Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Spaceman

Last night, NESN premiered Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey, on former Red Sox player, Bill Lee’s barn-storming adventures in Cuba. The film chronicled Lee’s adventures as he took a rag-tag team of baseball castoffs to the impoverished island, where they toured the countryside, playing local Cuban teams.

The film was an interesting chronicle about Lee’s passion for the game, as well as highlighting the side of him that make him uniquely, Bill Lee. With quotes from former teammates, managers and others, it captured a portrait of a refreshing player and one that baseball desperately needs today, in an era of scripted interviews, clichéd soundbites and lack of any real characters. Corporatization will do that to any entity, even baseball.

Lee, who acquired the “Spaceman” moniker for his outspoken views and unique way of seeing the world, was a talented left-handed pitcher, whom the Red Sox drafted out of USC in 1969.

When Lee came to the major leagues, baseball was played by guys that made little more than a well-paid factory worker. Often, these elite athletes would staff a sporting goods store, stock shelves at the local grocery, or work the family farm during the off-season, to supplement their baseball-related salaries.

Bill Lee played most of his baseball career in the era before free agency changed the nature of baseball’s salary structure. For most of his big league career, which ran from 1969 until he was blackballed by baseball’s brass in 1982, he pitched for the Boston Red Sox. Never known as a hard-thrower, Lee was known as a “crafty” left-hander, relying on changing speeds and superior location to baffle opposition hitters.

Lee won 17 games, three consecutive seasons for the Red Sox, in 1973, 1974 and 1975. Fenway Park was considered a graveyard for lefties, as teams could load up on right-handed sluggers and pound the left field wall against southpaws. Lee demolished that myth, as he won 94 games and lost 68 over his 10 years with the Sox.

Playing in an era when pitchers were expected to finish their starts, Lee completed 51 of his starts from 73-75, his best years in Boston, which included a career high 37 starts in 73. Known as “the Yankee killer,” posting a 12-5 career mark vs. the evil empire, Lee typified the scorn that many of Red Sox Nation felt for the Yankees. Unlike today, when baseball mercenaries like Johnny Damon jump ship and go where the money is better, players like Lee would never have worn the pinstripes.

If you can’t beat ‘em, then beat ‘em up! That’s what happened to Lee, in the ill-fated incident on May 20, 1976. With the Sox in New York, to do battle with the Yankees, Lou Pinella ran over Sox catcher, Carlton Fisk, on a play at the plate. Both came up swinging. Lee, who was pitching for Boston, managed to get into the melee and somehow, ended up on the bottom of the pile, seperating his left shoulder. Initially, Lee blamed Graig Nettles for body slamming him. After seeing tapes, however, he recanted and apologized, instead, blaming Billy Martin, the Yankee skipper, for espousing a brawling brand of baseball. After the injury, Lee had very little velocity left and began relying almost exclusively on his curve ball to get by. What many fans remember about his waning years in Boston, was the famous feud that existed between him and Don Zimmer, the Red Sox manager at the time and who Lee dubbed, “the Gerbil.”

Boston fans heaped their scorn on Grady Little, for his ill-fated handling of Pedro during the 2003 playoff game vs. the Yankees. Well, Grady was an absolute master of pitchers, compared to Zimmer. Zimmer has no idea how to handle a major league pitching staff. Both fans and the media were critical of his style, which often resulted in his demotion of pitchers to the bullpen after one or two bad starts. Other times, he left pitchers in too long, before bringing in sub-standard relievers.

Lee began openly criticizing Zimmer to the press. Coupled with Lee’s counter-cultural leanings, which clashed with Zimmer’s staunch conservative values and old-school managerial philosophy, Boston became the scene of a public feud between these two.

Sadly, Lee ended up being traded to Montreal for some castoff named Stan Papi, in December of 1978. He won 16 games for the Expos in ’79, his high water mark for Montreal. While he followed this with only nine more victories in ’80 and ’81 and in May of ’82, Lee was released, never to pitch again in the big leagues, some speculate that this had less to do with his poor recent performances and more to do with his defense of former teammate, Rodney Scott, who Lee felt was released for reasons other than baseball. Apparently, former Sox skipper, Dick Williams, then managing the Padres in San Diego, wanted to sign Lee, but the powers-that-be nixed any whiff of Lee staying in the game.

While major league baseball was done with the tall lefty that didn’t stop the 35-year-old from continuing to play the game that he loved. In true old-school fashion, Lee began gathering former teammates and other players he knew from his playing days and started barnstorming the country as Bill Lee’s Grey Sox.

In 1993, I was still pitching in Maine’s only local baseball league, for 32-year-olds like me, Portland’s Twilight League. Lee contacted our commissioner to inquire about scheduling a weekend series of games between some of our clubs and his Grey Sox squad.

At the time, we were playing games in the resurrected Ballpark, in Old Orchard. The Ballpark had been built by entrepreneur, Jordan Kobritz, to bring a AAA team to Maine, the Maine Guides. Kobritz had acquired the old Charleston Charlies, of the International League in 1983. The Charlies were a Cleveland Indians farm club and he moved them to Old Orchard in 1984, where they drew close to 200,000 fans in their maiden season. By 1988, however, there were often more mosquitos, than fans, trekking to the outskirts of this seaside community. The club moved to Wilkes-Barre at the end of the summer and the town of Old Orchard was stuck with this baseball white elephant, which had one time been named by Sports Illustrated, as one of the top parks to watch a minor league game.

