Results tagged ‘ Jim Bouton ’

Nobody Elected to HOF: We Deserve It (Revised)

Well, this is it. Kindly pay your piper. Welcome those chickens coming home to roost. Please enjoy your Hall of Fame Day of Reckoning.

The anecdotal accounts – and an invaluable “exit poll” – foresaw that the Baseball Writers Association of America would elect nobody as part of the class of 2013, and though I grieve for Dale Murphy and Craig Biggio and several others, there is a certain poetic justice to it.

We all knew. The players who used, the players who didn’t, the owners who enabled it, we reporters who covered it, we fans who bought tickets and cheered anyway. Some of us didn’t want to admit we knew until they went after Bonds and Clemens, or until Canseco’s book, or until McGwire’s temporal displacement in front of Congress, or until that container of Andro showed up in his locker in ’98.

But we knew.

We saw utility infielders popping opposite field home runs and part time guys slapping 20 homers and superstars hitting drives that would have set distance records in golf. We saw before and after photos of the Cansecos and the Bondses and we suspended our disbelief.

We all deserve nobody going into the Hall this year save for Hank O’Day and Jake Ruppert and Deacon White. Only O’Day – in his post-pitching career as an umpire – and the bespectacled White were ever accused even of myopia, let alone actual PED-use.

I am not casting stones from inside the glass house. I’m guilty, too. It was the day they gave the 1986 A.L. Rookie of the Year award to Canseco (whose moral standing in this mess has gradually gone from last place to about 4th from the top because he alone was utterly, if mercenarily, honest). One of the runners-up told me off-the-record “you do know that Canseco uses those drugs they give to the East German Women Swimmers, right?”

He didn’t even know they were called steroids.

I did what digging I could, and kept an ear to the ground, but how many sources were enough to tell that story?But in 1988, just after Ben Johnson was thrown out of the Seoul Olympics for a positive steroid test, I got a series of four sources – including some of her opponents – who told me that Florence Griffith-Joyner was just as steeped in scandal as was Johnson. I promptly went out and butchered the story. I was trying to write a revelation that should have sounded like “other Olympic runners say this” and included a recitation of the math that she was now breaking records so profoundly and so quickly that if the pace continued, by the year 2188, a runner would actually finish a race before she started it. Instead, I turned it into something that sounded like “I think she’s on them drug things.” She and her crew threatened suit, I retracted the story, and not long after Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post had the same experience with his “Canseco Cocktail” story. As well-meaning as we each were in trying to expose the putrid mess, we both set back its revelation by some (presumably small) degree. I’m sorry.

About two months after she got back from Seoul, Flo-Jo, who had promised to sue me and CBS and Carl Lewis (who had made the same charge at a speech at the University of Pennsylvania, on videotape, and then claimed it was off the record), and who had promised to keep running until she won Gold in her “home” Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, abruptly retired. We never heard from their lawyers again. She died in 1998, more than a year shy of her 40th birthday. For the record, I think she too either didn’t know – or willingly disbelieved – that there was anything more than perseverance to her unprecedented series of record-breaking performances. I think she suddenly found out, which is where the retirement – and the legal silence – came in. But it’s just a guess.

In any event, the next time I tripped over something substantial, I kept it to myself.  A pro sports team orthopedist remarked on the sudden devastating, nearly career-ending, bizarre injury to a star baseball player. He said that there were only three ways to accomplish what the guy had done to himself: a hereditary circulatory problem or the repeated injection of anabolic steroids into the same place in the body or a horrific car accident (“By that I mean,” he told me, “having a car dropped on top of you from about 25 feet.”) Having burned myself on the Flo-Jo thing I was not prepared to repeat the process. And now I knew that there was one baseball star on steroids and maybe another one had just had his career virtually ended by steroids and there were not enough sources to mine and certainly nobody to pool notes with.

And then the bottle of “andro” showed up in McGwire’s locker. I can remember that week hearing the late baseball writer Leonard Koppett tell me on my show that nobody cared, that it wasn’t cheating, that it was nothing worse than vitamins or maybe, maybe, “greenies.” To his eternal credit, the author and former pitcher Jim Bouton not only disagreed, but got it exactly right. Some day, he says in the interview, baseball will have to reckon with years and years of records that will be artificially inflated, distorted beyond all measure, by the effects of a drug that lets you keep working out when the guys next to you – or before you, chronologically – have to drop the barbell. It was Bouton, after all, who had written in the eternal Ball Four that if a pitcher could take a pill that guaranteed him a) 20 wins and b) that he’d die five years sooner, he would’ve swallowed it before you finished that “b)” part.

