- - Sunday, February 18, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — Mike Wallace, the guardian of the Washington Nationals clubhouse galaxy, asked what I was up to this particular day of spring training.

“I’m on a quest,” I said. “I read the book ‘Ball Four’ before every baseball season. I wondered if any of these guys have even heard of it, let alone read it.”

“I doubt if these guys have even heard of Jim Bouton, Joe Schultz or the Seattle Pilots,” he replied.

Wally knows his “Ball Four.”

A must-read for fans of a certain era, “Ball Four,” co-authored by pitcher Jim Bouton and sportswriter Leonard Schechter, was the first real behind-the-scenes book about the life of baseball.

Joe Schultz — “Let’s go pound some Budweiser” — was immortalized as the manager for the Seattle Pilots, a team that lasted just one season in 1970 but will always have a place in history, thanks to Bouton’s tell-all diary.

“A revelation about Joe Schultz. Mike Hegan has been hitting hell out of the ball and at this point he is to the Seattle Pilots what Mickey Mantle was to the Yankees. Today he was hit on the arm by a fastball, and when Joe got to him and said, ‘Where’d you get hit, on the elbow?’ Hegan said, ‘No. On the meat of the arm, the biceps.’

“Oh, you’ll be okay,’ Joe said. ‘Just spit on it and rub some dirt on it.’

“Hegan couldn’t move three of his fingers for an hour. But it didn’t hurt Joe at all.’”

Speaking of Mickey Mantle, Bouton, who had once been a 20-game winner with the New York Yankees before developing arm problems and trying to salvage his career as a knuckleball reliever, revealed, among other things, that Mantle was one of the leaders of the Yankees’ peeping Tom unit when they were on the road, and that the Shoreham Hotel in Washington was the best place for such activity.

“One of my first thrills I had with the Yankees was joining about half the club on the roof of the Shoreham at about 2:30 in the morning,” Bouton wrote. “I remember saying to myself, ‘So this is the big leagues.’”

He also wrote about the monotony of spring training:

“There really isn’t much to do in spring training, and it’s a lot like being in the army, where the sergeant will never say anything to you if you look like you’re doing something. I mean, just stopping to tie your shoelace or walking along briskly as if you have someplace to go.

“The mindless grind of spring training produces, as you might guess, a sort of mindlessness. This morning Mike Hegan and I were partners in calisthenics and were locked in something that looked like the “Twist.” And I said to Mike, ‘Hey, this gives me an idea for a dance.

‘Hey, that’s right,’ he said. ‘We’ll call it the Twist.’

‘Right, and we’ll open a string of dance halls.’

‘Yeah, and we can call them the Peppermint Twist.’

‘Right.’

‘But we need a front man with a great name. How about Chubby?’

‘Great. We’ll call him Chubby Checker.’

“That conversation actually took place, Doctor.

“Then some guy farted and everybody laughed, and about five minutes later, in a sudden burst of quiet, he farted again and somebody hollered, ‘Will somebody answer the phone? Some ass keeps calling.’”

Nobody had written anything like this before, and Bouton became a folk hero. It was the sort of book that should be passed down, from one generation of baseball fans, to the next.

Not this generation of players, though. Not in the Nationals clubhouse.

I might as well have asked them if they read “War and Peace.”

I thought pitchers might be the place to find someone familiar with “Ball Four” and perhaps even have read it. I asked Tanner Roark.

“Have not,” he answered when I asked if he heard of Ball Four. “Should I have? I would ask Stras, or maybe Dolittle.”

Yes, Sean Dolittle. A natural. Socially conscious, a bit of a rebel, with the reliever mentality. Of course.

He wasn’t a fan.

“Isn’t that the book that threw everyone under the bus?” he asked.

Well … yeah, but it was such a glorious bus, a bus that needed driving at the time.

I didn’t really see Strasburg as a candidate, but I asked him anyway if he had heard of Ball Four.

“Sort of,” he answered. “I feel like I have. I definitely haven’t read it. I’ve heard of it.”

I’m not sure how Strasburg would do in a Ball Four diary.

Back to the bullpen — Shawn Kelley. He could be a character in Ball Four.

“I feel like I’ve heard of it, but I definitely haven’t read it,” he said. “Maybe I’ll read the Cliff Notes.”

The one player who was most excited about talking about Ball Four — even though he never heard of it or read it — was outfielder Adam Eaton.

“I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of it,” Eaton said. “Is it a rub-people-the-wrong-way book? I feel like I’ve read most of those books. I’ll have to get it. I like them. I enjoy them, in the sense that I like the controversy, what they stir up from players and people outside. I will check it out and report back. I’ll get on Amazon tonight and order it.”

Adam Eaton would have been a star in Ball Four.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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