Baseball’s White Rabbit

Bill Lee’s baseball life is equal parts inspiration and cautionary tale.
Share |

Illustration: Paul Windle

Bill Lee is late. There are sixteen kids, their parents, and a man named Miro who is running for mayor waiting for him on a Little League baseball field in Burlington, Vermont. The weather is unusually cold for October, and now it’s starting to rain.

Lee’s baseball life is equal parts inspiration and cautionary tale. During his fourteen-year run in the big leagues, he survived with little more than guile and a sinking fastball, and then proceeded to blow up his career for a principle. Exiled from professional baseball almost three decades ago, Lee now haunts a thousand small ballparks around the world. Burlington is one more stop on his never-ending tour.

Miro Weinberger is Lee’s catcher. Together they make up the battery for the Burlington Cardinals in the Vermont Senior Men’s Baseball League. The 64-year-old Lee led them to the championship this past season, but the most memorable game for Weinberger was a 14-inning affair in which Lee threw more than 200 pitches. Weinberger has organized a clinic as part of his mayoral campaign. Just as it’s starting to look hopeless, the Nissan Pathfinder comes barreling into the parking lot.

He still looks every bit the regal ballplayer, except his hair is now a brilliant white. Lee arrives in uniform, with the word RUSSTAR spelled out across the chest of his jersey. It’s the jersey of a Russian team that Lee crossed paths with in the ‘80s when he toured what was still the Soviet Union. After the clinic, Lee and his wife Diana are driving to Boston to catch an early-morning flight to Fort Myers, Florida where he will spend a week playing ball with his Russtar comrades, who are visiting. This is what normal is like for Lee.

Lee pokes around his truck, which is packed with equipment, emerging with a gorgeous black bat and a simple leather glove, the kind ballplayers wore in the nineteenth century. The kids are mystified by the strange presence before them. One of them asks about the bat.

“Maple,” Lee says. “Made it myself.” He launches into a digression about the difference between maple and ash and how to turn a piece of raw lumber into the gleaming object he has in his hands.

No one suggests going inside, despite the rain. The kids are spellbound by Lee.

“It’s not raining,” Lee says. Even though the evidence points to the contrary, he gets no argument.

Lee called himself a “baseball conservative” in his Little Red (Sox) Book, a reimagining of the franchise’s history through the eyes of Chairman Lee. He also describes himself as a socially liberal, hippie, Rastafarian, Zen-Buddhist Communist with a lot of Catholic guilt. That covers a lot of ground, but still doesn’t cover everything. His “Spaceman” persona was never an act. Bill Lee really is Bill Lee, an anti-establishment hero with a quick mind, nasty wit, and far-left politics. On the mound, though, he is a sweet-natured traditionalist, albeit one with a vicious competitive streak.

Lee comes from a family of ballplayers. His grandfather played in the Pacific Coast League and his father played semi-pro ball, but it was his aunt Annabelle who taught him how to pitch. Annabelle Lee threw a perfect game and two no-hitters during her nine-year career, which included a run in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. From Annabelle, Bill learned about mechanics, changing speeds, and keeping hitters off-balance. These are the same lessons he is now imparting to his young charges.

He shows them the difference between a four-seam and a two-seam fastball. He explains how St. Louis lost Game 2 of the World Series because Jon Jay threw a tailing two-seamer from the outfield, which allowed eventual winning run Elvis Andrus to move up a base. “I saw it as soon as it left his hand,” he says.

He demonstrates the proper way to throw a curveball and a circle-change—it’s all in the chin, apparently. One of the kids asks about the knuckleball and Lee shows the grip.

“I’ve been saving the knuckleball for when I get old,” he says. “But the problem is, I don’t think I’m old yet.”

Lee isn’t hard to find—I got his number from a mutual friend—but he is tough to pin down. After a week of trying to reach him, it was Diana who called to say that they were terribly sorry but they had been incredibly busy. She sounded genuinely apologetic and invited me to Burlington. Diana expressed concern about the length of my drive—about four hours one way from Cambridge. Bill was not as worried.

“I hear you’re coming up on Saturday!”

Those were his first words to me, spoken when I called him the next morning. They were boomed in a voice that exhibited a strange optimism, the sort of optimism that causes someone to invite a perfect stranger to drive 450 miles for a quick visit. That it was for a start-up website that didn’t actually exist at the time was of no consequence either.

I sought out Diana while Bill was putting the kids through their paces. Why, I asked, did you call me back?

“Karma,” she says.

