of our sales guys made me an offer: come on up and fill a seat, so we don't look bad. No worries, I'm there.
At this year's event were all kinds of notables from the recent and less-recent past. Wade Boggs, Brooks Robinson, Clint Hurdle, Josh Harrison, Ron Darling, Al Leiter and more, hosted by Gary Thorne, held at a really nice space in the southern tip of Manhattan. Everyone in the room can more or less buy and sell me, and everyone in the room (especially the players) is up to 2X my size. I've got nothing to sell, and I'm just here to do a solid for my company...
But, well, there's one guy on the list of dignitaries that fascinates me. Jim Bouton.
If you don't know the name, you really should. Bouton is the writer of "Ball Four", a seminal work of American journalism, and no, I'm not over-hyping it. Bouton's frank, candid, hilarious and touching story of what it was like to be scuffling along at the back end of pitching staffs post-injury in the awakening '60s made him persona non grata in baseball circles for a really long time...
But time heals, Bowie Kuhn ain't around no more, and MLB has just come to grips with the fact that Bouton's book grew the tent of baseball fandom. It also made me, in my teens, want to be a sports writer, and realize that you could be smart and like the game, even if you didn't go into full math nerd and sabermetric your way to obnoxiousness. (For the record, I see a place for all of that stuff, but if that's the only thing that keeps you watching baseball, you really need to go try derivatives or the bond market or something else where you can get all of that unfortunate meat out of the way.)
A side word first: in general, I do not believe in meeting your heroes. There's only one way for that interaction to go, usually, and it's not happy. As a 16-year-old, I got the chance to interview Kurt Vonnegut after he wrapped up an NPR interview, and as the author bemusedly went on auto-pilot for my too earnest questions, then shuffled his way out of the room before his PR handler could even make the cut motion, it was a hard thing to get over. I also have had experiences with musical celebs from helping to run a trade show, and gigging with my own band, that weren't always great. It's generally better to let the work live in your own mind, rather than press your luck with a personal experience.
But, well, um... Jim Bouton. The funniest, coolest and most real athlete to ever tell his own story. The guy who invented Big League Chew, which I inhaled as a kid? The guy whose sequels I read, who always seemed awesome in interviews, and the guy who basically predicted "Bull Durham" by reporting what his manager said to him during a visit to the mound. ("Throw him low smoke and we'll go pound some Budweiser." The Seattle Pilots were not overthinking things, folks.)
Hmm. Maybe after a drink or two to steady the nerves.
Another aside: I'm not a slam dunk at parties. I have social anxieties that I generally have to get over, either with determination or a little booze. I've got a bit of a muddled voice that can be hard to parse, and I'm the size of a middle schooler. You can, and would, overlook me, and I'm OK with that, much of the time. I stay out of a lot of fights, and try not to get on too many nerves. (Oh, and I also drink maybe once a month, and never to real excess, because, well, my late father was an alcoholic and a real mess, so I check myself from having Real Fun pretty quick.)
I wasn't exactly sure what Bouton looked like at this point in his life, and I'm not the kind of guy to just burst my way around the room asking for names... but then my sales guy tells me that, Whole E Crap, he's the celeb at our table. And no one at my company knows his backstory, and dammit they should, so I even have a reason to engage. And I do, and Bouton's warm and open and caring and Whole E Crap, Jim Bouton and I are just talking like guys.
It turns out that Bouton is as sharp as ever, generous with his time, thrilled to meet people who want to talk to him about his work as a writer, and still as genuinely subversive of the powers that be in MLB as ever. He delights in 50-year-old stories where he pranked a teammate, which reminded me of a 15-year-old story of doing that to a boss, and we're freaking kin. I thought I was going to fall on the floor trying to hold in the laughter as Thorne duly recited Bouton's statistics as a pitcher, steadfastly refusing to mention his book, as he went around the room to tell us who was who at all of the tables. And now my man is whispering snarky profanities in my ear, and I'm engaging with him, writer to writer, and it's like I've just made an immediate and great friend who I've kind of known for decades, but have just never had the chance to speak to.
So, in summation...
If you haven't read "Ball Four", do it.
If you get a chance to meet Jim Bouton, do that, too.
And if you want to buy the first baseball I've ever asked anyone to autograph, ever in my whole life...
It's not for sale.
Thanks again, Jim.