Friday roundup: Remembering Jim Bouton, and the latest in stadium shakedown absurdities

One day maybe 16 or 17 years ago, I was sitting at my computer when my phone rang and a voice at the other end said, “Hi, this is Jim Bouton. Can I speak with Neil deMause?”

Once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor that the author of Ball Four (and winner of two games in the 1964 World Series) was calling me, we got down to business: Bouton was in the midst of writing a book about his attempts to save a nearly century-old minor-league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and had some questions about how attempts to save old ballparks (and save the public’s money on building new ones) had gone in other cities. We soon fell to chatting amiably about the nuances and absurdities of the stadium game — I’m pretty sure Jim had only one setting with people he’d just met, which was “chatting amiably” — and eventually ended up having a few conversations about his book and his work as a short-term preservationist and ballclub operator. (The preservation part was successful — Wahconah Park is still in use today — but he was eventually forced out from team management.) I got to meet him in person for the first time a couple of years later when he came to Brooklyn to talk with local residents then fighting demolition of their buildings to make way for a new Brooklyn Nets arena, an issue he quickly became as passionate about as everything else that touched his sense of injustice; when I learned (at a Jim Bouton book talk, in fact) that the initial edition of Field of Schemes had gone out of print, he enthusiastically encouraged me and Joanna Cagan to find a publisher for a revised edition, as he had never been shy about doing for his own books, even when that meant publishing them himself.

The last time I talked to Jim was in the spring of 2012, when he showed up at a screening of the documentary Knuckleball! (along with fellow knuckleball pitchers R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, and Charlie Hough) to help teach kids how to throw the near-magical pitch. We only got to talk briefly, as he was kept busy chatting amiably with everyone else who wanted a moment with him. Soon after that, he had a stroke, and eventually developed vascular dementia, which on Wednesday took his life at age 80.

I’m eternally grateful to have had a chance to spend a little time with one of the nicest, smartest, funniest world-famous authors and ballplayers you could ever hope to meet, especially when we crossed paths on a topic that was so important to both of us. The image I’ll always retain of Jim, though, was of getting ice cream with him near his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and him looking at my cup and exclaiming, “Sprinkles! That’s a great idea!” and then sprinting back into the shop to get some added to his as well. To the end, Jim Bouton remained boyishly intense about things that were truly important, whether fighting General Electric to save an old ballpark or eating ice cream, and that’s a rare and precious gift. My sympathies to his wife, Paula, and to all who loved him, which by this point I think was pretty much everybody.

And now, to the nuances and absurdities of this week’s stadium and arena news:

D.C. zoning commission likes United stadium, just wishes it looked less like a prison

The D.C. Zoning Commission held its first hearing on D.C. United‘s new stadium being built with the help of $183 million in city money, and the commissioners didn’t sound too thrilled with the team’s bait-and-switch stadium design:

“I actually looked at it and it and I thought, this reminds me of a prison, the facade,” [commissioner Marcie] Cohen said. “I think we need to get a little bit more, maybe a little bit more friendly to the neighborhood, because if I’m looking at the facade, I wouldn’t be too happy with that view.”

What Cohen was talking about was presumably this, which, yeah, she has a point:

dc-united-pressNot to mention: Ghost balloons! Eeeagh!

The good news for United owner Erick Thohir is things like spiffing up the exterior are relatively inexpensive in the grand scheme of things, so they should be able to make the commissioners happy with a few tweaks. And if not, well, Thohir is only on the hook for half of the first $20 million in cost overruns, so it’ll be more the city’s problem than his.

Speaking of Thohir, he also owns Italian soccer giant Inter Milan, and had this to say yesterday about that team’s new-stadium campaign:

“If you look at future revenue, the stadium is very important, just look at what Juventus make with ticket sales. Both Milan clubs are working to improve the stadium, otherwise we’ll lose €20m in profit.”

Lose €20m in profit compared to what exactly? Compared to what they make now? Compared to what Juventus makes now? Compared to what they’d make in a new stadium? How does Thohir know what his profits would be in a new stadium when he doesn’t even know how much he’d have to spend on it? Do sports team owners even think before saying these things, or is it like those “You’re going to be grounded for the next six months!” threats that parents blurt out before thinking what they’re saying or how they’ll enforce it? Anyway, nice to see that while Europe may be far behind when it comes to lavishing public money on its sports teams for no good reason, America doesn’t yet have a monopoly on stupid.