So I pushed the Andro story – wrote a piece for Playboy in 1999 in which I picked up both Bouton’s point and the fact that baseball was going to lose the breathless charm of “chasing the home run record.” I pushed that story and every little hint of the truth dropped over the years, by the late Ken Caminiti, by Canseco, by Curt Schilling. But by then, almost nobody cared. I stood atop the right field corner at Fenway at the Home Run Hitting Contest the night before the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway and ooed and ahhed with the rest of you as McGwire hit 650-foot blasts beyond the wall at the other side of the ballpark. And I knew it was mostly the drugs and while I could still preserve enough of my own disbelief to know it wasn’t real, I could see how the results of the PEDs could be as addictive to the fans and the owners’ bottom lines, as the drugs themselves could be the players.

By 2002 I was carrying a printed list of the players I had been told by various sources were “using.” Printed out and folded up inside my scorebook. I’d show it to colleagues and team executives and even other players and get confirmations or denials or additions. But I never even emailed it to, nor copied it for, anybody. With delicious irony, the legal rules protected the rule-breakers.

My conscience is relatively clean. I’ve been yelling about the Emporers’ Clothes for more than fourteen years. Yet it literally still keeps me up at night. Did so last night before today’s announcement. Biggio will probably get in later, and I think the Veterans’ Committee will soon note that Dale Murphy has the same OPS+ as Jim Rice, and was at worst the second or third best hitter of the era that matched his days as a starting player, and the collateral damage to them and the other deserving clean players will be transient. I do think there’s something delicious about the fact that the Baseball Writers have never even been consistent about what merits election to Cooperstown, and this time they all had to figure it out at the most complex moment in voting history, and that because none of them was likely to reach the same conclusion, for everybody who voted Bagwell but not Bonds, there was somebody who voted Bonds but not Bagwell, and none of them got in.

But they all deserve that kind of self-abnegating communal shame. As do we. They did it. We watched it. Those of us who didn’t care, and those of us who cared but couldn’t reveal or stop it, deserve similar if not identical fates.

The path to Steroid Hell was indeed paved with good intentions. And Jim Bouton’s pills. And the drugs that he didn’t know the name of that the guy told me about 26 years ago that they also gave the East German Women Swimmers. And the stuff we saw with our lying eyes and just pretended wasn’t real.

1983

1983

1988

1988

Beerless Forecasts

Best Baseball Autobiography Since Bouton?

Dirk Hayhurst’s description of himself for the author’s ID in his upcoming book The Bullpen Gospels reads in part, “Dirk is a former member of the San Diego Padres, and after this book gets printed, a former member of the Toronto Blue Jays.”

I’m not sure he’s correct. In fact, I’m not sure that in these times when so many fans feel like they’re constantly having the wool pulled over their eyes by athletes ill-equipped for the attempt, if Hayhurst’s constant honesty, his remarkable candor, his drumbeat of unadorned confessed self-doubt, and his seamless writing, won’t resonate through the sport like the first true wonderful day of spring when the game and the weather finally reassure you that winter has been beaten back, at least for a season.
In fact, I’m not sure that he hasn’t written the best baseball autobiography since Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. For Hayhurst, who bombed as a starter for the Padres in 2008 and then showed promise out of the Jays’ bullpen the season past, has written what Bouton wrote, and what a decade before Bouton, what Jim Brosnan wrote – a book that is seemingly about baseball but which, as you read further and further into it, is obviously much bigger than that. These are books about life: struggle, confusion, purpose, purposelessness, and the startling realization that achievement and failure are nearly-identical twins, one which gnaws and deadens, the other which just as often produces not elation but a tinny, empty sound.
Brosnan’s achievement, in The Long Season and Pennant Race, was to introduce to a world which previously had no information of any kind on the subject, the concept of athlete as human being. What did he have to do when demoted, or traded? What happened when management changed? Was there a Mrs. Athlete, and could they share a martini now and again? (answer: You bet). 
Bouton’s breakthrough was to show the concept of athlete as flawed human being. Too many martinis, some of them shared with women other than Mrs. Athlete. Athletes who might not have been geniuses on the field or off, but who seemed invariably managed and coached by men even less intelligent. The struggle to self-start as one’s team sank from optimism, to contention, to inconsistency, to irrelevance, to embarrassment. And yet, were they enjoying themselves, did their lives change for the better, was being an athlete fun? (answer: You bet).
And now here is Hayhurst, who may single-handedly steer baseball away from the two decades-long vise grip of Sport-As-Skill-Development. Since my own childhood, we have ever-increasingly devalued every major leaguer but the superstar. Late in the last century we began to devalue every minor leaguer but the top draft choice. If you don’t make it into somebody’s Top Prospects list, you might as well not exist. Dirk Hayhurst is writing of his days, his months, his years, as far away from the Top Prospects lists as imaginable. He is, in The Bullpen Gospels, often the last man on an A-ball pitching staff, and trying to answer a series of successively worsening questions cascading from the simplest of them: Why?
This, of course, is why the book transcends the game. It’s not just Dirk Hayhurst’s existential doubt about whether he’ll reach the majors or why he’s still trying or if he shouldn’t be helping the homeless instead of worrying about getting the last out of a seven-run inning. He is experiencing the crisis of reality through which we all pass, often daily: when our dreams about life crash head first into its realities, what the hell are we supposed to do then?
Thus The Bullpen Gospels is a baseball book the way “Is That All There Is?” is a Leiber-Stoller pop song by Peggy Lee from 1969. It is the primordial battle of hope and faith and inspiration versus disillusionment and rust and inertia.
Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? But of course therein lies the delightful twist: like Brosnan and Bouton before him, Hayhurst repeatedly rediscovers the absurd hilarity of it all, and the book is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. And like all great artists, he pulls back curtains we never thought to investigate: from how assiduously minor leaguers debate which “Come-out songs” they will choose or which numbers they will wear, to the pecking order of seat locations on the ever-infamous bush league bus trip.
My favorite is probably the mechanics of something the average reader will have never heard of before, let alone have contemplated. It’s “the host family” – the living arrangements by which the non-first-rounders survive their seasons in the minors. Hayhurst hilariously defines such temporary homes as ranging from Wackford Squeers’ Dotheboys Hall, to the visitations from In Cold Blood:

