I met and talked with Bill Lee at the Crimson last night.
Here come the comments: "Ooooh, aaaaaah THE SPACEMAN. Did he say anything weird--Is he really wigged out--Is Don Zimmer really a gerbil--Why didn't he pitch the last half of the season--Can I get some of the stuff he smokes so I can be like him."
It wasn't like that at all, my friends.
Oh sure, he talked about Gary Gilmore and S.I. Hiyakawa and Darryl Stingley and Karma and becoming a subsistence walnut farmer when he retired, but all in all the refresher course in introductory Bill Lee was short and not directed to the real topic at hand.
The topic was baseball. And William Francis Lee III, who is unfairly treated like Aristotle in high stirrups at times, talked about baseball. And what's more, he talked like a baseball player.
Protocol was first, and so Lee wittily reviewed the various Red Sox managers under who he has played. Lee felt he had his best year in 1972 when he compiled a 7-4 record out of the bullpen. "I was throwing the piss out of the ball, but Eddie Kasko wouldn't start me because he saw me wearing one of those 'Lick Dick in '72' shirts with the fake tounge on them."
He called Darrell Johnson, the manager who inadvertently led the Sox to the pennant in 1975, all right, because he didn't show up for a lot of games. He was the lesser of two evils when compared to Zimmer."
Ah Zimmer. Eugene O'Neill wishes he had the "love-hate" relationship in the Tyrone family that exists between Lee and his manager.
"He loves the way I love baseball, but at the same time he is very much afraid of me. Deep down inside I don't think he likes anyone," he said.
"Not even Bob Bailey?" asked the fan who invited Clif and Claf to his bar mitzvah.
"No, not even Bailey. Hell, he thought he was Carbo, that's he sent him up to pinch hit for Brohamer in the playoff game," replied Lee.
But the Zimmer thing was just an opening monologue. It seemed that all along Lee wanted to unfold for us the microcosm of his personality; why he's like any other ballplayer, why he's special, and why to a degree everyone wants to be like him.
Bill Lee is a cult figure in a sport that is a culture unto itself. He feels and radiates the allure of baseball, and embodies all that the game tries to relate to it's close-minded competition-oriented throng. Meanwhile he lives the dream of every kid that ever broke his glove in by sticking it under his mattress, or scraped his knee sliding at a Little League tryout. He's in the majors, and he's grateful. And if he shows his gratitude by not having an agent squabble over contract negotiations, by not being mercenary to television and endorsements, by pitching his heart out whenever he gets the chance.
It's the game we knew as kids once more, with "professionalism the most dangerous thing." It's a time when those of us who still love baseball first felt the simultaneous seeds of idolatry and affection being sown. It's baseball cards and box scores and rounds of pepper and singing "Take me out to the Bail game" in the only place you're allowed to sing it.
"I feel I have a unique roll in baseball," Lee said. "It's to teach the kids to go out and have fun, and don't let the bastards get you down. Don't do the things that are already bad, like commercials."
He calls himself an "anachronism" and that's a sad commentary on the state of baseball, maybe the world. Bill Lee is 99 per cent ballgame, 1 per cent double knit polyester (the uniform only). He's called a flake only because things have changed so.
"I'm not the Spaceman. Grass. Day games. No designated hitter. That's me."
Amen. With that, Bill Lee put himself, baseball and life into sincerest form. And hopefully, for the guy who aims the beer bottle for Mickey Rivers' head, put things into perspective.