SOMEWHERE OUT in the middle of North America a 37-year-old man with a graying beard is playing baseball. Bill Lee is pitching and hitting home runs for some forsaken minor league team in front of 400 fans and loving every minute of it. Usually when former major leaguers return to the minors it is rather sad. They return to the long bus rides hoping to find the stuff that once put them in the limelight, but Lee isn't doing that. His arm is more or less shot, he hasn't pitched in the majors in over two years, and he has been effectively blackballed by front office types who think he has a bad attitude. No, Lee must be playing because he likes it.
That love of the game is what comes across in Lee's autobiography. The Wrong Stuff. For 12 years Lee was the Red Sox and Expos' goofy left-hander who quoted Einstein and Kurt Vonnegut in post game interviews and jogged along. Storrow Drive to the ballpark For him, playing baseball was a way of getting paid for having fun. His enemies are the managers, owners, commissioners and writers who want to corrupt the game and steal the joy.
Unfortunately, he can't decide what to write about Reading The Wrong Stuff is as much fun as watching Lee pitch and cavort but it is a little like watching a highlight film, exciting and perhaps even dramatic at times, but haphazard. The book is written chronologically, but anyone at all familiar with Lee's career could open it anywhere, read a few pages and feel right at home. So often as a player. Lee seemed to be offering unusual, but valid insights-into the game and there was the hope that after retiring he would have had some grand conclusions about what it all meant. The farce is still there but often the book seems strung together like a collection of Tommy Lasorda one-liners.
The Wrong Stuff is really two books. The first is simply Lee's recollections of his playing days, the games, the times in the clubhouse and the off-the-field carousing And the rest is a blistering attack on baseball management in general and the Red Sox organization in particular. Of the two the latter is much more effective.
For all his clowning around, Lee was still very much a team player. He understood the dynamics of 25 guys trying to win 162 ball games a year and resents anyone who tried to interfere with that. Throughout their history the Red Sox's greatest obstacle has been the team's management and front office. The current Haywood Sullivan-Buddy Leroux power struggle over the team is only the long sorry history of bungled trades, bad player management and outright stupidity. Although he does it indirectly, Lee paints a very clear picture of what has, is and probably always will be wrong with the Red Sox.
First, not since Dick Williams left after the 1968 season have the Red Sox had a manager with the faintest idea of how to hadle his pitching staff. Every year since Babe Ruth left, the knock against the Sox has been their pitching, but it's not that their staff hasn't had good potential, Rick Wise, Juan Marichal, Mike Torrez, Dennis Eckersly Bill Campbell--almost none of them lived up to their expectations, and in almost every case Lee attributes their decline to the manager's handling. And for most his argument seems right on the mark Campbell was the finest relief pitcher in baseball when he came to Boston in 1977 but manager Don Zimmer made him throw his arm out that year pitching too many games.
Second, the Sox have a long history of rushing players through their farm system. Boston has one of the best farm systems around, but player after player from Rogilio Moret, to Gary Hancock, to Oil Can Boyd this year, was pushed too fast and suffered for it. Now, no player will tell the team he needs another year in the minors, but Lee drives home the point that the team's desire to win at the moment hurt it in the long run.
BASEBALL TEAMS' inherent inability-for long-range planning is Lee's biggest beef with their management. Specifically he hates the tendency to trade away fading but still useful players on the hopes that the young kid from the plains is the next incarnation of Hank Aaron. Protesting the dumping of friends like Bernie Carbo, Tim McCarver and Rodney Scott eventually got Lee kicked out of baseball but it still bugs the hell out of him. The worst was Carbo. Baseball fans the world over remember Carleton Fisk's body-English home run off the foul pole that won the sixth game of the '75 World Series, but Bostonians remember Carbo's ninth inning pinch hit homer to tie the game as much if not more.
Carbo was one of the game's finest pinch hitters and one of Lee's best friends on the team. In the middle of the 1978 season when the Sox were in a right pennant race with the Yankees, Carbo was shipped to Cleveland for a $15,000 pocketful of change. Lee walked off the team in protest. He was right too. Carbo was exactly who the Sox needed to send out to face Rich Gossage in the playoff game at the end of the season after Bucky Dent's heartbreaking home run.
Lee's description of the incident however is a good example of what sometimes makes the book hard to stomach. His flip sense of the absurd made him a good quote but hurts him as a narrator. Selling Carbo hurt him deeply but he tells the story for laughs.
During this battle of wits, Sullivan had left the door opened just enough to afford me a view of Mrs. Yawkey sitting in her rocker, rocking back and forth. It was as though her rocking gave Haywood strength. As long as she rocked, he yelled at me. As soon as she stopped, he calmed down. It was like a scene with Tony Perkins in Psycho. She emitted no sound: the chair did all her talking for her. It said, "All right Norman. You can slip him into the shower now."
HE ALSO comes off a little shabby when he tries to justify some of his carousing. Everyone knows ballplayers like to drink, screw groupies, and generally paint the town red. But Lee can't simply tell stories. He tells a lot of good ones but many of them come off as juvenile and he prolongs the agony by attempting to analyze them. The worst is his discussion of ballplayers' libidos. He can't decide how much to tell about his own running around so he tells horror stories about his buddies instead. He almost seems prudish when he remembers skipping a gangbang in a teammate's hotel room. To show he is one of the boys he recalls that before he got contact lenses he slept with so many ugly girls that
there was many a time that I would end up with a woman whose face could only be handled by an advanced form of braille.
In short, Lee seems uncomfortable with the subject--he can't decide whether to brag about or apologize for his skirt chasing.
The problem with groupies--or Annies, as they are sometimes called--is that they can give you an overinflated sense of yourself. They go into orgasm if you just look at them and can really make you believe that you are the Second Coming in the sack. It's rarely true. We're just ordinary human beings with excessively passed underwear and conducted her survey by trying to screw every ballplayer she came in contact with. When she was through, she told me that even though ballplayers have great hands on the field, most of them were lousy in bed... One example of this was the home run slugger who got it on with her while he spoke to his wife over the phone. When I asked what the conversation was about, the writer, said, "Nothing much." He asked her how the kids were and whether or not she had gotten the car fixed. It was all very sick.
He wants it both ways. He gets the point across that all the screwing around he did was "sick" but he is still proud of having been included in the survey. The several pages he devotes to this analysis ring especially hollow when he writes about how much he loved his wife and how their divorce was mostly her fault for not understanding him.
He subjects us to a similar analysis of his drinking and drug-taking. Nobody cared that Bill Lee smoked pot. One of the funniest things he ever did happened shortly after he was traded to the Montreal Expos. He told a writer that he "used" marijuana. The commissioner's office flipped out and sent a couple of stooges to investigate. He told them one of the biggest lies of all time: Yes, sir. I have used marijuana, but I never said I smoked it. I just put a little on my buckwheat pancakes every morning. They bought it. Even Abbie Hoffman--who was still a fugitive at the time--gave an interview at a local radio station and discussed the incident in detail, swallowing Lee's story verbatim. That is the kind of story that should be played for laughs and Lee does it well. Even better are his endless tales of the clubhouse cutting up ballplayers engage in to break the tension.
IF HIS current activity is any proof, Lee really did and still does have fun playing baseball. Perhaps that is his grand conclusion, simply that the game is something to be enjoyed. His critique of those who would take the joy out of the game is right on the mark. It is when he tries to explain some of his fun that he spoils ours.