Illustration: Paul Windle
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.