Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Stuff I like:
Ball Four
Part 2: Jim Bouton and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

It's the rare person that would put Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' famous book On Death and Dying together with Jim Bouton's baseball diary Ball Four. Doing searches on both Google and Bing for the two names together, the only things they have in common is their best known books were published only one year apart, 1969 and 1970 respectively, and both books made the list of Books of the Century published by the New York Public Library.

So, forty one years too late, let me be that rare person. Kubler-Ross should have read Ball Four and Bouton should certainly have read On Death and Dying, because they both could learn a thing or two.

"Did you hear who died today?" In baseball parlance, that meant somebody on a major league club got sent to the minors. Jim Bouton in spring training worries about this on a regular basis. He knows he's marginal, even on an expansion team, and every pitcher sent down to the minor league Vancouver Mounties means his head has been spared from the chopping block.

But being sent to the minors isn't really death because there are way too many resurrections. No, the beginning of the book deals with the death of Jim Bouton's fastball and Bouton going through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Early in the book, he hopes his new pitch the knuckleball will be a strong set-up for his fastball, putting hitters off guard. Every once in a while, he writes that his arm feels like it did four years earlier when he was still a guy who blew the third strike past over-matched major leaguers. He looks at other pitchers and thinks he has to be better than them, especially Steve Barber who never gets and work and is always in the training room. His anger and depression are mainly focused on his immediate superiors, pitching coach Sal Maglie and manager Joe Schultz, neither of whom has Bouton's complete confidence or respect.

Though he isn't cut in spring training, a few weeks into the season, Bouton "dies" and is sent to Vancouver. There he has success with the knuckleball, and finally he finds acceptance. His fastball is dead. He is a knuckleball pitcher, hoping to emulate the success of Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm. Someone tells him his knuckler moves faster than Wilhelm's, and he credits his old fastball technique for the difference, though he knows throwing a real fast ball hurts like hell and the knuckler takes almost nothing out of his arm.

The change in Bouton's attitude from the beginning of spring training to the time he is resurrected to the big leagues is remarkable, and the five stages of grief can be seen touching all the bases.

1 comment:

Fran said...

This is pure posting awesomeness of the highest degree.

Kubler-Ross? Bouton? I mean... but there you have it, right here and real good, real real good.

Damn Matty. Thank you. And yes, I was a rare HS girl reading ball 4. I was a weird kid. I am still a weird adult; I've just learned how to work it now!