By Mike Steffanos
Could you tell us a little more about your year catching Jim Bouton?
See, if I was REALLY inspired by Bouton, I'd have written a book about that summer by now. Maybe some day I will.
The league was, at the time, one of the top semipro leagues on the East Coast -- this was before the independent leagues like Can-Am and the Atlantic League came about. We used wood bats, and most of the teams were a mixture of recent college grads, just-released minor leaguers, and "lifers" -- former pros or local standouts who couldn't give up playing. Most of the pitchers were big horses in their twenties who threw mid- to high-80s, a few in the 90s, and trying to get back into professional ball. So Jimmy was quite a contrast from the norm -- a wiry, 50-something guy throwing a 48-MPH knuckleball with no designs on "graduating" from the league.
I remember the first day I met him, in Little Ferry, NJ. I was stretching down the left field line when this skinny-looking guy with no hat covering his graying hair walks up to me with a friendly smile and a shiny new baseball. At first I was startled, wondering, is this someone's dad? He looked like a high school chemistry teacher, and he was swimming in the yellow jersey just given to him. As he came closer it hit me who he was, and he extended his small white hand and said "Hi, I'm Jimmy, I'm pitching today." I nearly lost my lunch. "Mr. Bouton, wow, I, I, I'm Joe. I read your book about 20 times". He held his smile, we shook hands, and he said, "Call me Jim, no Mr. Bouton." I was surprised at his size -- smaller than I expected, and his hand was swallowed by my big paw. I guess you develop an image of someone you admire, you somehow expect them to be larger. He handed me an oiled-up pillow of a catcher's mitt, about twice the size of mine. "Here, you might want to try using this. I'll be ready to warm up in about ten minutes." With that he did a series of old-school military calisthenics and stretches, ran around the outfield, and then we threw.
Jimmy threw a fluttering knuckleball around 50-80% of the time, depending on how it was working. His motion was almost exactly as I'd seen on the old newsreels -- uncomfortably stiff, straight up and down, with his hat falling off after release. He launched the knuckleball like a grenade toss, throwing it high up around the tip of the batter's helmet, and on good days it would jiggle a bit on the way in, then dart down sharply to the right or left (neither he nor I never knew which way it would fall). It was not unlike the "perplexer pitch" that Bugs Bunny threw -- it would coast in nice and easy, then out of nowhere it seemed like someone had pulled a string attached to it and jerked it down and to the side. Needless to say, the oversized catcher's mitt rarely made a difference. I'd alternate using that and a smaller one -- in the end, the smaller one was sometimes easier because it was lighter and I could move my hands faster to stop the ball. That's what I did, mostly -- stop it in mid-flight. Catching would not be an accurate descriptor.
He also threw a sinking fastball, but it wasn't much faster than his knuckler, a "drop", and a slider. The "drop" was actually an overhand curve, which would have been a devastating pitch if it had any velocity. Jim let me call the pitches, all the time -- which was both a thrill and a great confidence booster. Here I was, a kid just out of college, catching a guy who had pitched 10 years in the big leagues, had won 21 games with the Yankees and pitched in a World Series, and he had put his trust in me completely. "I don't want to have to think," he told me, "and you can see better than me what's working and what's not."
I think Jim was around 53-54 years old when I caught him, and everything came in around the same speed -- about 65 MPH. This drastic speed difference gave most batters fits for the first few innings, and if the knuckler was "on", he'd usually get through 6-7 frames. We'd usually close out his games with this guy Steve Verrone, who had been a 2nd-round pick of the Astros about ten years earlier and still threw gas. After Bouton's soft junk, Verrone's 90-91 fastball looked like 110!
One day I'll never forget. It was about 45 minutes before the game, and Jim had not arrived yet. He was driving down to Wayne, NJ from somewhere in Massachusetts, so we assumed he was caught in traffic. Then our manager conveyed the message that Jimmy probably wouldn't make it, as he had a kidney stone. I started warming up one of our relief pitchers to make an emergency start, when, about 15 minutes before game time, Jimmy's car flies into the parking lot, and he jogs out already in uniform. His face was white as a sheet and he was sweating. "You OK?" I asked. He nodded, didn't say anything, grabbed a new ball and we started warming up. He wound up throwing about 6 great innings -- square jawed, tight lipped, and face strained on every pitch -- before leaving the game. He ran off the field, into the high school, and passed the stone in boys room.
Occasionally, we'd talk about writing, since I was a budding novelist at the time (still working on my first, LOL!). He told me that he was in the middle of writing a novel himself. It would be his first work of fiction, and he claimed that many of the characters were based on his teammates that summer. Several years later, "Strike Zone" was published. I've read it twice, and can figure out where he sprinkled in some of the personalities and games from that year, which is pretty neat. You'll have to read the book yourself to figure out which character is me.
If you could change just one thing about how the Mets franchise is run, what would it be?
Easy. I'd make a commitment to building the franchise for the long-term, emulating the Braves and the Twins. I'm not on board with the idea that New York fans don't have the patience for rebuilding -- that's nonsense. YANKEE fans may not have patience, but the large majority of loyal Mets fans would be fine with struggling for a few years IF they saw that there was a plan in place, and there was commitment to the plan. We toughed it through the early 1980s, and were rewarded with some of the most exciting seasons in the team's history from 1984 to 1990 -- with teams built around a core of players that we as fans could easily root for, and felt more attached to because of continuity and because we felt we "watched them grow up".
Under my watch, the long-term plan would start at the very bottom of the organization, with the scouts and the low levels of the minors -- where the focus would be on instilling fundamentals and developing consistent execution in all phases of the game. Teenage phenoms would not be rushed through the system because they have a great bat or a live fastball -- they'd have to develop their entire game in A ball before moving up to the next level. That's where the current regime frustrates me -- they say they're committed to a "win now" mentality, but then they stop short of acquiring the final pieces and start talking about the farm system. A lot of mixed signals.
What do you see yourself doing personally 10 years down the road?
Hey, this is sounding like a job interview ... and I don't do those anymore.
Seriously though ... I'd love to be still writing about baseball and teaching baseball skills ten years from now -- except, to have the wherewithal to do it from a beach house. Not a multimillion dollar oceanfront mansion on Miami Beach, but a comfortable, humble abode on the Jersey Shore with a rooftop deck high enough to give me a view of the water. Somehow, some way, I see myself staying involved in baseball, and writing, one way or another.