At 12:00 on Saturday I had lunch with Chris Dial and John Thorn. John is one of those people, like David Smith and a few others, that are such delightful regulars at the annual SABR convention that you don’t even bother bragging about knowing them anymore. John has been very kind to me over the years, and I am one of many who could say that. Chris is a good friend, and a riot.
John and I had a panel coming up at 1:00 to honor Jim Bouton, former major league pitching star and famous author, who would be on the panel with us.
No seriously, this was about to happen. I was invited to participate because I wrote a long biographical article on Jim, and another on his famous book. As Ball Four had a huge impact on me, continues to have a huge impact on me, I was thrilled to be asked, but also a bit nervous. Knowing I would not eat, I ordered iced tea.
The other panelists were Marty Appel, whose long career in baseball began with the Yankees in 1968 when Bouton played for them, and Mitchell Nathanson, who is writing a book about Bouton. I have communicated with both of them and admire their work, but we had not met until just minutes before going on stage. We would be joined by Bouton and his wife, Paula Kurman.
John, an experienced hand at these panels, nonetheless had his own reasons to be anxious. Bouton has been battling health issues, a story which broke in the New York Times that morning. John and Jim are good friends, and John’s goal was that this be a love-fest for Jim and Paula. Sounded right to me.
As I walked up onto the stage, I noticed that my assigned seat was right next to Jim’s. No pressure. There were several hundred people in the room.
I greeted the Boutons. I had met them both before, back at the 2006 convention in Seattle, and had interviewed Jim on the phone a couple of times. Even better, my friends Rob Neyer and Rob Nelson had convened a private dinner party in Portland for Bouton in 2006, and I was one of the handful of invited guests. One of the best evenings of my life, honestly.
But they’d have no reason to remember any of that. They each smiled, and seemed ready to go.
Paula, an accomplished and impressive woman in her own right, began with a frank explanation of Jim’s condition, which heightened the drama considerably. From where I sat, the crowd seemed transfixed. I was transfixed.
Thankfully, John called on me next (because of where I was sitting) which helped return my focus to the task at hand. All of John’s questions to Mitchell, Marty and me allowed us ample opportunity to praise the guest of honor and his works. Honest praise comes easily.
Bouton was terrific. He lost his train of thought a few times, and Paula just stepped right in and finished his thoughts for him, as only a decades-long partner could. Their teamwork seamless, their intellect and love obvious. The crowd sat in awe.
Personally, I was numb. What a performance. When Paula referred to herself as a “Jewish girl from Washington Heights,” Jim interrupted her. “You’re Jewish?” The crowd roared. The Bouton we all remembered was still there, in delightful doses.
The schedule insisted that John wrap things up at 2:00. The crowd stood and cheered. It could hardly do anything else.
While Bouton was (politely) mobbed, we mortals shook hands for a job well done while not really wanting to leave the podium. There was another event (there is always another event) at 2:15, so we couldn’t linger forever. Dozens of greetings and small conversations took place as I left the room. I remember none of them.
I was out in the hall for a while when I spotted Jim and Paula getting ready to head downstairs and out of the hotel. I seized the opportunity to thank Paula for coming and to tell her how well it went. She looked nearly as happy as I was.
When Jim turned to us, I said the first thing that came into my head. “Jim, you found a good woman.” They smiled, they embraced, and we went our separate ways.
A goddamned honor is what that was.