DREAMING IN BASEBALL
"Jim dreams in baseball," Paula, his wife, told me. "It's his metaphor for life. . . . If he's happy, feeling strong, he will be pitching well in his dreams, or running successfully to catch a ball. If he's down, he struggles in a baseball context while he sleeps." It was the metaphor he returned to over and over in his writing and whenever he was trying to explain some offbeat, otherwise hard-to-explain passion in his life. Ball Four itself opens with his dreaming in baseball—standing on the mound in Yankee Stadium, vanquishing his old team with his dancing knuckler and driving in the winning run to boot. "I'm 30 years old and I have these dreams," the book begins.
For decades the bare bones of his dreams were nestled in a butter-yellow box that made Paula nervous whenever Jim took them out to show an interested visitor -- the 978 pieces of paper that were the genesis for the soul of the book, the notes he jotted down on hotel stationery and air-sickness bags capturing the musings of Gene Brabender, Gary Bell, Doug Rader, and the rest of the Pilots and Astros. They were clearly his pride as he showed them off. This one is on Houston Astros stationery, he'd say, that one from the Jack Tar Hotel. He'd beam as he showed them, his eyes half on them and half on the memories they elicited, the dreams they inspired. They were his children. He gave birth to them. He nurtured them, formed them, and then sent them out into the world where they were embraced by millions. Their success reflected back on him, and he'd be awash in it whenever he took out the butter-yellow box.
When, for a moment during our initial meeting in 2016, I slipped into fanboy mode and asked him to sign my beaten-up copy of Ball Four for my high school–age son, Alex, who (with perhaps a gentle nudge from Dad) had selected it as his "free choice" book to read over the summer, Jim—perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not—provided me with what I found to be something that might as well have been his battle cry as I began my work on his life's story. "Fuck 'em all, let it all hang out" was how he wanted to inscribe the book, a toothy smile exploding onto his face as he said this loud enough for Paula to hear, fully aware that this would gently pickle her. She overruled him. Don't you dare, she said. So he signed it as he usually did: "Smoke 'em inside," he wrote. Which is no doubt the battle cry of the army of Ball Four junkies, who even a half century later devour the book every spring as a preseason ritual, laughing and crying along with Jim Bouton before they drift off to sleep for the night, where they all hope to dream in baseball just like him.