Diana met Bill in 1999 while he was barnstorming through Western Canada. His second marriage was falling apart. It was Willie Wilson—the former Royal—who brought them together in a Calgary bar. Go talk to him, Wilson had suggested to Diana. Here was a woman who could hold her liquor as well as her ground on any subject, be it Zen or multinational corporations. “I’m like the balancer,” says Diana, who more or less keeps Lee’s spikes on the ground while allowing his head to remain in the clouds.

She counted up his various speeches, clinics, and games and put the number at over 200 one year. He has a company that makes bats—his dream is to put a wood bat in the hands of every Little Leaguer, “so they learn how to hit and then they won’t do steroids.” He makes wine. He’s slowed down a little, but not much. Lee starts his day early and doesn’t stop until around 8:00 p.m. when he crashes. Then he does it again. They both describe him as having attention deficit disorder, a diagnosis that seems like a foregone conclusion.

Bill and Diana are open to any and all visitors willing to make the trip. Writers, filmmakers, a surrealist painter from my tiny hometown in New Jersey; they have all ended up a part of his universe, drawn there by the gravitational pull of the Spaceman. Lee loves the attention, but has no agenda beyond that—strange for a man with such a distinctive view of the world.

Is the Spaceman character a caricature? Diana shrugs. “What you see is pretty much what you get.”

Bill does the obligatory stand-up with his catcher for the local news and stays at the field until the autographs have been signed and the pictures have been taken. He lives in nearby Craftsbury. He is still a minor celebrity in New England, if not a folk hero. He’s anxious to get on the road, but Diana wants to hit a favorite Vietnamese place down the block.

Over less than an hour, Lee riffs on the following topics: wind farms; LeBron James; cross-country skiing; Bernie Sanders; Phil Jackson (they taught together at the Omega Institute); Occupy Wall Street; the Red Sox collapse, which Lee said he saw coming and could have been avoided if the players had lived closer to Fenway and didn’t leave themselves at the mercy of Boston traffic; Hunter S. Thompson; Michael Moore; the Princeton backdoor cut; and the fact that we were neighbors in Belmont, Mass. in the ’70s, when I was four years old.

Lee is a natural entertainer and knows how to tell a good story. Many have been told in one form or another in various speeches, books (he’s written four), and documentaries. His best rants are turf-warfare for the moral high ground, which makes sense when you consider that he is part West Coast and part Chicago Irish. Like the one he lays on me about how he should’ve knocked Jim Fanning’s block off, thereby getting the Expos manager fired before he did something asinine, like bringing in Steve Rogers to pitch to Rick Monday in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1981 playoffs. Monday homered, the Dodgers won 2–1. Los Angeles went on to the World Series, where they beat the Yankees, depriving the Expos of their rightful destiny and sowing the seeds for their eventual departure from Montreal.

Lee didn’t just talk tough. He stormed out of the clubhouse and left the Red Sox when the team sold his friend Bernie Carbo to the Indians for $15,000. They responded by burying him in the bullpen and then trading him to Montreal for a utilityman named Stan Papi, who had a grand total of 117 at-bats for the Sox after the 1978 season.

He pulled the same stunt after the Expos released journeyman Rodney Scott, a friend of Lee’s, in May 1982. Lee went to a bar called Brasserie 77 to have a few beers and cool his heels with a political cartoonist, while getting hustled at the pool table by a man with cerebral palsy. When he returned to the clubhouse, the Expos said he was in no condition to pitch. Lee said he’d had only had three and was ready if necessary.

This was strike two, but he was out. The Expos released Lee after general manager John McHale found the pitcher waiting for him the next morning in his darkened office sitting in the lotus position.  Lee spent two years wandering the wilderness playing for teams like the Moncton Mets and an outfit in Venezuela. There were a couple of sideshow MLB tryouts that never came to much, and then reality set in. It was all over. It wasn’t until much later that he grudgingly admitted that he had overplayed his hand.

But what a hand he’d had. Lee came to Boston as an over-educated smart-ass from Southern California with an ability to alternately thrill and horrify the city. He spoke the language of the ’70s left and angered the hell out of uptight Brahmins and Irish townies alike. He argued for busing like he had any damn right, outsider that he was, and held court at the Eliot Lounge. “It was rock and roll,” he says wistfully of his heyday in Boston.

He clashed with the old writers and fell in with the new breed like George Kimball, who was just as out there as he was. He dropped a perfect Warren Zevon reference on them when the Sox were making a hectic spring training trade in 1978—Send lawyers, guns and money—and then the man himself wrote a ballad called “Bill Lee” on his 1980 album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School:

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.

