Last day of March … the National Weather Service is predicting that we will see 60 degrees for the first time all year today. That is a good sign.
Season 114 (as a Major League club) of Chicago White Sox baseball officially kicks off this afternoon. After the disaster of 2013, it will be great to get 2014 off and rolling to some much needed improvement. New Cuban star Jose Abreu is one of the most anticipated rookie starts in the Majors this year, and certainly the most anticipated for the Sox in a long time.
But with my usual ramblings on Opening Day being a day of rebirth and beginning, it will be a bittersweet day. Long time hero of the Sox, Paul Konerko, will begin his long good-bye as he makes his final Opening Day appearance. He has been the rock steady first baseman more-or-less since Frank Thomas gave up the job permanently to become the DH. Between Thomas and Konerko, the Sox haven’t had need for a new first baseman since 1990 or so. The hope is that Abreu will fill the void.
I recently completed reading Ball Four, the highly humorous and insightful book by former pitcher Jim Bouton (not that one measures greatness this way, but New York Public Library had this book on their 1996 list of “Books of the Century”, and Time had it on their 2011 list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books written since the 1920s.). Bouton, in his heyday, pitched for the Yankees in the early-mid 1960s. He won 21 games one season, and pitched in a couple of World Series, but he was also a Yankee during the time when their four decade long dynasty finally came to an end. In 1969, he found himself working on a knuckle ball to keep his career going, and ended up with the expansion Seattle Pilots in their one and only year of existence before Bud Selig bought the team and carted them off to Milwaukee to be re-branded as the Brewers. Because the good and kind citizens of Seattle (Bouton wrote that any city that cared about their art galleries more than their baseball team can’t be all bad … as an art lover I don’t wholly agree with this) had already approved funds for the construction of a new stadium that would become the Kingdome, Seattle was promised a new team just as soon as the League expended again … which is why the Mariners came into existence in 1977. During that year, he kept notes and a detailed journal of his time in spring training, being sent down to the minor leagues, his return, and his trade to the pennant contending Houston Astros. When the book was published the next year, it created tremendous controversy.
Today, we know to be careful about lionizing athletes too much … we know they have weaknesses and faults like every one of us … before Ball Four, that was not well known in he public. Bouton lifted the shroud on the locker room for all of its craziness and perverseness … everything from drug use and womanizing to poor management, alcoholism, and the mistreatment of the players … the strain on family life and the true love of the game. Bouton named names, and for the first time, there were public stories of Mickey Mantle having a serious drinking problem and the widespread use of amphetamines. A lot of players shunned him, and he was banned from attending Old-Timers games at Yankee Stadium … until 1998. The Commissioner of Baseball at the time (whom Bouton dubbed “the Ayatollah”) demanded that he sign a statement claiming that he had invented every last story (Bouton refused). In subsequent editions, Bouton rather courageously and frankly talked bout the break up of his own marriage, at least partially brought on by the change in lifestyle as he transitioned from professional athlete who traveled a lot to stay at home husband. He laos spoke about how he needed to change as he finally did a lot of growing up in his 40s.
In one way, Bouton’s book was the the end of baseball innocence. It was equally the beginning of the truth about baseball. People finally got to see the game for what it was: man children being run by greedy, often uncaring owners who often times really didn’t know what they were doing … that ball players really were jerked around in a system that gave them no power over their bodies whatsoever … and that the days of the boy scout charm that many of these players exuded was now gone. Before teh book, journalists had to be careful to not step on toes, lest they be ejected from the locker room and lose access to interview with players. Now, journalists who didn’t report were scooped by the competition. Even if you aren’t a baseball fan, it was a great book; perhaps the only one of its kind shedding so much light on that era of baseball, just before the start of free agency in the mid-1970s.
I’ve never met Bouton, but I sense from his writing that he is a man very passionate about baseball. He more or less predicted part of his future in the last lines of the book (he pitched on and off in semi pro ball at least into his 50s):
Jim O’Toole and I started out even in the spring. He wound up with the Ross Eversoles (a very low minor league team in the Kentucky Industrial League) and I ended with a new lease on life. And, as I daydream of being Fireman of the Year in 1970 (award for best relief pitcher), I wondered what the dreams of Jim O’Toole are like these days. Then I though, would I do that? When it’s over for me, would I be hanging on with the Ross Eversoles? I went down deep and the answer I came up with was yes.
Yes, I would. You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.
That last sentence can apply to a lot of things that I know good people are passionate about.
Opening Day … couldn’t have gotten here any slower. It is about time! Batter up!