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GORDON MILLER

BILL LEE Former Red Sox pitcher shows no signs of slowing down

Story

/ Robert Kiener

Photographs / G o r d o n M i l l e r & G l e n n C a l l a h a n 94

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CRAFTSBURY PHOTOS: GLENN CALLAHAN; OTHERS: PRIVATE COLLECTION

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is hair, including his trademark goatee, has gone white, his belly has bulged, and his legs are not what they used to be, but at 68 years old Bill “Spaceman” Lee hasn’t lost any of his love for baseball—or the quick wit—that made him a favorite of Red Sox fans several decades ago. As we sit in rocking chairs on the porch of the Craftsbury Public Library (about a mile from his home) and admire the postcard-perfect view of the Green Mountains, Lee begins ticking off for me his schedule over the next few weeks. “I’ve got a charity event with my old Red Sox teammate Luis Tiant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, then I’m off to pitch a game in Moncton, New Brunswick, then to Boston for a charity game, and back to Burlington where I’m pitching for my Vermont senior league team, the Burlington Cardinals.” The former Red Sox star is on a roll. After a deep breath he continues, “Then I am off to Charlotte, N.C., to throw out the first pitch at a charity game. Next I go to Danbury, Conn., for another charity game, followed by a charity golf tournament and softball game in Smithfield, R.I. Later this year I play in Arizona in the Men’s Senior Baseball League championships (65 and over division) and then pitch with the Russian National Team in Florida (35 and over).” Then, after a perfectly timed pause, he turns to me, smiles broadly and adds, “Phew! Crazy, isn’t it? I do almost 200 events a year and I drive over 60,000 miles a year in that battered old Buick of mine.” Why? Lee’s green eyes light up. “Short answer: Because I can. Longer answer: Playing baseball suspends time. There’s no watch, no clock. And that means there’s no clock on your aging mechanism. When you’re playing you’re still seven years old. You’re 30 years old. You’re 45 years old. It’s the ultimate game.” Just as I recall that the Boston Globe once called him “the quintessential Peter Pan of baseball,” he adds, “And, oh yeah, there’s this: Any day spent playing baseball is way better than a day doing anything else.”

Lee’s statistics, from both his major league days and after, prove his point. Between 1969 and 1982 the left-handed pitcher won 119 games and lost 90 for the Boston Red Sox and then the Montreal Expos, where he ended his career in the big leagues. He played in the 1973 All-Star Game and also started two games in the heart-breaking 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2008 for the most games pitched (321) by a 96

left-hander and his three straight 17-win seasons. He started playing semi-pro baseball shortly after being released by the Expos in 1982 and, like his longtime hero Satchel Paige, claims he “has never looked back.” He’s barnstormed and played for a slew of semiprofessional, senior, and recreational teams throughout the United States, Canada, Venezuela, and even Cuba. “I play for any team that will let me suit up.” In 2014 he became, at age 67, the oldest ballplayer to win a professional game when he pitched five and one-third innings for the Sonoma Stompers in a 6-3 victory over the Pittsburg Mettle. Last year he threw 347 innings, playing in various recreational leagues, more than any pitcher in baseball, he claims. He also was on teams that won the national Over-60 championship, the national Over-35 title, and a state championship with the Burlington Cardinals in Vermont’s Senior Baseball League. “Although there are some pitchers 20 years younger than Bill in our league, he’s by far the best,” says Miro Weinberger, Lee’s catcher for five years and also the mayor of Burlington. “He’s got it all. A hard fastball—a two-seamer and a four-seamer—a big sweeping curve ball, a dropping curveball, his offspeed ‘Leephus’, and a spectacular changeup that gets power hitters in knots.” And, according to Weinberger, Lee has lost none of the competitive edge that helped him reach and play for 14 years in the major leagues. “I’ll never forget the time Bill pitched 11 hard innings for us and we finally scored a run to put us ahead in the top of the 12th. Although he’d pitched maybe more than 200 pitches—it was that kind of a hard, slogging game—he insisted on going out for the bottom of the 12th. I remember thinking as he walked out to the mound: ‘Here’s a guy who’s pitched in game seven of the World Series, but he is still such a competitor and is still so intent on winning, that these guys have no chance.’ And he shut them down. He is amazing!” At a recent Vermont Senior Baseball League game where Lee was slated to pitch, he hinted at what keeps him competitive. “I’m playing with guys half my age but that doesn’t bother me. It’s a challenge,” says Lee. “I stand on the mound and shout at them, ‘Go ahead, grab a bat. I got your grandpa out, your father out, and now I’m sure as hell going to get you out!’ ”

