Fred A. Bernstein

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Now Pitching For Wahconah, Jim Bouton

The "Ball Four" author cries "Foul Ball" in the Berkshires

Published in The New York Times, April 10, 2003


NORTH EGREMONT, Mass. -- It takes a four-wheel drive to climb the steep, snowy hill to Jim Bouton's house here in the Berkshires. Mr. Bouton, the one-time Yankee pitcher known for his 1970 best seller, ''Ball Four,'' wants to talk about architecture.

Over a platter of cheeses laid out by his wife, Paula Kurman, he showed off his balsa-wood model of the house. ''I made changes to the model, and then the architect transferred them to the blueprints,'' he said. The house has a combined living and dining room so big, Ms. Kurman said, ''Friends joke that if you stand at one end, you can see the curvature of the earth.'' It also has a basement where he and Ms. Kurman practice ballroom dancing.

He appraises the original World Trade Center (''arrogant'') and Daniel Libeskind's replacement, which he admires because, he says, ''it goes down to the bedrock, and I love stone.'' Later, he laments the loss of historic buildings in Pittsfield, an industrial city 25 miles north of here. Finally, he turns to the architecture he knows best: old ballparks.

''I never liked the 70's ballparks,'' Mr. Bouton, 64, said. ''The old parks were like cathedrals. You could hear the ball cracking against the bat and hear the players calling to each other. And there was no TV screen flashing advertising messages in the outfield. The new ballparks are just like any other noisy joint.''

Mr. Bouton's passion for old ballparks has turned a pitcher into a crusader. His next book, ''Foul Ball,'' documents his fight to protect Wahconah Park, a 1919 wooden stadium in Pittsfield where he played 30 years ago while trying out for a Texas Rangers farm team. The book, which he says will be in stores by June, is either a cautionary tale about small-town politics, as he sees it, or the pitfalls of retirement, as some readers may conclude. Or both.

Wahconah is a Rockwellesque relic of baseball's early years. Fewer than five stadiums from that era are still standing, said Tim Wiles, the director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Mr. Bouton is fond of such oddities as plastic owls dangling from the rafters to ward off pigeons. From the outside, ''Wahconah doesn't look like much,'' he acknowledged. ''But the charm is on the inside, the proximity to the field, the wooden seats, the feeling that you get from stepping into the past.''

His crusade began in 2001, after the Pittsfield Astros announced they were departing for a new stadium in Troy, N.Y., leaving Pittsfield without a major source of civic pride.

Mr. Bouton enlisted two partners to try and raise $1.5 million privately to renovate Wahconah into what he called ''a must-see stopover in the triangle formed by Cooperstown, Fenway and Yankee Stadium,'' with 14 corrugated-metal ''not-so-luxury boxes'' and a ''taste of the Berkshires'' food court.

They promised to buy a minor league team to play there once they had the lease.

The campaign consumed him day and night for months. ''If I didn't succeed, how could I show my face in the community?'' he asked. The campaign ended, unhappily for Mr. Bouton, in October 2001, when Pittsfield's parks commission leased Wahconah to a rival, Jonathan Fleisig, a Manhattan trader of energy futures, who already owned a team and promised to move it to Wahconah.

''Mr. Bouton thought that if he had the stadium, he would get a team,'' Mr. Fleisig said. ''I had a team. The commissioners understood the difference.''

Mr. Fleisig, whose team, now the Berkshire Black Bears, is about to begin its second season at Wahconah Park, sees Mr. Bouton as ''divisive.'' ''I just wish he'd come out to the park,'' he said. ''I'll buy him a beer, and we can watch a game.''

But that would not be Mr. Bouton's style. ''I won't go to the prom to see another guy dance with my girl,'' he said.

What he will do this summer is promote his book, which his wife helped edit and which he is self-publishing after his original publisher, Public Affairs, asked him to seek responses from people he accuses of malfeasance.

Mr. Bouton, who has named his publishing venture Bulldog, after his Yankee nickname, said he refused because, ''When I wrote 'Ball Four,' I didn't get responses from Major League Baseball.''

Gene Taft, publicity director for Public Affairs, said the book was dropped because of an editorial impasse. ''We wanted to do a book about baseball,'' Mr. Taft said. ''Jim wanted to go off on a lot of subplots.''

