Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
It didn't seem like a big deal, a player known for his thoughtfulness sitting at his locker several hours before a game and reading a book. From a distance, the scene could hardly have been more routine.
But when you strolled closer to veteran catcher Chris Stewart that afternoon at Yankee Stadium in 2013, you saw that, whether he knew it or not, he was engaged in an act that would once have been unthinkable: He was a Yankee player openly reading "Ball Four" in the clubhouse.
Immediately upon the publication of an excerpt in early 1970, "Ball Four" made its author, the former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, an all-time pariah in the game. His subversive diary of a 1969 season spent with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros revealed that ballplayers cheated on their wives, partied late into the night, used amphetamines, and resented their owners and general managers.
The book also portrayed Yankee icons like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Elston Howard as complex humans, with both good qualities and bad -- thereby exploding the myth of the ballplayer as simplified hero.
"Ball Four" changed sports journalism and the public's perception of athletes. It led countless aspiring writers into baseball -- this one included -- because it demonstrated that the deepest, most literary work could be achieved describing the game that we loved.
When Bouton died this week at 80 from a form of dementia called cerebral amyloid angiopathy, it hit hard. Many of us can say that his book altered the course of our lives. But at the time of its publication, the book marked Bouton not as a hero in the game, but as a traitor.
The San Diego Padres once burned a copy of the book and left the ashes in the visitors clubhouse for Bouton to see. Pete Rose yelled "F--- you, Shakespeare," from the dugout. And the Yankees did not invite Bouton to an old-timers' day until 1998, after Bouton's daughter died in a car accident and his son wrote an op-ed in the New York Times requesting the invite.
Given that history, it was remarkable to see a copy in the Yankee clubhouse, even 43 years after its publication. It's a testament to the book's raw power that it was still able to shock Stewart.
"A writer had recommended it to me, so I checked it out on Amazon and it looked interesting," Stewart, who shared that he officially retired from baseball three weeks ago, said on Friday by telephone. "Some things in there, I was like, 'Whoa, I can't believe that got revealed.'"
Stewart could see why some of Bouton's contemporaries felt betrayed. "I think if you put yourself in the perspective of a player when it came out, and how shocking it was, it kind of broke that sacred trust that what goes on in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse," he said.
Stewart compared Bouton's work to the book from his generation that revealed many truths about the steroid era, Jose Canseco's 2005 tell-all Juiced. The first wave of reaction to that book, casting Canseco as a Judas who broke trust, showed that players still expected clubhouse secrecy.
"Canseco wrote his book and threw out the names of players who supposedly took steroids," Stewart said. "It shed light on it."
Beyond its controversial aspects, "Ball Four" is a sharply-rendered portrait of a man who loves the game, and cannot let it go. Bouton was a young phenom who won two games for the Yankees in the 1964 World Series; by the time he wrote his book, he was barely hanging on as a knuckleballer on an expansion team.
In his final line, Bouton captures the addictive nature of his chosen sport. "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball," he wrote. "And in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
By the time Stewart found "Ball Four" he was 31 years old, in his 12th season of professional ball, and had never in more than 67 big league games in a single season (that year, 2013, he would establish a career-high by playing in 113 games for the Yankees). He was already beginning to wonder how long he could last, how much more he could ask of his loved ones.
"Definitely the aspect of not wanting to give it up, of loving the game," he said, when asked to name his favorite element of "Ball Four". "Knowing that your time is limited in the field, and you want to do it as long as you can. I didn't want to go home with gas still left in the tank.
"That aspect is definitely relatable to me. The flipside of wanting to play so long is I sacrificed so much, and my family sacrificed so much as well. How much are you willing to make your family sacrifice?"
For Stewart, 18 years was enough. He doesn't plan to come back. He'll be remembered for a solid career as a respected catcher -- and also, by those of us in the club of passionate "Ball Four" devotees, as the guy who finally brought Bouton's masterpiece into the clubhouse in the Bronx that once felt so betrayed by it.
As an interesting aside, and a testament to the enduring heat generated by Bouton's breakthrough prose, Stewart knew not to say too much about the book even in 2013.
"It's so controversial you don't even want to offer your opinion," he said. "People see you reading it and they kind of let it be and don't go into it, because it opens up so many topics."
That's the mark of great art -- even at 40 years old or more, it's bold and honest enough to make an audience uncomfortable. Although thanks to Stewart, "Ball Four" finally made it back into the environment that it had once so boldly described.