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Bill Lee, a Pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos, describes his life and career and his outlook on baseball
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Bill “Spaceman” Lee is a pitcher and remains so.
Richard Lally is the author or coauthor of nineteen books including three bestsellers. He and Bill Lee have also collaborated on Have Glove, Will Travel.
God, it's dark. I am sitting in the lotus position on the floor of the office of Montreal Expo president and general manager John McHale. There is not another soul around. It is early morning, the lights are out, and the room is as quiet as a crypt. That may seem spooky to some, but I find it rather relaxing.
I had been summoned to these executive chambers for an audience with McHale. I was presuming he was upset with me. Less than twenty-four hours earlier I had walked off the Expos in protest over the release of our second baseman, Rodney Scott. The walkout lasted four hours; I had gone back to the clubhouse before that afternoon's game was over. Upon returning, I was informed by manager Jim Fanning that I had been indefinitely suspended, was about to be fined, and had to see McHale the next day. I assumed that it would be then that the shit would really hit the fan.
I had stopped off in the clubhouse before going up to McHale's inner sanctum. The only player there was John Milner. Milner was a psychic. Had to be. He had spent most of his career with the Mets, Pirates, and Expos as a lefthand hitting outfielder--first baseman, playing against right-handers or sitting on the bench in a state of advanced readiness. Life as a platooned player breeds an ability to perceive events long before they actually happen. So, on the morning of May 9, 1982, as we both sat in that clubhouse, and he handed me a fried egg sandwich, I'm sure we both knew that he was giving me something more than just an early snack. He was giving the condemned man his final meal. I thanked him, ate it, and made my way to the door, pausing only to grab a bagel. Slobbering it with peanut butter and cream cheese, I thought to myself, What a time for us to run out of spareribs.
I went directly to McHale's office and, seeing no secretary around, decided to let myself in. I made myself comfortable on his floor and quickly reached a meditative state that was beyond transcendental. This wasn't the first time I had crossed swords with management; I was always matching wits with authority. Pondering over my past and present hassles, I began to wonder why my life had taken the direction it had. What cosmic forces had led me to this precise moment that saw me, once again, dancing on the rim of the volcano? The answers started to come to me as my life flashed before my eyes. I think it all started when I was arrested as a pyromaniac.
I was five years old.
It was a tree that got me into trouble. My grandfather owned a walnut ranch, and he had hundreds of beautiful walnut groves. I loved to sit and look at them. There were similar ranches all around his spread. One of them was cursed with this horrible-looking tree. It was gnarled, twisted, and diseased. I was only five, but even then I had an appreciation for the beauty of nature. I decided the best thing anybody could do for this poor wreck was to put it out of its misery. I grabbed a book of matches and held services for it. I always liked the idea of cremations. Very neat and clean. I had whipped up a pretty good pyre when suddenly the air was filled with the sound of sirens. Somebody had seen the smoke and sent in an alarm. When the fire engines arrived they were able to put out the flames in a couple of minutes. There really wasn't much damage: The tree was hardly marked. I didn't fare as well. A fire marshal collared me and hauled me off to the firehouse. My parents had to come and get me. I really caught it for that one. The tree enjoyed a perfect revenge because for the next two weeks my butt developed a severe inability to come in contact with wood. Or any other hard surfaces.
I really didn't get into much trouble when I was a kid. I spent my formative years in California, living first in the San Fernando Valley and then moving to Marin County when my father received a transfer from the telephone company. We had a real Leave It to Beaver sort of family. I was Wally and my younger brother, Paul, was the Beave. There was some sibling rivalry there. As a child he was much prettier than I was, so I took a scissors and cut off all his curly locks. Transformed him into a normal mortal and robbed him of his strange powers. I used to jump in whenever he was involved in a fight. Everyone would turn on me and start swinging. Paul would back off and start rooting for the other kids. I guess he really liked those curls.
Looking back, I suppose there were some omens that my destiny had already been laid out. When I was seven years old I had to go to First Holy Communion practice, and it really made me nuts. It was so boring! I mean, all you really had to be able to do was kneel down and open your mouth. How much practice does that take? We would do it every day for hours. I just couldn't take it. It had become the Catholic version of the Chinese water torture. One day I took my Roy Rogers handcuffs and locked myself to my bedpost. Those were really good cuffs--this was 1955, in the pre-Taiwan era of toys--and they had a key, which I had carefully hidden. It took my mother hours to get me unshackled. I spent the whole time watching television and missing out on Sister Merry Christmas's inspirational chidings. This was an immediate tip-off on how resourceful I could be. I was too small to overpower anybody, so I outsmarted them. It was the sort of thing that would later help me compensate for the lack of a good fastball.
