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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Taking on the Powers That Be
Book Review by Neal Suwe

Jim Bouton. Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark. North Egremont, Mass.: Bulldog Publishing, 2003, 405 pp., $24.95, cloth.

 

In the iconoclastic book Ball Four, Jim Bouton picked up a ratty old water-logged baseball and showed us some of the slimy creepy-crawlies slithering around underneath the glamorous world of Major League Baseball. In his new book, the self-published Foul Ball, Bouton again reveals the seamy underside of the game—and where professional sports has gone wrong—as he and a group of investors try to save a historic minor league ballpark in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and run up against powerful corporate and political interests.

Just as in Ball Four, Bouton uses a diary format to tell of his experiences, allowing the story to unfold for the reader much as it did for him. This approach makes the reader more sympathetic to the author's perspective, and in the case of Foul Ball in particular, helps one better understand the complexities of the story as machinations and sudden twists are revealed chronologically.

In the post–Reagan age of Enron, it is epidemic among professional sports team owners to hold their teams hostage and attempt to extort millions of dollars in corporate welfare from cash-strapped municipalities, often with the enthusiastic support of city leaders and media moguls. Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is yet another city to suffer the consequences of saying no.

In Pittsfield, historic Wahconah Park has hosted professional baseball since 1892, and in recent years the stadium housed the Mets' (1988–2000) and Astros' (2001) affiliates in the Class A New York–Penn League. Like many classic ballparks, Wahconah Park provides the intimacy and charm missing in today's retro stadia, but the place apparently needed modern locker rooms, new plumbing, flood abatement, and other improvements. Although local residents twice voted to renovate the old park in an attempt to keep the minor league team happy, club president Bill Gladstone would only be satisfied with a new stadium featuring those ubiquitous luxury boxes that have now become de rigueur for even Single A baseball. So when the city wouldn't build him a new palace, Gladstone did the predictable, taking his bats and balls to Troy, New York, for the 2002 season.

In response to losing the Pittsfield Astros, a group was formed by local political and business leaders to procure $18.5 million from state and municipal coffers to build a new stadium in hopes of attracting another team. The local newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle (owned by Media News Group, a national conglomerate based in Denver), led the cheers and was willing to donate a plot of prime real estate in downtown Pittsfield for the project.

Enter Jim Bouton, his friend Chip Elitzer, an investment banker from nearby Great Barrington, and Eric Margenau, president of United Sports Ventures (proprietors of several hockey and baseball teams), with an alternative proposal. The Bouton Plan was to get a thirty-year lease on Wahconah Park from the parks commission and use private money to repair and renovate the grounds, maintain the upkeep, and acquire an independent league team to play there. The plan would have preserved the old park and kept professional baseball in Pittsfield, at no expense to the taxpayers. The Bouton group also planned to sell stock in the enterprise to local residents so that members of the community could be a part of the project and give it stability and credibility.

The good people of Pittsfield enthusiastically supported the Bouton Plan, as evidenced by the turnout at city council and parks commission meetings and the results of a phone-in poll organized by the Bouton group. But despite popular support for the new plan, the mayor, the Berkshire Bank, the Berkshire Eagle, and other powerful, interested parties—including the behemoth General Electric (the onetime largest employer in Pittsfield)—had too much invested in the new stadium project to get on board. Why was the Eagle so eager to unload the parcel for the new stadium? "There's no hidden agenda here," claimed Eagle publisher, Andy Mick. But what happened to the results of those tests for soil contamination on the proposed stadium site?

There are powerful people who have been running things for a long time in Pittsfield, contrary to public interests. Bouton's account is a catalog of threats, intimidation, false accusations, and distortion of facts. And this is merely a story about trying to save an old baseball park. What would happen if these folks were involved in something more important, like, for example, cleaning up PCBs and other deadly ground contaminants? Would they cover up the corporate malfeasance responsible for polluting the environment?

In the big picture, however, this book is not so much about baseball as it is about politics, corruption, backroom decision-making, sweetheart deals, incestuous relationships, corporate power, and media control. These are the murky depths to which baseball has descended, and, as Bouton finds out the hard way, the game itself has become secondary.

As for the role of the media, the War on Terror has exposed the way that the daily news can be used as a propagandistic tool to manipulate public opinion for the purposes of the power elite. What Bouton's story further demonstrates is that members of the media are not just "embedded" with the sources of power, but have themselves become a vested part of the power structure. Bouton and his partners were constantly trying to counter the misinformation and negative publicity disseminated by the self-interested, pro-stadium Eagle, the major daily newspaper in town.

Just as in Ball Four, Bouton embarrasses a lot of people by naming names and reporting exactly what people do and say. There are a lot of folks named in Foul Ball who would rather not have seen their names in print. Is Bouton worried about lawsuits? He is careful to tell only what is documented and repeat only what he sees and hears. People who are corrupt, deceptive, incompetent, or just ignorant are sometimes, only sometimes, exposed for who they are.

Many worthy books have been written on the subject of baseball and sports franchises destroying the game's relics and raiding public treasuries. Among them are Field of Schemes by Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause, which takes an analytical, macroview of publicly funded stadia; Queen of Diamonds by Michael Betzold and Ethan Casey, the story of shady Detroit politics and the abandonment of Tiger Stadium; and Richard Panek's Waterloo Diamonds, a sentimental journey about a small Midwestern town doomed to lose its long-cherished minor league franchise. Foul Ball is an important addition to this library, as Bouton takes us closer to the boardrooms and backrooms than we'll ever get.

For those who enjoy a story with twists and turns, Foul Ball is full of mystery and intrigue, including the fact that Bouton had to publish the book himself. Why did the publishing house PublicAffairs suddenly do an about-face and require changes that would have compromised Bouton's efforts? And just exactly what interest did GE have in this whole enterprise in the first place? Read the book. This sad story gets murkier and murkier.

—EFQ

 

NEAL SUWE teaches U.S. and world history at Kelly High School in Chicago. He once fought with Save Our Sox, a grassroots organization that tried to save Comiskey Park and faced many of the same obstacles described in Foul Ball.

© 2004 Neal Suwe

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