Lee fought with cranky old baseball men like Don Zimmer, whom he famously dubbed “the Gerbil.” His outspoken attitude was tolerated when he was a 17-game winner, which he was for three straight seasons. Baseball teams will put up with just about anything if it gives them nine innings, especially if the thing is left-handed.

Lee fought because he was too smart not to have opinions and too dumb to stay quiet. He has no regrets. “[Staying quiet] would be admitting that they were right and I knew they were wrong,” he says. “You can’t live in fear.”

But his early exile still hurts.

I ask him how he gets along with his former teammates and see a hint of melancholy in his reply. “Not great,” he says. All the documentaries seem to voice some variation of the line, “Well, that’s just Bill.”

“Yeah,” he says dismissively. “That’s just Bill.”

Of all the people that should understand, it’s his old teammates who don’t seem to get why he keeps throwing that same mix of sinker, curve, and change, and why he’s saving the knuckleball for when he truly gets old. So why does he keep playing?

“To justify my drinking,” he says before breaking into huge rolls of laughter that fill the tiny restaurant.

It’s tempting to dismiss Lee as a merry prankster in cleats; a cosmic goof foisted on the baseball establishment, playing to the amusement of enlightened beings everywhere. But 29 years is a long time to keep up a gag, even for someone as stubborn as him. His eyes are alight with the promise of adventure, but his face betrays the hard years of life on the road.

“I’m the white rabbit without a clock,” he says by way of an exit. He and Diana are gone in an instant.

I was still in the parking lot a few minutes later when the waitress came flying out the front door with his glove. It had been on his hand from the time he arrived at the field until the food was served.


Share |

Comments

I really appreciate that you wrote this article and shared some really good information on this specific topic. I was in vital need to get some information on this topic and thanks to you, I've got that! Thanks, once again!soundtracks

Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained!Click here for more info

Amazing knowledge and I like to share this kind of information with my friends and hope they like it they why I do..www.rebelmouse.com/

emerging with a gorgeous black bat and a simple leather glove, the kind ballplayers wore in the nineteenth century. The kids are mystified by the strange presence before them. One of them asks about the bat.
escorts lebanon

I don t have the time at the moment to fully read your site but I have bookmarked it and also add your RSS feeds. I will be back in a day or two. thanks for a great site.topes de hule

time to keep up a gag, even for someone as stubborn as him. His eyes are alight with the promise of adventure, but his face betrays the hard years of life on the road.
escort beirut

Really nice and interesting post. I was looking for this kind of information and enjoyed reading this one. Keep posting. Thanks for sharing. PLAY ALL BAZAAR

I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought youd have something interesting to say.joann fabrics coupons

This is also a very good post which I really enjoyed reading. It is not every day that I have the possibility to see something like this.. cheap towels for sale

Bill Lee, an anti-establishment hero with a quick mind, nasty wit, and far-left politics. On the mound, though, he is a sweet-natured traditionalist, albeit one with a vicious competitive streak.
toronto wedding limousines

I'm impressed, I must say. Very rarely do I come across a blog thats both informative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you ve hit the nail on the head. Your blog is important..play online satta

mayor waiting for him on a Little League baseball field in Burlington, Vermont. The weather is unusually cold for October, and now it’s starting to rain.
escorts lebanon

I’m happy I located this blog! From time to time, students want to cognitive the keys of productive literary essays composing. Your first-class knowledge about this good post can become a proper basis for such people. nice one 4wd

After the clinic, Lee and his wife Diana are driving to Boston to catch an early-morning flight to Fort Myers, Florida where he will spend a week playing ball with his Russtar comrades, who are visiting. This is what normal is like for Lee.
ipad cases

which he was for three straight seasons. Baseball teams will put up with just about anything if it gives them nine innings, especially if the thing is left-handed.
Cases Covers

Your blogs further more each else volume is so entertaining further serviceable It appoints me befall retreat encore. I will instantly grab your feed to stay informed of any updates.curtain factory outlet

I am looking for and I love to post a comment that "The content of your post is awesome" Great work! παπουτσια για κοριτσια

It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I’ve read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you few interesting things or tips. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article. I want to read more things about it!Bedding sale

I finally found great post here.I will get back here. I just added your blog to my bookmark sites. thanks.Quality posts is the crucial to invite the visitors to visit the web page, that's what this web page is providing. kettlebell workout

First You got a great blog .I will be interested in more similar topics. i see you got really very useful topics , i will be always checking your blog thanks.
appmobilebot review

