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Original Issue

Old 56 comes back at 39

In Atlanta, Jim Bouton knuckled three shutout innings before knuckling under.


Pittsburgh (Bibby 8-7) at New York (Berenguer 0-2), 2:05 p.m.
Los Angeles (Sutton 13-10) at Atlanta (Bouton 0-0), 2:15 p.m.

One of the more charming of baseball's quaint customs is the business of permitting the roster to swell to 40 once August has turned to dust. Mostly these callow September people are promoted only to spit and strut a moment upon the green stage, but occasionally one does get the chance to hit a homer, to notch a save, even to juggle a magic number in his glove. It is a most generous tradition, and in this season an especially good one, because the rule made it possible for Jim Bouton, age 39, to come back to the big leagues on the far side of Labor Day.

No matter what the month, Bouton is one of those September persons, always bursting gloriously, unexpectedly into celebrity, befuddling a settled, mid-season populace unprepared for his metamorphoses and antics: fireballing hurler, bestselling author, free-wheeling sports announcer, confessed vasectomer, actor, TV scenarist, what-have-you. But this latest—the audacity, the whimsy of it! Even the gamblers were so disoriented they could not, for all their wisdom and vigorish, compose a Braves-Dodgers line.

Other men have returned to the majors at Bouton's age, but none had been out of the game for so many years, entered other careers, put on a different face, even climbed into a different body. Bouton was 20 pounds lighter than when he last pitched in the majors, a desultory episode with the Astros in 1970 that even he cannot recall. He had to scratch back, too—he was 1-11 in Class AA last year, tolerated only as an eccentric who sold a few seats to idle nostalgics and masochists. This spring, he had to plead with Ted Turner, the Atlanta owner, for a chance just to pitch minor league batting practice, and even as he stood on the Braves' mound Sunday after a successful summer in Double A (12-9, 2.77 at Savannah), there were those who would not believe that it was more than a lark, a desecration of the national pastime.

A number of the Los Angeles players and a Reds' executive made rare common cause in dispensing anti-Bouton/anti-Turner remarks at the game. They should have taken their smugness and patronizing slurs on the bus ride the Savannah Braves took Saturday to Knoxville for their last playoff game. Said Stu Livingstone, a Savannah relief pitcher, "There wasn't a player on the bus who didn't talk up for Jim, who didn't want him to show all the doubters what he can do."

Bouton, who was already in Atlanta, sent his real team a telegram, and then prepared to play with the big league strangers. Most of all, it seemed, he was at peace. "Whatever happens today, this has been the most satisfying summer of my life," he said. "Two years ago I would dream of this moment, putting on a major league uniform again, and in my daydreams I would always see myself crying. But when the moment came, it was different. I can't explain my emotions, because they're different from what anyone has ever had. But my perceptions have changed. Two years ago it was a dream. But I have earned this uniform. What I accomplished this summer was a reality. I belong here. I'm a bona fide major leaguer. I didn't have to cry."

The crowd of 11,162, more receptive to romance and joy than the cheerless, image-conscious critics from Cincinnati and Los Angeles, stood and applauded the man. He gripped the seams and threw a knuckleball to the Dodger lead-off batter, Davey Lopes. "Strike one," the umpire said. Lopes, who later characterized the afternoon as "a joke" rife with "disrespect for baseball," struck out.

Laurie Bouton, age 12, gaped. "Oh, Mom, can you believe that?" she said.

"That's wonderful," said Bobbi Bouton, "but it's just one batter." Jim got the side in order, and through three innings gave up only one walk. The entire Bouton family, plus several friends, had flown in to enjoy what Jim's brother Bob referred to as "this time warp," and they sat choked and unbelieving as a real no-hit fantasy unfolded.

That dream ended in the fourth. A knuckleball is destiny's child. Fastballs, curves, sliders, the usual pitcher's fare, are tools of the man who throws them. But to hear knuckleballers tell it, their pitch decides what it will do without much regard for the wishes of the man who is throwing it. Sunday, Bouton knew when he warmed up that he had only a pedestrian knuckler. In his last start, a two-hitter against Orlando, he had "superknuck" with him, and he threw it 95% of the time. Against the Dodgers, he had to mix in his palmball, a cut fastball (timed at a death-defying 70 mph; his knuckler sidles up around 60), an occasional change. And in the fourth, he lost some of his rhythm and got a bit wild. An anguished Reggie Smith, distressed at "this circus atmosphere," engaged in some wish-fulfillment and got himself thrown out of the game for sassing the plate umpire at every turn.

Bobbi Bouton grimaced. "This is bad," she said. "A knuckleballer needs so much concentration." She knows her husband, the pitcher, well. He immediately walked Bill North, Smith's replacement. Steve Garvey then got the Dodgers' first hit; two more singles followed, and Rick Monday made it 5-1 with a three-run homer. Trailing 6-1, Bouton went out for a pinch hitter after five innings.

Thus for three innings he was very, very sharp. "I think I proved my stuff is good enough," he said. "It's only a matter of being consistent. I did it. It came all the way back, and I got out big league hitters." And he gave up six earned runs in five innings. That, too, was true.

Bouton and the Braves will have an opportunity to see which is the real Bouton, because he will have several more starts before the season is played out. And during those outings Bouton will not be burdened with the ineffable emotions that beset him on Sunday. He enjoys pressure, but what he experienced Sunday worked upon the heart more than it did upon the stomach and the old Adam's apple. "I'm in a territory nobody's ever been to before," he said.

And an unexplored land is where Bouton really is, not in the Southern Association or the National League. He has achieved much there; he has been a bold adventurer in his foray beyond the borders of baseball convention. Perhaps it is too much to expect a bunch of ballplayers to understand that.

"There are so many shouldn'ts and can'ts in the world that when someone challenges them, as I have, and beats them, as I have, then it has to inspire people," Bouton said. To him, the day had been a victory, though in baseball terms it was a defeat that left him 61-61, lifetime. Or, 61-60 last lifetime, 0-1 this lifetime. Jim Bouton leads the majors in lifetimes.