Mal Thursday

The Ballad of Bill Lee

                 

The Ballad of Bill Lee 

The former Boston and Montreal left-hander on the Sox, Fenway, and smokin’ with Dubya

By J.M. Dobies

 

THEN: 1973 saw Lee playing for a poor Sox team, and drowning his sorrows puffin’ down with W.

To longtime members of the Red Sox Nation, William Francis Lee III, a/k/a “the Spaceman,” is either one of the most beloved players to have ever worn a uniform for the Boston nine, or that guy who threw the blooper pitch that Tony Perez crushed for a home run in the seventh game of the ’75 World Series,  who was once fined $250 by Major League Baseball for saying he sprinkled marijuana on his buckwheat cakes “to absorb the toxins.” One of the Red Sox’ best pitchers from 1969 to 1978, the self-professed “Roman Catholic Zen Buddhist” has been immortalized in song by Warren Zevon, featured extensively in Ken Burns’s epic documentary Baseball, and has had his autobiography, The Wrong Stuff, optioned for the movies by actor/hemp activist Woody Harrelson.

Lee made the wire services last fall when he was quoted in the Montreal Gazette as saying that he supported George W. Bush for President because he was “the kind of guy you can party with. Back in 1973, we rolled a couple of doobies and smoked them together. And I can tell you — he definitely inhaled.” Although the Bush camp neither confirmed nor denied the story, Lee says he remembers it clearly. “It’s a moment that stands out in my brain, because I remember thinking ‘What am I doing at a fundraiser for Senator Brooke? He’s a Republican.’ It was like Fear and Loathing at the Museum of Science.”

When interviewed by the Phoenix, Lee had just returned to his home in Northern Vermont, after driving 23 hours straight from the Gulf Coast, where he spent some time at Red Sox Spring Training camp, seeing old friends and shagging a few fly balls with Troy O’Leary and 160-million dollar man Manny Ramirez. “I can’t believe how easy Spring Training has gotten. There just doesn’t seem to be as much on-the-field activity. The players seem to do all their training off the field, and they just come out for a brief time. It’s like they’re trying to avoid the public. And the press. I’ve never seen such a clandestine group of guys. They do their little workout, then they’re into their SUVs and they’re gone.”

While down in Fort Myers, Lee also renewed acquaintances with a group of Russian players he had coached years earlier. “I’ve been staying in Florida with this author, Randy White. I fly in from Las Vegas, rent a car, and end up at his house. Next thing I know, he tells me that at four in the morning, there’s going to be 16 Russians coming in from Moscow. I tell him that every time the Russians come, we end up getting hammered, ’cause there’s so much vodka going around. He says, ‘Well, these kids are between 12 and 13,’ so I pick ‘em up, feed ‘em some pizza, and put ‘em to bed. I wake up in the morning and go out to work on the field. All these school kids and their teacher are out in the outfield putting little Russian flags all over the fence. The teacher asks me, ‘Are you involved with the Russians?’ I told her that I had coached the coaches and now they’d returned with their children. One of the students, a little kid named Bubba, asked me why the Russians were playing baseball. I told him that ever since they’d started playing baseball, they don’t fight anymore. The teacher says ‘You hear that, Bubba?,” because I guess Bubba had a bit of a fighting problem. Bubba looks at me and says, ‘Maybe I should go to Russia.’”

We asked Bill how the game has changed since his playing days. “Pitchers used to want to go the whole nine. Nowadays, after five innings, they start looking over their shoulder to the bullpen. We used to call that ‘kissing your sister.’ I guess kissing your sister is allowed now. They call it a ‘quality start.’ Statistics don’t mean anything if you ain’t got any cojones or a heart.”

It’s not just pitching that has changed. “[The hitters] are all steroided up and pumping iron. Willie Mays or Henry Aaron never pulled an oblique muscle, but these guys are all wired and over-developed. I’m afraid. I’m afraid for our whole culture.”

