It took a family tragedy to end Jim Boutons exile from the Yankees
Of the thousands of words Jim Bouton used to describe his 28-year exile from the Yankees between the time of the publication of his controversial book, Ball Four, and his first Old-Timers Day in the Bronx last Saturday, only four ultimately mattered to him: "Laurie made this happen."
Laurie was Boutons 31-year-old daughter, killed nearly a year ago in an automobile accident. Her death inspired her 34-year-old brother Michael to try to do the seemingly impossible: put his father back in the good graces of a baseball establishment still holding a grudge over the diary Bouton published in 1970.
In a poignant first-person piece published in the New York Times on Fathers Day, Michael had asked George Steinbrenner to forgive his father and lift the unofficial ban that had kept him from the summer gatherings where Joe DiMaggio meets Darryl Strawberry and Whitey Ford crosses paths with Hideki Irabu. "Nobody told me Michaels letter was being printed," Bouton recalled last week. "That day my son David called and read me what Michael had written. I cried: joy, sadness, pride. The best Fathers Day gift you could ever get."
Writing honestly and powerfully runs in the Bouton family. Ball Four certainly raised a few hackles. For the first time fans were told that baseball players Mickey Mantle included drank, fought and chased women. "I was maybe 14 when I read it, and it was like reading Valley of the Dolls," old-timer Dave Righetti said in the Yankees clubhouse. "I remember reading about them boring holes in the dugout walls to look up womens skirts, and using telescopes to look into hotel room windows." Bouton was accused by former teammates of violating the sanctity of the clubhouse, but after reading Ball Four those clubhouses would never again be thought of as sanctified places.
Michaels letter touched a nerve with the Yankees, though, and five weeks later there was Bouton, who in 63 and 64 won a total of 39 games for New York (plus two more in the 64 World Series), putting on a Yankees uniform just two lockers down from Moose Skowron and the old Marine, Hank Bauer. There were no dirty looks. There were no fights. There were no muttered epithets in Mantles defense; Mantle and Bouton made their peace four years ago, when Bouton wrote a note of condolence after the death of Mantles son Billy. As Bouton answered questions from a gaggle of writers never numbering fewer than 10, Bauer calmly read that days sports pages, which were probably far more graphic and disillusioning than Ball Four seemed the day it rolled off the presses. "They called me up and asked me if it were O.K. with me to invite him," said Bauer. "I told them, "I got nothing against Bouton; he didnt mention my name!"
After a struggle to find a cap properly sized to re-create his trademark the hat flying off his head as he delivered a pitch Bouton finally made his way to the field. He ran out toward rightfield, pausing only to chat briefly with old Seattle Pilots teammate Tommy Davis, then visited with the fans in rightfield, including 50 friends and family members for whom he had purchased tickets.
Any lingering tension lifted before the player introductions. "Jims back, Jims back," Joe Pepitone repeated again and again, mugging for the cameras. Bouton bantered with Bobby Murcer, Gene Michael and others of his era, and then sat in the dugout and visited with former teammate Mel Stottlemyre.
As Bouton warmed up to face Jay Johnstone, the stadium scoreboard flashed, THANKS MICHAEL, LOVE, DAD his own surprise for the son who had surprised him. Then came something unexpected. "Just as I was starting to pitch, I looked up in the stands and my daughters friends held up a banner that read, WE LOVE LAURIE. I was overwhelmed."
On the first pitch his cap flew off, right on schedule. A breaking ball bounced well in front of the plate, a reminder that he is now 59 years old. Johnstone was retired on a grounder, and Boutons six-pitch return from exile was over. "The whole experience was like walking in a dream," he said. "What a variety of emotions. I feel like I just stepped off one of those paint-mixing machines."
The strongest of those emotions had followed not the applause not even the appearance of the banner with his daughters name; it had come in those brief moments with Stottlemyre. "Mel and I were talking about grief," he said. "He lost his son 11 years ago, and he understood. I wanted to know how to get through it. He told me you dont get over it, but it does get a little less painful each day. You dont want to forget her, you want her to be there with you always. Today it was as if she was here." A tear formed in Boutons right eye, and he made no apology for it. "She was here."
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