|The 30th anniversary of "Ball Four" is upon us, but you'll forgive Tommy Harper if he doesn't get caught up in all the tributes to the infamous sports tell-all.
"I didn't read it then," Harper said with a chuckle, "so I guess I'm not going to read it now. I don't read many books anyway and I certainly wouldn't read 'Ball Four.' "
In 1969, as a member of the expansion Seattle Pilots, Harper had a front-row seat to Jim Bouton's groundbreaking behind-the-scenes look at baseball. Except he didn't realize it.
Bouton, who tended to keep to himself, didn't tell his teammates that he was preparing a book on his -- and their -- experiences. Not until the book was published the following spring did the rest of the Pilots know they were unwilling participants.
"We'd see him taking notes," said Harper, now a coach with Boston Red Sox, "but we didn't know why."
Even before the book's publication, Bouton had the reputation as something of an intellectual, at least in baseball circles. His reading list went beyond the box scores, and his curiosity outstripped that of most of his teammates.
The rest of the Pilots didn't know of his furtive literary ambitions. They just thought he was, well, weird.
"In those days, when you were perceived to be intelligent, you were thought of as kind of strange," Harper said. "Back then, those guys were the exception."
With a roster full of players selected from other teams -- Harper was left exposed by Cleveland -- the Pilots, like most expansion clubs, were a disparate bunch, a mix of veteran players and youngsters from other teams' discard piles. Thrown together, they formed small cliques, or remained on their own.
That went double for the gulf that separated pitchers like Bouton from position players like Harper.
"I don't think we talked but a few times all season," recalled Harper.
That didn't stop Bouton from making a reference or two to Harper in the book. In one passage, Bouton noted that Harper had grown a mustache and beard, then a rarity among players.
Bouton interpreted this as a sign of Harper's rebellious nature, a leap of faith that makes Harper chuckle even to this day since his infrequent shaving was the result of a delicate skin condition and little more.
Other passages Harper found less humorous and less innocuous. Bouton was particularly rough toward Yankees legend Mickey Mantle -- a one-time teammate in New York who was revealed to be a boozing womanizer -- and Pilots manager Joe Schultz, portrayed as a bumbling incompetent.
"That," said Harper, "wasn't very humorous. From what I understand, (the book) certainly wasn't written in a tone that wasn't favorable to Mantle or Joe. I just thought some of it was totally unnecessary."
Marriages were strained. Families were stressed. The very notion of a tell-all rankles Harper to this day.
"The more controversial things are," Harper said, shaking his head sadly, "the more people want to see it, whether it's a book, or a movie or a TV show. I don't particularly care for all that garbage. The private lives of players? You don't talk about those things. You just don't."
Still, Harper can understand the book's appeal to readers, many of whom had no idea what it was like to peek inside a major-league clubhouse, no notion of the private world of their sports heroes.
"The fans had never had any insight into what goes on," Harper said. "From a fan's standpoint, I can see why this would be interesting. But to use someone else to give someone a different perspective -- I don't think that's right."
Upon publication of the book, Bouton became a near-instant pariah in the baseball community. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called him to New York for a reprimand and asked him to sign a paper saying the book wasn't true. Others in the game shunned him or angrily confronted him.
"I don't think many people liked him before (it was published)," Harper said. "After, I know a lot of people didn't like him."
In the 30 years since "Ball Four" stood baseball on its head and forever changed sports publishing, Harper has crossed paths with Bouton. They've had brief, civil exchanges. The book has never been a topic of discussion between them.
"The anniversary doesn't mean much to me," Harper said. "But I'm sure there are other people he hurt who feel differently. And rightfully so."
Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal-Bulletin covers the American League for ESPN.com.
|Red Sox coach Tommy Harper led the AL with 73 steals playing for the Seattle Pilots in 1969.|
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