The Lees were an athletic family. I grew to six feet three inches, getting my size from my mom. Dad was an average height but had amazing reflexes. He had played a lot of sandlot ball and fast-pitch softball. He was a teammate of Don Drysdale's father, Scotty. Don was their bat boy. They used to play their games in Canoga Park, which is situated right near the orange groves where Jack Nicholson almost got his ass blown off in Chinatown. I used to jog through there with my friends, and the farmers would fire rock salt at us. I never got hit. Even as a kid I had good lateral movement.
My grandfather William F. Lee, Sr., was one of the top infielders in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. He used to get fifty dollars a game to play. That was a lot of money back then, and he didn't have an agent. The Lees always did their own negotiating. Still do. He probably could have been in the majors, but he had a family to support and he knew that there was neither money nor security in playing baseball, so he pursued it only on weekends.
He must have been a real scrapper. Grandfather used to cut the leather out of the center of his glove and just leave his bare palm, in order to make the double play quicker. He said modern ballplayers were pussies because they wore those big gloves; he claimed it robbed them of their manual dexterity. The Japanese have gone back to the small glove, knowing my grandfather was right. They're not afraid to combine modern technology with age-old traditions. That's why we're all driving Toyotas.
When my grandfather played gloves were scarce. When you came off the field you usually left your mitt at your position, allowing a member of the opposing team to use it. The other side's shortstop would come out and have to wear this little glove with the middle cut out of it. He could not handle it. He would end up making a lot of errors with the same glove my grandfather was using to turn all those double plays. Bill, Sr., wasn't unaware of the advantage this gave him. In telling me about it, he always made sure that I understood the very valuable baseball lesson he was trying to teach me: Always look for an edge.
My brother, Paul, was a better athlete than I, very quick, but he severed his Achilles tendon while playing football against West Texas State and separated his shoulder in another ball game. Paul got carried off the football field so often that by the time the baseball season started, he looked like a pile of raw hamburger. These and other injuries he received on the playing field forced him to look away from sports as an occupational avenue.
The best athlete in the family--and I mean the best baseball player in the family, including me--was my Aunt Annabelle Lee. She was called Lefty and was one of the biggest influences on my life. She threw harder than I did, even when I was in high school, and could really bring it. My aunt pitched the first perfect game in the history of the Women's Semi-Pro Hardball League in Chicago and had a lifetime ERA of 1.17. That was her idea of the Equal Rights Amendment. Any man who did not consider her an equal could try hitting against her. Annabelle was a Pete Rose--type player, sliding head first and playing with a burning intensity. She wouldn't give an inch on the field to anyone, man or woman. I like to think I got my competitive nature from her.
When I was eight years old, my brother and I were playing near the highway close to home when a bum came over and tried to grab him. He wrestled free, and we jumped over a fence into some orange groves and started pelting the bum with oranges. I nailed him in a vulnerable spot. Right in the flask, breaking it into a hundred pieces. That's when I knew I was born to be a pitcher.
I got my first taste of organized ball in Little League. My father was the coach. He really hadn't encouraged me to become a ballplayer. He felt that a person had the right to develop his own interests without the bias of parental supervision influencing his choice. This somewhat modern approach to parenting caused him to wait until my mother was three months' pregnant with me before he bought me my first fielder's glove.
Actually, both of my parents encouraged my brother and me to pursue whatever interests we had. They were great. My father was an excellent coach, very good at imparting baseball fundamentals. He used to crowd the entire team into a '50 Chevy and drive us out to the park for practice. That's a great way of learning the team concept. You really get to know your teammates when you're crammed into a car with about a dozen of them.
My father taught us all to hustle, and he made his pitchers throw strikes. He hated walks. We lost two games in four years and went ...
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Book Description Penguin Books, 1985. Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110140079416
Book Description Penguin Books. PAPERBACK. Condition: New. 0140079416 New Condition. Seller Inventory # NEW7.0025484
Book Description Penguin Books, 1985. Paperback. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0140079416