The Message

Hard Ball

When ex-pitcher Jim Bouton appeared on the November 28 edition of Bill Moyers's signature PBS program, NOW With Bill Moyers, he thought he was simply promoting his latest book, Foul Ball. But afterward, he and Moyers were beaned by complaints from pretty much every entity Bouton portrays as villains in his tome -- among them General Electric, a publishing company called PublicAffairs and Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, owner of the Denver Post.

In the case of MediaNews, its lawyers sent Moyers a letter on December 5 demanding a "full and complete retraction" with regard to "blatant and demonstrable falsehoods" contained in the Bouton chat and an online essay Moyers wrote about Foul Ball. Moyers reacted by pulling the Bouton transcript from the Web site and putting in its place the MediaNews missive along with other complaints, his written replies and the text of a partial mea culpa he delivered in his December 12 Now broadcast. Critics like MediaNews "object to my saying that Jim Bouton...was 'back, telling the truth again,'" Moyers told his audience. "Well, what I should have said is that he was telling the truth as he saw it."

These remarks and others fall short of a "full and complete retraction" in Singleton's mind, but combined with the material placed on the Web site, they provided some satisfaction. "He just barely got there," Singleton says. Still, he considers Moyers's thoughts about truth to represent "kind of a cop-out. He's saying the truth is whatever somebody thinks is the truth, and that's not right. Facts are facts, and he got a lot of them wrong."

Chin music: Author Jim Bouton isn't averse to pitching 
Chin music: Author Jim Bouton isn't averse to pitching inside.

To that, Bouton submits a straightforward rejoinder: "Everything I said in the Moyers interview and the book is true."

The NOW appearance raised the profile of a man who was once among the most controversial figures in sports thanks to the 1970 bestseller Ball Four, an entertaining account of his experiences pitching for the Houston Astros and the expansion Seattle Pilots, plus memories of his days with the New York Yankees. His revelation that Mickey Mantle often showed up at games hung over led to Bouton's being banned from Yankees old-timers events until after the Mick died in 1995 -- of liver cancer, by the way. Bouton cashed in on the book's success with a role in director Robert Altman's 1973 detective flick The Long Goodbye and a short-lived Ball Four TV series in 1976; afterward, he helped invent Big League Chew, a still-popular brand of shredded bubble gum packaged in tobacco-like pouches. Yet despite writing several other books over the intervening span, he's only occasionally been in the public eye outside his home state of Massachusetts.

There, in 2001, Bouton and partner Chip Elitzer came up with a plan to rehabilitate Wahconah Park, a Pittsfield stadium that dates back to 1892. The old grandeur lingered, but the stadium was deteriorating, and its parking lot was prone to flooding. Such problems helped motivate the owner of a Class A franchise based there to move his team to Troy, New York, and representatives of the New York-Penn League, which is affiliated with Major League Baseball, proved unwilling to shift another squad into the facility. Even so, Bouton was convinced that an unaffiliated team could give Pittsfield a high-quality baseball fix even as it provided a rationale for saving a landmark.

Countering this proposal was one supported by Pittsfield's only newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, whose ownership by MediaNews gave Moyers the opportunity to touch upon one of his pet peeves: media consolidation. The idea was to build a new stadium that met New York-Penn League standards on land near the Eagle headquarters. A portion of the parcel was owned by MediaNews, which offered it to the cause along with a promised donation of $2 million; likewise, Honeywell CEO Larry Bossidy, a Pittsfield native, pledged to buy a New York-Penn League team to play there.

On the surface, this notion seems appealing, but a sizable portion of the Pittsfield electorate hated it, and not only because it probably would have doomed Wahconah Park. Many voters didn't want to spend $18.5 million of combined private and public money on a stadium when other needs were more pressing, and they were reluctant to create a civic authority that could demolish homes and businesses using the power of eminent domain. A referendum to sanction the authority was soundly defeated, thereby opening the door for Bouton. Too bad another suitor, Jonathan Fleisig, turned up -- and unlike Bouton, he owned an unaffiliated team, the Berkshire Black Bears, that could take the field at an unrenovated Wahconah Park in 2002.

Ultimately, the local parks commission rejected Bouton's approach, and Fleisig stepped to the plate -- but as Bouton predicted in Foul Ball, he didn't stick around long. In November, reported that Fleisig would herd the Bears out of Pittsfield, citing "criticism of him and the team as a main reason."

Foul Ball blames much of Bouton's defeat on the Eagle, which he accuses of conspiring with city and business interests like GE, as well as delivering slanted coverage. Predictably, the Eagle contends otherwise in "Baseless Story, Worse Journalism," a December 5 editorial that takes Bouton and Moyers to task. Left unaddressed is what Bouton calls a "smoking gun" -- a January 12, 2001, document from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection showing, as Bouton writes in Foul Ball, "that the property owned by the Berkshire contaminated with a 'release of oil' sufficient to qualify it as a 'disposal site,' according to a DEP letter acknowledging receipt of the form."

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