PRIME TIME Clockwise from top: A portrait of Bill Lee in his mill at home in Craftsbury Common. Lee famously clashed with Don Zimmer, who managed the Red Sox for three seasons, 1977 – 1979. Bill and his wife Diana. A bottle of Spaceman wine sits on the table. Preceding page: On the mound against the Randolph Jays Sept. 13 during this season’s quarterfinals. Lee pitched a complete game, gave up two earned runs, with six strikeouts. The Cardinals won 3-2.

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As we drive past Craftsbury Common and down a hilly, gently-curving back road, California-born Lee confesses that he considers his nearby home, which he helped build in the late 1980s, “my halfway house.” Thanks to his legions of fans in Boston and Montreal he claims, “There’s not a bar I could go into in either city and come out alive. Everyone wants to buy me a drink or give me a joint. You know I’ve been on the cover of High Times magazine three times, right? In Montreal the fans used to throw little balls of tin foil—full of hash—at me after a game. If I lived in either city I’d be dead. There are no bars, or even a restaurant, in Craftsbury. Vermont saved my life!” It was in Boston that Lee was dubbed Spaceman, a testament to what People Magazine once described as his “off-the-wall babble.” Others labeled him eccentric or flaky. But Lee disagrees. “The sportswriters thought I was flaky but they just didn’t get me,” says Lee today. “Most everything I said went over their heads. They claimed that anyone who came from California had to be from the land of fruits and nuts.” A few examples from Lee’s most memorable, most quotable quotes: • “You have two hemispheres in your brain—a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body and right controls the left half. It’s a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds.” • “I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won’t matter if I get this guy out.” • “The other day they asked me about mandatory drug testing. I said I believed in drug testing a long time ago. All through the sixties I tested everything.” Lee’s major league antics also earned him both cheers and jeers. He once wore a gas mask at batting practice to protest air pollution. Unhappy when the Red Sox changed the color of 98

their caps, he wore one with a propeller on top. He called New York Yankees manager Billy Martin and his players, “that Neo-Nazi and his Brown Shirts.” He famously dubbed his Red Sox manager Don Zimmer “the designated gerbil.” When he was asked to apologize he said, “I apologize to all the gerbils in the world” and later added, “I should have called him a ‘hamster’ because hamsters have fatter cheeks.” After a long public feud Zimmer eventually traded Lee to Montreal in 1978. After telling a reporter that he regularly sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes Lee was fined $250 by Major League Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1979. As he fondly remembers, “Can you believe it? I still have Kuhn’s letter on my wall. Under the reason for the fine it actually says, ‘For using marijuana as a condiment’.” (Kuhn later rescinded the fine.) Spend any time with Lee and you’ll quickly realize that this 1968 USC geography grad is far from the flake that sportswriters have labeled him. He reads widely and regularly peppers his conversation with quotes and sayings from minds as varied as

Buckminster Fuller to Edward Albee to the Buddha. “He certainly has his wacky side,” says Miro Weinberger. “But Bill is extremely intelligent, very smart, very well-read. And he’s an excellent showman. How many other ballplayers, especially pitchers, can you name from the 1970s and 1980s that still have fans eager to see them?”

