In praise of Jim Bouton

When I was a kid, pretty much all baseball players were model citizens. We knew this because the sports pages told us so. Day after day, sportswriters informed us that these athletes were shining beacons of moral goodness, a credit to their teams and communities, and the kind of people who boys like me would do well to emulate.

Jim Bouton put an end to that. I read Ball Four, Bouton’s magnum opus about what professional baseball really was like, when I was 12 or so. That’s when I learned that lots of baseball players lie, cheat on their wives, drink to excess, pop amphetamines like Chiclets, have the overall moral turpitude of a creepy guy in a trench coat — and, in that pre-union era, were treated like chattel by short-sighted, cheapskate owners.

The book also was funny. Achingly funny. Stop-and-grab-your-sides funny. But there was a pathos underneath it, as Bouton outlined his struggles to maintain his career as a professional baseball player. He was a knuckleball-throwing reliever who, in the season documented in the book, bounced between the now-gone Seattle Pilots of the American League, a minor league club, and the Houston Astros. He kept a diary of his experience, which became the basis for the book.

When Ball Four came out, you would have thought Bouton was dealing drugs to toddlers based on the amount of outrage it generated. Old-school sportswriters, used to living cushy lives in exchange for not reporting on what players did off the field, looked like fools and acted like bullies in response (a trait shared to this day by the biggest hacks in the field, I’d note). A lot of players went completely ballistic as their trade secrets were exposed and their spouses started asking way too many questions.

And Ball Four became a huge best-seller. Kids like me lapped it up, and so did plenty of other people.

My friends and I all started quoting lines from Joe Shultz, the Pilots’ manager. Bouton portrayed him as a good-natured semi-dolt who motivated players by pointing out that, once the game was over, they could all pound some Budweisers in the clubhouse. “Hija, blondie. How’s the old tomato?” Schultz once asked a woman he spotted in the stands (or so Bouton claimed).

“Ball Four” was full of gutter talk like that, and pervy acts involving players and baseball groupies. A lot of this could make me a little embarrassed today, but I found it super-fascinating at the time because…well, tween boy.

For example, the fact that players loved staying in L-shaped hotel buildings for the viewing-into-other-rooms opportunities they provided was not something that had occurred to me. Comparing detailed thoughts about women in the stands — or the women they were with the night before — while burning time in the dugout was not the kind of game-only focus I thought my heroes experienced.

The book outlined practical jokes involving Icy Hot balm in jockstraps and talcum powder in hair dryers. Bouton claimed Whitey Ford (I think) once raffled off a ham in the clubhouse, but there was no ham and no winner. This was just one of the risks of a game of chance, Ford explained.

Post-Ball Four, Bouton became a pariah to many players, but a hero to many of us. He parlayed the experience into a post-baseball career as a sportscaster, writer, actor, investor and more. The phony sheen over baseball players — and the owners who abused them — was pulled away forever, to what I’d claim was the benefit of everyone. Sportswriters had to act like journalists instead of team employees.

The game, stripped of this phony nonsense, exploded in popularity. Players banded together and got paid. And a whole new genre of tell-all sports books (none as good as this one, but some nonetheless enjoyable) was spawned.

Bouton died earlier this week. He was 80. I think I’ll read Ball Four again if I can find a copy.

Margaritaville, annotated

In which I again attempt to prove that the song that launched an empire of fake island-in-the-sun experiences is, in fact, a desperate cry for help. Let’s analyze these lyrics, shall we? NOTE: To load the annotated page, please go here (I have to leave the non-annotated version below in place to make this feature work properly).

Nibblin’ on sponge cake
Watchin’ the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil
Strummin’ my six-string
On my front porch swing
Smell those shrimp they’re beginnin’ to boil

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searching for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame
But I know it’s nobody’s fault

Don’t know the reason
Stayed here all season
Nothin’ to show but this brand new tattoo
But it’s a real beauty
A Mexican cutie
How it got here I haven’t a clue

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame
Now I think
Hell, it could be my fault

I blew out my flip-flop
Stepped on a pop-top
Cut my heel had to cruise on back home
But there’s booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searching for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame
But I know it’s my own damn fault
Yes and some people claim that there’s a woman to blame
And I know it’s my own damn fault

Lessons from a $94 paperweight

This is an Akita. It’s an internet appliance that claims to monitor your entire network and block suspicious intruders. It’s the kind of thing that anyone who has interest in adding smart home features should add to their network to keep away prying eyes (or worse).

For me, though, it’s going to be a $94 paperweight, assuming I ever see it at all.

This is the story of how I signed up for a Kickstarter project that allegedly was three months from delivery, and how I’m sitting here 18 months later, having been assured that my appliance is going to arrive Real Soon Now. It’s a tale of destroyed credibility and how a company can raise suspicions they’re up to something nefarious, even if they’re not. It’s also why I’ll avoid product Kickstarters in the future and wait for products to hit the retail channel.

