Baseball and literary legend Jim Bouton died today. He was 80. My full story about his life and work can be read over at the baseball site. Now, though, something personal.
I have spent most of my life as something of a square peg in a round hole.
- I moved around a lot when I was a kid. I never had serious problems adjusting to new towns, new houses or new schools, but I was often a novelty, I was often an outsider and I felt like one, consciously;
- I was the first person in my family to go to college. I managed to do well in college, but the learning curve was a bit tougher for me than it was for some of my peers who came from college-educated families. Law school was much the same in that a great many of my classmates were the children of professionals who had a better handle on it all and greater comfort with the world I was trying to break into;
- As a lawyer I was always an odd duck. I was good at most of the tasks of the job but didn’t feel like I ever truly belonged in that world. In hindsight I realize that my discomfort with my surroundings often led me to sabotage myself as a lawyer. I constantly undermined my career in subtle ways due to my failure to conform to expectations and join in with the prevalent ethos of the legal workplace;
- I moved to the suburbs about 15 years ago. I look the part of the suburban dad but I’ve never felt the part and I’ve not made many friends or connections here in all of these years. This became even more pronounced after I began working at home and especially after my divorce. New Albany is a very pleasant place and from what I can tell the people are nice, but it does not know what to do with single dads who don’t put on a suit and tie and head downtown every day;
- I switched from the law to baseball writing about ten years ago. I have a great job, a great employer, many loyal readers and I’m enormously happy with my work, but I’m still an outsider. My company isn’t really in the baseball business and between that and working remotely I often feel like I’m off on an island someplace. There’s likewise a pretty significant element of my profession which considers me an interloper who never paid his dues and who doesn’t show the proper deference to his peers. I’ve been denied membership to my industry’s leading professional association because of that and rarely does a month go by when I don’t get a sideways comment about my place in this world.
What should I have done with all of those past uneasy fits and what should I do about the present ones?
It’s natural for some to simply assess the landscape and do what needs to be done to conform and fit in. I can’t do it and never have been able to. There are times I desperately wished I could do that. I often think about how much easier my life would’ve been if I could’ve done it. But I simply can’t. It’s not in me.
By the same token, it’s natural for some to rebel. To embrace iconoclasm and nonconformity and to wear those things like a badge of honor. That’s not me either. My inability to readily fit in is not a point of pride and lashing out at authority or the establishment is not a part of my DNA, even if its opposite is not either.
I’ve always been caught in between. I am aware that I have always been different — aware that I don’t fit in well with my surroundings — and I am proud of those differences. But I have never been able to shake the reluctant realization that I want and need at least some semblance of the approval of others. At least some validation from my peers, however defined. At least some place within the institutions I respect and which I superficially inhabit. This conflict has often caused me to exist in the world I live in uncomfortably, torn between my desire to find peace within it and my inability to simply relax and let peace wash over me, chafing against those constraints.
Despite all of this, I am a man at peace. I’m a happy person. Not because I know how to solve this dilemma — I certainly don’t — but because I know I am not alone. I know that there are many people who feel this way. I have even had role models who have faced these same dilemmas and managed to triumph. Jim Bouton was one of them. Maybe the greatest among them.
Bouton was a square peg in baseball’s round hole. He figured out pretty early that he wasn’t much like his peers even if his skills entitled him to a place alongside them. He might’ve done well for himself if he had managed to put his head down and conform like so many players before him and so many since. He might’ve pitched in the big leagues until the late 70s or early 80s as a rubber-armed knuckleballer. Or, at the very least, might’ve latched on as a coach and maybe could’ve become a manager or a front office executive one day. He was a smart guy. He would’ve done a good job with it, I bet.
But he simply couldn’t. For all that he wrote I don’t think he ever really explained why, but my sense is that, like me, it would’ve simply been impossible and self-denying for him to do so. He had to do what the voice inside his head told him to do, even when it was likely to send him into a bad place. Which, by the way, it did. It caused him to be involuntarily exiled from baseball and to be ostracized by his former teammates and peers. He landed well — he became a sportscaster and an actor and did all kinds of other interesting things — but there was no guarantee that would happen. Bouton did what his conscience and is id told him to do, foregoing the easier path that conformity would’ve offered him.
Yet, at the same time, he was no true rebel. He was no iconoclast and never claimed to be. He didn’t want to burn down the game of baseball and walk away as he blew out the match. Even before the fallout, as he was writing “Ball Four,” he wrote of his fear and anxiety about not being a part of the game anymore. He worried that he couldn’t pitch anymore and openly wondered what and who he was if he could not get major league hitters out and stick with a team. Later, years after the professional success and professional calamity that was occasioned by “Ball Four,” he still longed to play baseball. He worked his tail off in the minors and the Mexican League simply to continue to do what he loved, with his most famous written words — “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time” — no doubt echoing in his mind.
And he was successful. His five games with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, eight years after he was more or less drummed out of the game, served as validation for him. He had bristled against baseball’s culture of conformity and, as a result was pushed out of the game, but he still needed it and wanted to be a part of it, badly. And he got it.
I was only a teenager when I first read “Ball Four,” but something in it beyond its merely enjoyable prose resonated with me, even if I had no idea what it was. When I re-read it in my 30s it hit me harder. I felt a push and pull in my life that I couldn’t really describe and I saw something akin to it in Bouton’s pages even if I didn’t know quite how it all fit together.
Now, on the day he died, it has finally crystalized for me. The battle between Bouton’s inability to conform and his inability to truly rebel was not one either side of him was ever going to win and success or failure in his life was never going to be defined by the outcome of that battle. Rather, Bouton was defined by that push and pull. His success in life — which I believe he achieved in spades, and I hope he died believing it too — was a function of his finding grace and peace in the midst of it all, knowing that conflict would never be truly resolved.
In this, Bouton provided a sterling example for all of us who find ourselves in that same dilemma. In this, Jim Bouton became the patron saint for those who chafe.