The fans keep coming. After we arrive at his two-story home a few miles from Craftsbury Common, Lee’s wife Diana confirms, “The phone keeps ringing.” She leafs through a yearly planner and reads off baseball games, special appearances, speeches, charity events, clinics, and more that will keep both of them busy and traveling for most of this year and long into the next. “Bill has a hard time saying no,” she says. “I leave that to Diana,” says Lee. “She’s very diplomatic.” Some fans, on their own Spaceman pilgrimage, often find their way to Craftsbury to seek out an audience with Lee. “The General Store is good about protecting me but if fans reach me, I usually oblige them,” he says. Remarkably, he has no cell phone, no computer, and gets by with a landline. “No email?” I ask him. “If it’s urgent I can go to the Craftsbury Library and use theirs.” Before Diana can finish paging through the appointment calendar, Lee is off on another subject, explaining how a film crew is wrapping up an independent movie about him based on his popular memoir, “The Wrong Stuff.” He then switches subjects to his baseball-bat company and news about the latest vintage of his California-grown Spaceman wine until he spots a book on a nearby shelf and asks me, “Do you know who Moe Berg is? Casey Stengel called him the strangest man to ever play baseball. He was a spy. I narrated an ESPN documentary about him.” Before he flies off on another conversational tangent, Diana stops him and gently reminds him, “Use you indoors voice, Bill. Please.” She looks at me, smiles and whispers, “A.D.D.” Story continues on page 210 Lee laughs and reminds me, “I told you she was diplomatic.”

PITCHERS & CATCHERS From far left: Bill Lee and his Burlington Cardinal teammates celebrate after their Sept. 13 win against the Randolph Jays. In the dugout with Miro Weinberger, Lee’s catcher and the mayor of Burlington. Lee and Weinberger share a moment after the game. In 2015, Lee pitched 74.1 innings, went 6-3, with an era of 1.09, pitched four complete games, with one shutout, and had 54 strikeouts. Inset: Wine label from Lee’s California-grown Spaceman wine.

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Bill Lee has come to terms, and even learned to embrace, the Spaceman moniker. He has also accepted, and now admits, that he was blackballed for life from the game he so loved when he was dropped from the Montreal Expos in 1982. After loudly protesting when the Expos released Rodney Scott, a good friend of his, he stormed out of Montreal’s Olympic stadium and retreated to a nearby bar for three beers. When he returned, he was told he had been suspended. A day later, as he writes in his second memoir, “Have Glove, Will Travel,” the team’s general manager John McHale told him, “We just released you from your contract.” “You want to cut me, fine,” Lee shot back. “There are plenty of clubs in this league desperate for a lefthanded pitcher. One of them will sign me. You just watch.” “Don’t bet on it,” McHale answered. Lee wrote, “A blackball had just thudded onto the floor, but the sound took its time reaching my ears.” Bill Lee was out of the major leagues, eventually cold-shouldered by every single team for his outspokenness. Today, more than three decades after his last game in the majors, Lee is sanguine about his fate. He explains, “I didn’t leave baseball. Baseball left me.” Lee signed up with the Longueuil Senators, a team in the Quebec Senior League, only a few days after leaving the Expos. It was the start of his remarkable three-decade long journey as a globetrotting baseball player that continues to this day. In “Have Glove, Will Travel” Lee wrote, “I continue to take the field because I fear getting old, not the wrinkles or the gray hair—I can live with those—but the muscles turning slack and my mind growing numb. You don’t work baseball, you play it, and the little boy in me never wants recess to end. I love the dance on the mound, my body flowing through my pitching motion. I love the feel of the ball sliding from my left hand, sweet as a lover’s caress. The years have notched my fingers with calluses that fit perfectly around the seams on that horsehide. The world resting in my palm.” Sitting in his comfortable northern Vermont home, looking out on drop-dead views of green hills and lush forests, Lee sums up his career with a touching—and uncharacteristically short—explanation: “I was born a ballplayer, and someday I’ll die a ballplayer. And in between, I’ve lived a ballplayer’s life.” n

BILL LEE

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Bill "Spaceman" Lee  

The famed former Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos pitcher may be closing in on 70 years of age but is still pitching, playing and telling g...

Bill "Spaceman" Lee  

The famed former Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos pitcher may be closing in on 70 years of age but is still pitching, playing and telling g...

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