I first heard of the Akita on a couple of tech websites, which wrote about the appliance and how useful something like that would be in the home. The stories were fairly glowing, and I assumed review copies of the product had been sent around. When I checked it out on Kickstarter in January 2018, the manufacturer said it expected to be shipping in April.

Now, you always have to be a little careful on Kickstarter. It’s designed to raise money for startup projects, and even the best-intentioned startup deadlines slip. It also makes a potential platform for people who might be up to no good, but given the publicity around this product, that outcome seemed unlikely. I still thought I might be waiting until, say, July, but I dropped down my $94 for the Akita.

I was far from alone. Others saw the need for this product and liked the price, and it raised over $900,000 on Kickstarter and Indigogo.

It didn’t take long for the bad news to start, though. Akita assured us all in February 2018 that production had started — yet somehow, as the proposed shipping windows started opening up, people weren’t getting their products.

In July 2018, we were informed of a “short shipping delay” necessitated by packing modifications, followed by various “shipping updates” (short version: Most of you aren’t getting your product soon) every few weeks through the end of the year. All of these were put behind a password wall so only backers could read them.

I gave up at that point. Other people weren’t so quiet, and they’ve posted more than 1,900 often angry missives in Akita’s comments section.

But hope springs eternal, and in March and May, Akita put out shipping updates. At the end of May, I got an actual tracking notice, although the product allegedly remains en route from Hong Kong to the USA at this writing, with an uncertain arrival date.

Not that I’ll ever use it for its intended purpose. The creators of this product lost my trust, and this product is all about trust. I’ll keep it as a paperweight, though, just as a reminder of a lesson learned.

A summer full of music

I’m about to head into a busy summer music season that includes an equestrian festival, a beer festival during a county fair, a stint at a campground, random playing in a park and a couple of gigs on a closed-off street in Manassas.

Summer is my favorite time to play, not only because there are so many alternatives to straight-up bar gigs, but because I end up playing in front of people having a good time.

I’m closing in on the 35th anniversary of my first gig, and I don’t know how many anniversaries I still have in me (something I’ve been saying for YEARS but if anything, I’m the busiest I’ve ever been). I’m just grateful that there are still places that support live music, and as bars become less and less of an option, I’m grateful for the summers and falls and the many performance alternatives they provide.

‘Reckoning’ and rivers of suggestion

In one of those unfortunate reminders that I’ve circled the sun a whole lot now, I saw an article this week noting it was the 35th anniversary of the release of R.E.M.’s “Reckoning.” It’s my favorite album by a band I was obsessed with for the back half of the 1980s into the early 1990s, and I’d place this album on my personal Top 5 list any day.

Reckoning’s Howard Finster album cover.

I already was an R.E.M. fan when the album hit in 1984. Like so many other early adopters, I heard “Radio Free Europe” and that was all it took. That was unusual for me — I was a Top 40 guy at the time — but I thought these guys would be all over the singles charts soon enough.

It turned out that it took a few more years for that to happen, and “Reckoning” didn’t contain the cut that did it. What it did have was the strength of a band of undeniable talent that obviously had been honed by playing hundreds of crap gigs, and your ears told you that they were transitioning toward a much bigger future. But at the time, before the corporate music weasels eventually had their say, the band could still get away with rougher-edged songs, more obtuse lyrics, and putting Michael Stipe’s vocals so far down in the mix that they were felt as much as they were heard.

From a nostalgia standpoint, this album pulls up warm memories of a fantastic point in my life. I had moved to Little Rock and fallen in with a bunch of journalists, writers, musicians and artists (not to mention the occasional journalist-writer-musician-artist) that had their own scene in the mid-1980s. I hooked up with my first band, which had sort of a cowpony thing going on, and my musical tastes changed — all in the year or so around the time of the release of this album.

R.E.M. was a big part of my changing musical tastes. I mean, how could you listen to the hair metal and disposable dance stuff that was clogging up the Top 40 when you could hear this? They also helped drag me toward Los Lobos, and Jason and the Scorchers, and the Beat Farmers, and the Blasters, and Lone Justice — all bands who were rootsier and less art-school-y than R.E.M., but they all were in my musical sweet spot.

I wore out “Reckoning.” I have specific memories of flipping over the record countless times in my crap apartment of 35 years ago. And a couple of years after the album came out, I finally say the band play at Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock, with Fetchin Bones opening up. It was one of the greatest live shows of my life.

I don’t have a turntable any more, although the vinyl version of this still sits in a crate in my backyard shed. This time around, I’m listening to the album through wireless earplugs synced to my smartphone. That would have been an unimaginable experience for 1980s Randy, but I’d put this slice of my past up against most of the overproduced and underperformed albums I hear today, and it’d win every time. After time. After time.

Here’s a piece from The Ringer that will tell you more than you want to know about “Reckoning.” Enjoy.