The Ballad of BIll Lee

By Warren Zevon

You’re supposed to sit on your ass
And nod at stupid things
Man, that’s hard to do
And if you don’t, they’ll screw you
And if you do, they’ll screw you too.

When I’m standing in the middle of the diamond all alone
I always play to win when it comes to skin and bone

But sometimes I say things I shouldn’t
Sometimes I say things I shouldn’t

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

How about baseball’s insane economic picture? “It’s turned into Who Wants to be a Millionaire, you know? I think we’re seeing the last gasp of professional sports. It’s all money, money, money. The game has become secondary to the economics. I think that’s going to be the death of it in the long run. You can only strike so many times. I think you lost something like 20 percent of the fan base in the last strike, and if they do it again, you’ll lose a lot more. The pie’s getting smaller and smaller. God help us if we have to watch the XFL.”

Having forged a reputation as a philosopher of sorts — he’s been working on a book called Baseball and the Big Bang, which postulates that the Earth is a hanging slider that God is sitting back on, waiting to drive it out of the universe — Lee has several theories on how to save baseball from itself. “What has to happen is the fans have got to rebel and become the commissioner’s office. If the fans could come together, they could dictate what happens in baseball, not the players, and not the owners. As long as you have a puppet in as the commissioner, who basically just rubber stamps what the owners want to do, you’re going to have alienation from the players, and you’re going to have economic confrontation. That cannot happen for the good of baseball and the good of society,” Lee says. “I believe the fan has to come to the rescue. That kinda adheres to my socialistic world view. It’s like Ralph Nader said, it used to be that religion was the opiate of the masses, then professional sports became the opiate. The consumer has to wake up and be the one to dictate what goes on.” A worthy sentiment, but easier said than done.

“We want a fast-moving game, played on natural grass, with no designated hitter,” he maintains. “The problem is we’re being led around by this ring in our nose, and the people who’re pulling us aren’t big enough to be pulling a bull of our size. We’re the big bull, not the owners, not the players.”

Given Lee’s take on the economics of the game, it’s no surprise that he’s against the construction of a new Fenway Park. “It’s bad for the neighborhood, it’s bad for baseball, it’s bad for planet Earth. There’s no long-term thinking. It’s much cheaper to renovate than to build a new ballpark. The way the ‘Save Fenway Park’ committee has proposed it, you’d have the same field, more seats, better sightlines, and everybody would be happy. The Fans would be happy, the owners would get what they wanted. Take out all those strange poles in section 14, improve the seating in the right field corner, and all those tax dollars wouldn’t be wasted. New Fenway would be like the Big Dig, part two.” We couldn’t agree more.

At this point, Bill’s wife Pam asks him to get off the phone, and help out with their young daughter. Sensing the interview is almost over, we ask Bill to give his impressions of various years in his playing career. 1969: “I was in a ’62 Chevy, coming out of Pittsfield, heading down the mountain, coming into this old, dilapidated place called Boston. The management told me not to unpack my bags, because I was only going to be there two weeks. Ten years later, they basically ran me out of town, and I still haven’t unpacked my bags.”

1975: “The year that we finally came together as a team. They decided to let Rice and Lynn play, and we went coast to coast.”

1978: “We built the team back up, we were doing fine, that’s when [Don] Zimmer and I had our differences, and the ballclub suffered. Blew a lot of games down the stretch, and you know the rest.” Former Red Sox manager Zimmer recently published his autobiography, Zim: A Baseball Life, in which he calls Lee the only player he’s ever known in his 50-plus years in the game that he wouldn’t welcome into his home. Bill’s response: “Who wants to see ’50s art deco, anyway?”

1979: “I got traded to Montreal for a bag of balls [actually he was traded for the immortal Stan Papi]. It was nice. If you’re going to be deported, you might as well get deported to the Paris of North America. I have my own radio and television shows up there.”

“You’ve got three minutes on somebody else’s show,” Pam interjects.

“Yeah, but they’re my three minutes.”

