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Wahconah Park Update

Friday, July 2, 2004 - A classic moment for Bouton By Tom Hoffarth, Los Angeles Daily News

This was vintage Jim Bouton.

It was late in 2000, and the former major-league pitcher whose breakout book, "Ball Four," opened a whole new chapter of tell-all sports journalism back in the 1970s, wasn't about to quietly watch a national baseball landmark just be left abandoned.

Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Mass., which started holding games in 1892 and is the oldest existing minor-league park in the country, is nestled in the Berkshire mountains about a half-hour north from Bouton's home in North Egremont. It was about to be tossed aside by city officials who were gung-ho on building a new $18.5 million stadium after the local Single-A affiliate of the Houston Astros moved to Troy, N.Y.

Bouton's simple plan: Raise private money, fix up the city-owned field at no cost to the taxpayers and bring in a new team. The townspeople even voted three times against the building of the new stadium because it wanted to preserve Wahconah Park. The only people against Bouton's idea were the mayor, his parks commissioners, the biggest bank in town, the local newspaper and a high-powered guy from General Electric. Bouton chronicled his comical battle against all of them in his self-published diary, "Foul Ball," which came out in 2003. The book ended with the parks commission voting down his plan and giving another businessman a shot at reviving the park.

But things changed quickly. The latest local team, the Berkshire Black Bears, barely lasted a season. A new mayor took office in January 2004. And Bouton's three-man investment group, which pledged $1.5 million to restore Wahconah Park and field a team, looked pretty good again.

In March, the parks commission approved Bouton's plan. In May, baseball historian John Thorn discovered the existence of a document that traced the existence of "base ball" to Pittsfield, Mass., back to 1791, which the National Baseball Hall of Fame dubbed as "irrefutable" evidence of the first written reference to the game ever found.

On Saturday, as part of the Fourth of July weekend programming, ESPN Classic will set aside three hours (4-7 p.m.) to televise what's called a "Vintage Base Ball" game live from Wahconah Park between the Hartford Senators and Pittsfield Hillies, two amateur clubs who'll use uniforms, equipment and conduct under the rules of the game as they were in 1886.

"The baseball gods are smiling on us," Bouton said Wednesday from the park, where he was helping with preparations for the game and telecast. Bouton explained how he started a relationship with those at ESPN in April when he was invited to testify at a mock trial about the New York Yankees.

Thorn, one of baseball's noted historians, told Bouton about an Internet search that suggested the existence of a Pittsfield city document from 1793 that specifically mentioned a sport called "base ball" could not be played within 80 feet of a public building. If found, it could one of the game's most important pieces of history.

While Bouton was planning the July 4 exhibition game with new Mayor James Ruberto, the city library found the document, two years older than originally thought.

"It looked like the original version of the Magna Carta," Bouton said,"the most beautiful thing I'd seen in a long time."

Bouton contacted ESPN about the story and also mentioned the vintage game he was planning. ESPN Classic, which has been looking to do more live events, jumped on it but asked that it be moved to July 3 for a better programming position.

Ron Thulin will do the play-by-play, and former big-league pitcher and frequent vintage player Bill Lee will provide the color. Bouton will be hooked up with a microphone as he talks about the park's history from the stands. He then will go to the bullpen to warm up just in case the Pittsfield Hillies needs the 65-year-old knuckleballer to throw an inning.

The game telecast will be more of a live history lesson. Under the rules used nearly 140 years ago, a batter needed seven balls for a walk, the umpire was positioned 15 feet to the side and was addressed as "sir" and allowed to smoke a cigar, the batter could dictate a high (belt to shoulder) or low (belt to knee) strike zone, foul balls didn't count as strikes and batters hit by a pitch didn't go to first.

There also existed a "Gentleman's ruling," meaning if the umpire didn't have a clear view of a play, he could request players or fans to tell him what happened and his call could be reversed.

Bouton helped assemble the Pittsfield Hillies with business partner Chip Elitzer, who also is behind restoring the park. The team is made up of former high school, college and pro players from the Berkshires area.

ESPN, using one of its regular baseball production crews, brought in extra lighting and set up scaffolding for extra camera positions for a park that's never had a night-time broadcast.

"A lot of baseball fans don't know a lot of this history and when they actually see teams playing with smaller gloves and long bats, no batting gloves, the pureness of the game will give viewers an idea how it looked and sounded," said ESPN Classic producer Mark Durand.

"Our goal is always try to bring history back to life and connect the generations, and this is a great example of it. The game isn't scripted, so it has all the drama of a live event. We'll bring a lot of context to the telecast. I mean, it's baseball on Fourth of July weekend, a game many still consider the national pastime, as American as apple pie. As the sport has evolved into a big business, here's a place that harkens to a time much simpler. There's a certain purity to it. This will be a real celebration of the game."

A lesson learned: Getting back to his battle to refurbish Wahconah Park versus those who wanted a new stadium in Pittsfield, Mass., Bouton says he now understands why today's media often strays from objectivity when it reports about these new projects backed by corporations and land developers.

"The sportswriters are the drum beaters and they somehow feel the new stadium exalts them in some way," said Bouton, who says he always had a great relationship with the press when he played, especially with the New York Yankees in the 1960s, because of his willingness to speak his mind. "They feel a new stadium puts status on them and they're somehow big league.

"It hardly matters what the local papers here say anymore. We're national press now. Maybe that's why they've started to treat us with more fairness (by the local media)."

Tom Hoffarth can be reached at thomas.hoffarth@dailynews.com and (818) 713-3661

 

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