The book, Mr. Bouton said, includes accusations that business interests conspired to keep him from renovating Wahconah lest he gum up plans to build a new $18 million multiuse stadium at a different downtown site. Even though voters defeated that stadium plan in a June 2001 referendum, Mr. Bouton, the architecture lover, is still building his case.

He said his book, which he had not yet retrieved from Kinko's, where galley proofs were being copied, will show that the private land where the stadium was to be built -- the site of a former car dealership -- is polluted. The new stadium would have been ''a Band-Aid over a tumor, with a large green outfield covering a multitude of subterranean sins,'' he maintains.

He said he has a document that proves it but declined to show it, preferring, he said, to release it on the last page of his book.

The land in question is owned by the parent company of The Berkshire Eagle, New England Newspapers Inc., which said it intended to donate it to the city for a new stadium. The Eagle's editor, David Scribner, denied that the attempt to build a stadium, which The Eagle has supported in editorials for many years, had anything to do with pollution. ''Bouton loves conspiracies,'' he said. ''It justifies his existence.'' (Mr. Scribner added that he likes Mr. Bouton, whom he met years ago in a ballroom dancing class).

The new mayor of Pittsfield, Sara Hathaway, said that engineers have conducted test borings and that the land has ''some petroleum on the site -- it was a former auto dealership,'' but she denies that there was any cover-up. She says plans for a CVS drugstore on the site are proceeding.

Ms. Hathaway, who has a degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan, was sympathetic to some of Mr. Bouton's complaints about how city government had functioned during the Wahconah deliberations. ''The parks commission was seen as having had a bad track record in terms of public input, open meetings and fair process,'' she said.

''And yet,'' Ms. Hathaway continued, ''I reviewed the proposals after I took office and decided the conclusion they reached was the right one.''

Originally, she said, she had expected to side with Mr. Bouton. ''I was impressed by the idea of having somebody of Jim Bouton's stature sponsor a team in Pittsfield, in terms of the p.r. we would gain and the baseball traditions he represents,'' Ms. Hathaway said. ''But after taking office, I found major flaws in his business strategy, and in his ability to deliver. His proposal was predicated on building skyboxes on a very old structure that could not support the physical changes he was looking to make in the ballpark.''

She says she met with Mr. Bouton several times, concluding that ''his enthusiasm outpaced his ability to deliver'' -- a notion Mr. Bouton rejects.

As for the skyboxes, he said: ''They were not even the centerpiece of our proposal. It's ridiculous for anyone to point to that.'' As for his ability to deliver a team, he said: ''With the lease to Wahconah in hand, we would have shopped around for the best deal for Pittsfield. It's the lease that's the valuable asset, not the ball team.''

While campaigning for that lease, Mr. Bouton took notes, just as he had in 1969 while playing for the Seattle Pilots and gathering material for ''Ball Four,'' a memoir filled with reconstructed private conversations that make just about everyone seem greedy or incompetent -- or both.

''Foul Ball'' similarly paints its author as a victim. ''I feel like Erin Brockovich,'' he said, referring to the environmental crusader whose story was turned into a film.

As Mr. Bouton tells it, he wasn't looking for trouble when he and Ms. Kurman moved here 10 years ago. ''Trouble sometimes finds me,'' he said.

They had been living in Teaneck, N.J., when they set out to build a vacation house on a mountainside, but when the new house became too big and too expensive they decided to live in it full time. Projects that included inventing (his credits include Big League Chew, a shredded bubble gum meant to replace chewing tobacco), giving motivational speeches and building walls on his property would have been enough for most people. But the former knuckleballer wasn't about to kick back.

Mr. Bouton threw himself into the role of civic champion. On his Web site, along with offers of autographed baseballs, he posted renderings of a spruced-up Wahconah.

Ms. Kurman, a volunteer fund-raiser for a local hospital, was along for the ride. ''He likes jumping off cliffs without a parachute,'' said Ms. Kurman, who has been married to Mr. Bouton for 25 years. ''The trouble is, you don't know where your next dollar is coming from.''

The couple's blended family includes four grown children, though Mr. Bouton prefers to say five, so as not to overlook his daughter, Laurie, who died in a 1997 car crash. ''She was the only party not at fault,'' he said.

That observation reflects Mr. Bouton's world view, in which virtue is no protection against life's foul balls, and there is no umpire watching.