RIGHT NOW, MAJOR League Baseball is like a beach ball floating around in the Fenway bleachers, circa 1984 ó kept alive by the faithful but, with a suicidal mind of its own, making its leisurely way to the Sox bullpen, where Bob Stanley awaits it with a sharp rake.
Perhaps youíve heard this story: half of todayís MLB players take performance-enhancing drugs that will eventually turn them into Powerpuff Girls. But for the time being, these multimillionaires of the diamond have big enough cajones to threaten knocking off a little early this season. Meanwhile, every multibillionaire owner whose name isnít George Steinbrenner claims heís losing money faster than your 401(k). And commissioner/used-car dealer Bud Selig is too damn biased to declare this battle between players and owners a nice, fair tie. Yep, itís enough to make one yearn for an old-fashioned pine-tar incident.
Unfortunately, scientists say it may be years before Ted Williams will be able to return and set the game straight. In the meantime, we sought out the wisdom of three former idiosyncratic pitchers: Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Jim Bouton, and Mark "the Bird" Fidrych, legends who remember how the game was played in less complicated times (though there is a question as to whether Lee remembers much at all about his Major League days).
The Spaceman spent 10 seasons in a Red Sox uniform, winning 17 games in three consecutive years (1973-í75), but the southpaw was best known for having his head in the cosmos. He once said: "Do you realize that even as we sit here, we are hurtling through space at a tremendous rate of speed.... Our world is just a hanging curveball."
Boutonís career started off strong with the Yankees (he won 21 games in 1963, his second season), but arm troubles changed him into a knuckleball pitcher and a member of the expansion Seattle Pilots. In 1970, Bouton wrote an exposé titled Ball Four, a hilarious and, at that time, shocking book that revealed what really went on behind the scenes in the Major Leagues: the women, the pep pills, and all the glorious immaturity.
And then thereís the Detroit Tigerís Fidrych, from Northborough, Massachusetts, who talked to the baseball, did his own groundskeeping on the mound, and wouldnít pitch a ball with which heíd given up a hit. ("I want it to get back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls in there. Maybe itíll learn some sense and come out as a pop-out next time.") Fidrych was Rookie of the Year in 1976 but was hampered by injuries the rest of his short, albeit colorful, stint in the Majors.
All three of these players had something far more remarkable in their careers than Joe DiMaggioís 56-game hitting streak: They didnít talk in sports clichés. And they still donít. We tracked them down for interviews on the gameís current issues and complexities. We werenít disappointed.
Steroids and other drugs
Q: In his book, Ball Four, Bouton wrote that many players took a speed-like drug known as "greenies." Can a comparison be made between those and steroids?
Bouton: No, because a lot of guys who were taking greenies werenít doing that well. I donít think it was an effective performance-enhancing drug.... What I said in Ball Four was that if there were a pill that you could take and it would guarantee that you win 20 games but itíd take five years off your life, players would still take it. I didnít know then what the name of the pill would be: steroids.... But greenies were mostly taken as a hangover remedy.
Lee: Hell, you had to stay up and play, didnít ya? Shoot, you stay up all night, you better take some help. Goddamn, think weíre going to go out [on the field] by ourselves?
Q: What about steroids today? What should be done about the problem? Do you believe in mandatory testing?
Lee: No, I tested them all, and I donít think it should be mandatory.
Once [players] explode on the field, then you can go find their body parts.... Anything that makes my nuts smaller, Iím not touching. Theyíre small enough as it is.
Fidrych: As far as Iím concerned, itís to each his own. When I read about it in Sports Illustrated, I went, "Wow." When they questioned McGuire, I went, "Wow." But heís saying heís getting his stuff at GN-whatever-thatís-called. But when I read that stuff, I start laughing. Because whatís next? I mean, we had corked bats. And then they said the baseball was juiced up.... We never lifted weights. In í76, we didnít have a weight room. Yeah, the weight room was a couple of dumbbells next to your locker. Itís a different society, so I canít really dwell on that society because Iím not in it.
A potential strike
Q: Should the fans pay attention to the details of the labor dispute?
Bouton: I think that would be a good idea. I think itís a good economic exercise for people. They need to become more economically literate. And one of the ways they can do that is to follow very closely the labor battles between the owners and the players. We are currently a nation of economically illiterate people, and hereís a chance for people to understand a little more clearly how things work.... Itís also a good chance for fans to learn about the media, how the media works, how they frame things, for example. The current battle is framed over whether the players are going to strike or not. I have yet to read that thereís a question over whether the owners will unilaterally implement new work rules. Thatís never the question. The question is whether the players will strike. But of course they would only strike to prevent the unilateral implementation of new work rules. But strike makes a better headline.
Lee: The fans have to exert their pressure by not going to ballgames, by all organizing together. They canít be for the players, and they canít be for the owners.... The commissioner has to abdicate his throne, and he has to give it to the fans. The fans have to run everything, and then there will be neutrality. Itís exactly like a molecule. You have your atoms floating around, your electrons, you have your protons in the middle, and if you donít have neutrons in there, you donít have any stability. And thatís whatís wrong: Thereís no stability in this atom. Youíve got a lot of radical electrons that are out there that are trying to do this and that, and youíve got too many protons in there. Now youíve got a radioactive substance, and thatís very volatile.