Overgrown with weeds, with the dugouts partially caved in, the Twilight League began playing some of our games there, in 1993. The infield had been brought back to life and somewhat resembled a professional playing surface, but the outfield was weed-filled and hard as a rock. Still, it held over 5,000 fans and was the scened of two memorable contests between Lee’s club and a group of college players, wannebes and has-beens.

On a Friday night in July, Lee’s club, replete with former slugger George Foster, attracted 4,500 fans to The Ballpark, where Lee and company edged the South Portland Merchants by a 5-2 count. Foster hit a mammoth home run and the fans went home happy. Because Foster requested a sizeable fee from Lee to play, he only played on Friday night.

On Saturday, another 3,500 fans turned out to watch Lee’s team, take on my club, Coastal Athletics. The Grey Sox, comprised of former Boston players, Rick Miller, Dalton Jones, Bernie Carbo, Mark Bomback and others, as well as Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, Ozzie Virgil and Rodney Scott, put on a pre-game skills clinic for young fans, before the game.

For me, who never had the opportunity to play the game professionally, I got a taste of what it might be like. Dressing under the stands, my Coastal Athletics teammates and I, came out to clamors for authographs from hundreds of young fans. Our club gave Lee’s team a battle. Trailing 4-1, my former high school teammate and catcher, Mike Sawyer, launched a bases clearing triple to right-center off Fidrych in the sixth and we were tied with the former big leaguers. However, Bernie Carbo gave the fans what they had come to see when he clouted a mammoth grand slam over the wall in right and we went down to defeat, 9-4. I had the privilege of pitching an inning of relief, unscathed, facing Ozzie Virgil, who had reached on an error. I struck out Lee (who was none too happy, having some washed up beer leaguer blowing a fastball by him), got a fly ball and induced Rick Miller to pop up on a splitter. After the game, Miller asked me what I had thrown him and complimented the pitch.

These former stars, graciously invited us over to their locker room, for lobster and beer. My son, then only 10, got autographs and the privilege of hanging out with these ex-big leaguers.

The professional game has dramatically changed. Yet, Bill Lee continues to be an ambassador for baseball’s purity, still playing it, even though he is in his late 50s. Men like Lee are a window back to a time when baseball was just a tad more enjoyable and less commercialized, or at least, least bastardized by so much of the current add-ons that do little, if nothing to improve on an already perfect sport.


Joe said...

What a terrific story!

I loved Bill Lee – he was certainly one of my favorites from the 1970’s Red Sox. He pitched the very first major league game I ever attended, back in August of 1975. The highlight was him striking out Chicago’s Bob Colluccio on three straight eephus pitches in the 9th. Colluccio couldn’t possibly have swung any harder trying to hit the ball!

The film was terrific. I love the old (and recent) interviews. Lee was probably baked in half of those interviews, and it’s fun to see the goofiness and the way he just messed around with the reporters. Despite all this, between the lines he always played to win, and he’s a fierce competitor to this day.

The goodwill tour of Cuba was pretty cool, too. Cubans are poor but, despite(?) Castro and Communism, not to mention the US trade embargo), the country seems to be in pretty good shape.

Listmaker said...

wow, what a story.
i'd love to see the movie but i don't get nesn. i'm sure it will surface somewhere else eventually. maybe the yes network?

weasel said...

listmaker: info on the DVD can be found here. It might well find its way to Netflix or, as I'm sure Jim would prefer I say, your local 5th generation family owned video store ;)

Sadly, the DVD extras make no mention of any bonus footage of Baumer taking the mound at OOB.

Jim said...

Glad everyone enjoyed the Bill Lee piece. I have a special place in my heart for the Sox teams and players of my formative years.

At the time, no one knew what to expect from Bill Lee & Co. when they brought their barnstorming tour to Maine. Afterwards, that's all any of the Twilight guys could talk about--how cool and accomodating they were.

Lee is definitely a throwback to the days when the major leaguers used to barnstorm in the off-season to earn money and forego a "real" job, at least during the winter months. After the weather got too cold in most of the northern parts of the country, many of the big leaguers would head to warmer climes, including Cuba, until the U.S. closed off travel to the island.

Rikki said...

Agreed! Great post on many personal levels. For one, I remember attending opening day at "The Ballpark" when the Guides trotted out future journeyman Steve Farr against ... well, that's as far as the memory goes. I can tell you that they won, and that the mosquitos were truly sublime. Later it served as the venue for many decent (and many more mediocre-at-best) concerts, but that's as much as I knew. Glad to know the gates reopened for your series.

I hate to admit this, but after much preview hype on my part, I didn't catch the Spaceman flick on NESN. I think it rebroadcasts in August, so I'll hopefully catch it then. His angle on the game is, as you note, an honor to the game. Such a strange contradiction that an apparent zen practicing, organic farming, hippie stands out as a true throwback and holder of baseball's spirit of yore.

Joe said...

The Grey Sox with Bill Lee first played on June 1, 1991 at Muzzy Field in Bristol, Ct. Buckner, Lee, Fidrych, Virgil, Tiant, Radatz, Stanly, Stenhouse, McAiliffe all played vs. a Mens Sr. Leagur All Star Team. Greysox won 13-1