I started following the Braves in 1978. Thirty nine-year-old knuckleballer Jim Bouton was called up in September. I was too young to have read “Ball Four” and was only vaguely familiar with Bouton, but his return to the majors was getting a lot of attention. In my then-brief experience as a Braves fan (five months), only one other game — the night Garber ended Pete Rose’s hitting streak — had the feel of an event (box score). Frank Deford with the prose:
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.
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.
Bouton finished the season strong, however, winning his next outing against the Giants (1 unearned run, 3 hits, in 6 IP) and matching J.R. Richard over seven innings in his next, holding Houston to two runs. I stayed up late to watch that one.
Wouldn’t it be cool to see it again? MLB Network should have a “Basement Tapes” kind of show for just these kind of games but that won’t happen. Hell, they never air any old games anymore unless they’re a part of some Bob Costas-hosted retrospective. Maybe he’ll do one on Bouton’s second act.