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A Changing Season: A New Spring Training Ethos


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Baseball has begun its spring training season. That used to be taken as a sign of spring. Is it now a sign of ka-ching in Major League Baseball? Jim Bouton, who pitched for the New York Yankees, the Seattle Pilots, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves and about a dozen other major, minor, and semi-pro teams, the man who shook up baseball 40 years ago with his classic diary, "Ball Four," so widely quoted and reissued, joins us from the studios of New England Public Radio in Amherst.

Jim, thanks for being with us.

JIM BOUTON: Nice to be here, Scott.

SIMON: What are some of the immediate differences you notice between the spring training you went through and what happens now?

BOUTON: Well, fat. That's one of the differences. Years ago, spring training was a place to lose weight. In those days, back in the '60s and many years before then, players were told don't lift weights, you know, rest your body during the off-season. And so we spent most of our time going to, you know, banquets and dinners. So everybody would come to spring training and be anywhere from 10 to 40 pounds overweight.

But today's players, they're working out all year round. They show up for spring training, they look like greyhounds. They're in shape already.

SIMON: So you mean Prince Fielder is at the peak of his condition?


BOUTON: Yeah, can you imagine him back in the '60s? Wow.

SIMON: What about that old bromide that pitchers are ready before hitters?

BOUTON: Well, if your curve ball is breaking, then that's true. If it's not breaking, then the hitters are a little bit ahead. I never found that rule to be true. My best spring training was the year I had just gotten out of the Army. And so that was the equivalent of a modern player, because running around Fort Dix in basic training. I came to spring training, I was hard as a nail.

That was the spring - actually 50 years ago this week, I was in spring training, my first spring training with the Yankees. And I surprisingly made the ball club. I wasn't even supposed to pitch in spring training actually. They were just taking a look at a couple of, you know, promising kids coming up from the minor leagues.

We were playing the Cardinals in St. Petersburg. The score was tied after nine innings. We had nobody to pitch the 10th inning. So they called down to the bullpen, hey, Bouton, you're in there. So I pitched the 10th inning against the Cardinals. And I get them out. We don't score. I pitch the 11th. I get them out. We don't score. I pitch the 12th, the 13th.

In the middle of the 14th inning I'm standing there I realize that Bouton suddenly leads the Yankees in innings pitched, strike outs, every category. I'm mowing these guys down.

My catcher Johnny Blanchard jumps up from behind home plate, he comes jockeying out to the mound and he's angry. He says, hey, meat, throw the damn ball to him and let him hit it.

I said, why? He said, I want to hit some golf balls. Yogi's got dinner plans tonight. We can't be out here all day. He said, besides it's hot back there. I said, John, I'm trying to make the team. He said, you're not going to make the team. You're only pitching because we don't have anybody else. And then he went behind home plate and started telling the hitters what was coming.


SIMON: All your conditioning kind of went for naught then, I would imagine, right?

BOUTON: Right.

SIMON: Yeah. What do you look for in spring training in a player?

BOUTON: You're mostly looking for, you know, their attitude. How do they handle pressure? Throw them into situations, see how they do. They want to find out how minor leaguers fair against, you know, big league players. Are they awed by them? Do they look like minor leaguers or are they cocky? Do they have, you know, the confidence?

It can be scary for a rookie player in the major leagues. I remember the first time. I was throwing batting practice and then suddenly Mickey Mantle jumps into the batting cage.

Well, I'm not afraid of Mickey hitting a home run. I'm afraid of hitting Mickey in the knee. And so I couldn't throw the damn ball over the plate. I kept throwing the ball outside, a little outside, outside corner. And Mickey just smiled and he said, you know, don't worry about it. I understand.

He was really nice about it. He realized that some player with a number 56 on his back is not going to want to, you know, knock out Mickey Mantle for the season. That's for sure.

SIMON: Yeah. Did you make the team that year?

BOUTON: Yeah. Yeah, I made the team.

SIMON: Yeah.

BOUTON: I remember Ralph Houk came over to me - this is four days before we were ready to go north with the team - and he said, Don't tell anybody, but you made the ball club. And he told me that and he wanted to watch me. He said this a couple of years later. He said, I just wanted to watch you walk around for three, four days with that secret.


BOUTON: Which I thought was a very nice thing for Ralph to do and to say.

SIMON: Do you make friendships that last in spring training?

BOUTON: Yeah, sometimes. Particularly if you came up with that player from the minor leagues. I came up - I made the Yankees in 1962 along with Phil Linz. And he was my roommate in the minor leagues and now here we were, you know, in the major leagues suddenly with the New York Yankees. So, yeah, that's a lifetime bond. Phil and I are still good friends.

SIMON: The harmonica player?

BOUTON: Yeah. He came...

SIMON: You know, he became famous, almost more famous for that harmonica than anything else.

BOUTON: Well, the legend has it - and the legend is a lot more fun - the legend has it that Yogi hollered something from the front of the bus and Phil leaned forward to Mickey and he said what did he say? And Mickey said: Play it louder.

SIMON: Oh, my. Jim Bouton, the author of "Ball Four" and other classic books about baseball and life, speaking to us from New England Public Radio in Amherst. Jim, thanks so much.

BOUTON: You're welcome, Scott. Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.