Some families are the perfect model citizens, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Host family with their white picket fence and adorable little children with their cherub faces who can’t wait to be just like their new older brother. Some families are wealthy and treat you like the draft pick you always wanted to be. Some host families aren’t even families at all; some are just one person: a well-toned Cougar looking for an after-hours power hitter to keep her company between filming.

Depending on the makeup of the player, all these choices are desirable. However, they only represent one side of the coin. On the flip side, there is the family who has a pack of misbehaved trolls for children with parents who don’t believe in discipline. The reason your PlayStation has peanut butter leaking from the optical drive can be chalked up to “youthful curiosity.” You may live with a super fan who wants to play coach, manager, and parent. He’ll live vicariously through you and evaluate, criticize, judge, blog, and call the organization about you. Or you may end up with a miserable old spinster who loves cats and hates men…

Players aren’t saints either, and it takes a special family to agree to house one. If you’re a devout Catholic family, getting a Mormon player can make things a tad awkward. If you’re parents of little children, getting that Bostonian player who uses “****” for greetings, good-byes, pronouns, adjectives, verb, and prayer, might be more than you bargained for…

As this excerpt suggests (and the asterisks are mine), it doesn’t hurt that Hayhurst is a fluid and gifted writer, whose prose can take off like a jet and compel you to read for half an hour more than you have. He populates the pages of The Bullpen Gospels with teammates, some identified, some amalgamated, some under aliases – and if the book takes off, ripping the Hayhurstian masks off the more colorful ones may become a low-key hobby after the book is published on March 30 (it’s already up for pre-orders on Amazon and no doubt elsewhere – I’d get it now because I think they’ll be able to raise the price later).

The reaction will be fascinating to see. In 1970, my father endured my clamoring and bought Ball Four and read it himself before handing it to me: “I know you know all these words. Just don’t use them around the house. Read this carefully, there’s a lot of truth in here.” But ever since, we fans have been bombarded for decades by altered versions of truth, all of them writ large and desperately trying to impress us with their essential-ness. Baseball books have tended to focus only on the big, and to try to make it bigger still. We’ve gone from the unlikely accuracy of Jose Canseco’s slimy indictment of the steroid era, through the analyze-all-the-damn-fun-out-of-the-game-why-don’t-you tone of Moneyball and its imitators, through what may in retrospect be seen as a Hayhurst-precursor in Matt McCarthy’s fraudulent Odd Man Out, through dozens of historical works insisting everything that has ever happened in baseball has re-shaped the nation – Jackie Robinson (yes), the 1951 N.L. pennant race (very possibly), the 1912 World Series (no way).
Here, instead, will be a modest book by a modest relief pitcher who has appeared in the modest total of 25 major league games presenting what the modest author thinks (incorrectly) is only modest truth. He has yet to get his own major league baseball card and as I write this there are exactly two of his souvenirs available on eBay and one of them is a photo for $6.99 (“Or Best Offer”). His preface warns you if you seek scandal or steroids, look elsewhere, and the only bold face name in the whole 340 pages, Trevor Hoffman, comes across as a low-key gentleman.
And yet there in the prologue Hayhurst offers a key to what he has written and why, self-guidance to which he sticks pretty neatly: “I also believe there is more to the game than just baseball. For all the great things baseball is, there are some things it is absolutely not. And that is what this story is all about.”
Of course, just as Bouton’s exposure of the real flaws of the real men who played baseball in 1969 made them even more appealing than the phony deities into which they’d been transformed, the great things are made somehow greater by how well Hayhurst contextualizes them, how honestly he tells his story, and how vividly he takes us inside his world.
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