I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well. In fact your creative writing abilities has inspired me to start my own BlogEngine blog now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings rapidly. Your write up is a fine example of it.מנעולן בחולון

Its as if you had a great grasp on the subject matter, but you forgot to include your readers. Perhaps you should think about this from more than one angle.click here for results

100 followers Hmm… I interpret blogs on a analogous issue, however i never visited your blog. I added it to populars also i’ll be your faithful primer. instagram likes kaufen

Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it, you are a great author. I will be sure to bookmark your blog and may come back very soon. I want to encourage you to definitely continue your great job, have a nice weekend. Satılık müzik seti kablosu

This is cool post and i enjoy to read this post. your blog is fantastic and you have good staff in your blog. nice sharing keep it up. franchise veren emlak firmaları

I was very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.internet marketing

Lesson 4 :
This lesson i am going to cover a range of topics that have come up over the last few days to try to help users/members better understand how revenue share works.
Topic 1 Repurchase % ( Variable and why )
Now a lot of people are stuck on this concept that Repurchase % should not change.easy money Well how many systems of have you seen collapse in a week. Its because id this is not adjusted to control the amount of shares are active profits grind to a halt. So would rather DAPS Stall in a few days or i make the required adjustments to keep stale shares low. I Want daps to live for ever and because of that i am putting it on a Variable repurchase scheme meaning any given time of any day for any reason i feel the need to i pay alter repurchase rules to stimulate money flow to keep profits up. The old locked system of repurchase rule NEVER Worked . This is The NEW bread of sustainable rev share which means everything is tentative and i will change anything i have to to keep profits up and to keep daps in the green. Math in these systems is like water ... Lack of action is why most of these program never make it. You will always be able to build cash, How much each day varies on the pool size directly. I don't make these decisions that's what you don't see ... Daps makes these Decisions with its members actions and the way the math flows. I will always react accordingly to follow the plan as best as possible. But changes are necessary here in there no way around that.
Topic 2 Member ship tiers :
YOU CANT JUMP AHEAD TO GOLD. Each membership level is cumlative you have to pay all 3 by the time you make it to gold level. Jumping to gold does nothing for you. No revenue share program in history ever let you start at the top. You always start at the bottom buy 500 free shares.
Then buy bronze membership, At that point you can buy 5000 more shares for a total of 5500 shares. Once you reach that 5500 you can upgrade to silver. Which allows you to own another 2500 shares. Total of 8000, hit 8000 upgrade to gold , Now you can own 10500 shares in rev share section. This is not difficult always buy the first set of shares on the list which is free. When you have 500 it will dissappear from list leaving bronze first. This is when you upgrade so you can start buying bronze.

I am really enjoying reading your well written articles. It looks like you spend a lot of effort and time on your blog. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work. facebook likes

I certainly discovered amazing courier here.I pleasure have dorsum here. I barely added your blog to my bookmark locales. acknowledges.Virtue announces is the significant to entice the tourists to stopover the labyrinth usher, that's what this net usher is providing. electronic cigarette

I have visited to this site multiple times and everytime I find beneficial jobs for me so I would suggest please come to this site and take the chance from here. horse racing offers

I ‘d mention that most of us visitors are really endowed to exist in a fabulous place with very many wonderful individuals with very helpful things. SWMS VIC

I finally found great post here.I will get back here. I just added your blog to my bookmark sites. thanks.Quality posts is the crucial to invite the visitors to visit the web page, that's what this web page is providing. μωκασινια

wow, great, I was wondering how to cure acne naturally. and found your site by google, learned a lot, now i’m a bit clear. I’ve bookmark your site and also add rss. keep us updated.old dj songs

Three are usually cheap Ralph Lauren available for sale each and every time you wish to buy. They're produced by the very best degree developers who will be distinguished for your polo dress creating. You'll find polo Ron Lauren inside exclusive array which include particular classes for men, women.nutrafarms review

I was just browsing through the internet looking for some information and came across your blog. I am impressed by the information that you have on this blog. It shows how well you understand this subject. Bookmarked this page, will come back for more.Phentermine for sale

The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention.http://customdoormat.eu

I recognize you specialize in pedantic inscription however would you recognize of a place that volunteers http://grabmypaper.com/research-papers? I am stuck along several process that I enjoy to bear through in a abrupt tour. I am ready to remuneration as needed.

Extremely educational post! There is a great deal of data here that can help any business begin with a fruitful informal communication fight!
freight quotes online

Once I thought about things like: why such information is for free here? Because when you write a book then at least on selling a book you get a percentage. Thank you and good luck on informing people more about it…north park residences yishun