The following week, we accompany Bill to the Montreal Expos’ home opener at Olympic Stadium, or Le Stade Olympique, a concrete monstrosity that somewhat resembles a giant toilet, to talk baseball and drink beer. Since the beer in the press box costs only $2 Canadian ($1.20 US), we drink many beers, and talk a lot of baseball in the process.

NOW: Lee spends his days talkin’ baseball on the radio and writin’ baseball in Baseball and the Big Bang.

First, the Spaceman assesses the 2001 Sox. “If Garciaparra was healthy, and they all played well, they could make a run. Pedro will have another monster year, but they need some left-handers. I saw [David] Cone pitch, and I feel bad for him. He’s pushing the ball — I think he blew his shoulder out. He looked like roadkill out there. He’s just gotta suck it up and pitch with a bad arm. I think he’s got one more year in him. He just can’t throw any fastballs over the dish, and he’s got to have perfect control of his off-speed stuff. He does that, and he’ll have a great year. He’s got guts, and he’s a winner.”

Did Bill happen to see Hideo Nomo’s no-hitter? “I saw it a day later, but it was still exciting, because being a Boston fan, you still can’t be sure of the outcome.”

What’s Lee’s take on the volatile, often AWOL Carl Everett? “I think Everett’s a hell of ballplayer. He’s a tough kid. All he’s got to do is control his emotions. When his emotions start taking over, he needs to have a certain player on the ballclub with a real quick bat who can hit him over the top of his head.”

Speaking of head cases, Lee offers his opinion of former Sox ace Roger Clemens, now with the hated Yankees, and his mental meltdown in the 2000 World Series, when he threw a broken bat shard at the Mets’ Mike Piazza. “I thought he made a great fielding play, but then he thought about it for a second, threw it at Piazza, and really caused an unfortunate incident. Piazza didn’t show me anything, because he should have taken the broken bat and shoved it up Roger’s ass, got himself and Clemens both thrown out, and the Mets would have won the ballgame. He didn’t go down with the ship.”

Which is not to say that Clemens is a class act. “Roger didn’t show me a whole lot either. I don’t care how good he is or how great he is, I’ll never be a fan of Clemens. He never won the big game all those years in Boston. He never beat Jack Morris or Dave Stewart. He had to go to New York like Wade Boggs and get his ring like some hooker on 54th Street.”

The conversation is interrupted by the Expos’ NBA-style pre-game extravaganza, which culminates in a stunt double for Montreal catcher Michael Barrett being lowered from the roof on a wire. Lee is unimpressed. “Back when I was starting, I used to get a lot higher than that.”

As the evening wears on, Lee works the room, catching up with old friends Gary Carter and Rusty Staub, and shaking hands with Expo executive Jim Fanning, the man who ran him out of professional baseball. Bill points out a white-haired New York sportswriter in the press box. “What do that guy, Mickey Mantle, and me all have in common? We all slept with his wife!”

The young Expos, led by the brilliant Vladimir Guerrero and the 41-year old Tim Raines, come from behind to beat the Mets 10 to 6, much to the delight of the Spaceman and the 45,000 fans in attendance. After making plans to meet again this July when the Red Sox play the Expos in Montreal, we part ways with Mr. Lee, who flashes a peace sign on his way out the door.

These days, in addition to his broadcasting gigs in Canada, Lee travels the world competing in over-40 baseball tournaments, pitching in exhibitions (with former Sox Rick Miller and John Tudor, among others), and doing coaching clinics and fantasy camps. He will also be featured in an upcoming PBS-produced documentary about his goodwill trips to Cuba. “I don’t know where baseball’s gonna take me,” he says, “but wherever it is, that’s where I’m gonna end up.”

Originally published April 19, 2001 in the Boston Phoenix Red Sox Supplement

J.M. Dobies was managing editor of the Worcester Phoenix until several weeks later, when the paper got shut down by the man.


Copyright © 2001 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group.

 

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