BACK WHEN he wore a Red Sox uniform, Bill "The Spaceman" Lee was nothing if not colorful. The pot-smoking, outspoken lefty, who played in Boston from 1969 through 1978, was never a typical baseball player: a rare countercultural icon in the sports world, Lee spouted Eastern philosophy, meditated, and claimed to sprinkle marijuana on his buckwheat pancakes.
In the years since 1982, when Lee was released by the Montreal Expos, it appears not much has changed. Heís still smoking pot, still as outspoken as ever, still bucking authority. Heís still pitching, and pitching well, though these days he plays in an over-50 league and admits to a season shortened by the weather conditions in Vermont, the state he now calls home.
In fact, so little has changed about Bill Lee, one canít help but wonder, as the southpaw sits down to breakfast mid-interview, if heís still eating those special buckwheat pancakes.
Q: So is it true that you wanted to be the next Red Sox manager?
A: Well, I didnít want to; I thought it was inevitable for the team and for all the fans that I take the job. Because that was the only way I thought to alleviate all the problems with the curse and everything, because I guess Iím the second-winningest left-hander against the Yankees, other than Babe Ruth. I had this direct linkage, I believe, to Babe Ruth. I always wanted to be Babe Ruth, I always wanted to hit, but they made me a pitcher, and Babe Ruth started out as a pitcher and became a hitter. I felt there was always this kind of tie-in there. Itís kind of like, I donít really want the job, but itís like, I ran for president in í88; I didnít want the job, but I felt for the good of the country it was necessary to sacrifice my life for my country. These are things I do reluctantly, not out of desire or wanting to.
Q: What do you think of whom they picked, Terry Francona?
A: I think a phrenologist would lose a lot of money examining his head. But heís a great guy. They coulda had me, but they went for the computer image. But thatís the way it goes. You can lead a horse to water, but you canít make him drink. And you can lead a Red Sox fan to knowledge, but you canít make him think.
Ah, could you do me a favor? I got my breakfast just on the table. If you could call me back in 10 minutes, weíll continue it right back up.
[Ten minutes later ...]
Q: Are you still eating buckwheat pancakes with marijuana on them?
A: No, Iím on Atkins. I had to get my weight down. I tore up my right knee a year ago and had it operated on in December, and realized I just couldnít handle that weight anymore. So I tried to radically change my body. But I still eat oatmeal and a few carbohydrates. I played well, I had a great year. Iím throwing very well, Iíve got pinpoint control, and Iím pretty smart, still, as a pitcher.
Q: Do you play every day?
A: Every day I can. I live in Vermont, and itís really difficult around now. Weíve got four feet of snow on the ground, itís warming up, and itís going to get icy. Iíve got to sand my road, and Iíve got a two-thirds-of-a-mile driveway. It keeps me pretty busy as far as working outdoors, but it keeps me in shape, so I canít complain. Thatís why I live here. Iím one of the few Red Sox who continues to live in New England and root for those sorry guys.
Q: What did you think of the Pedro MartinezĖDon Zimmer fight?
A: Oh God, it was just precious. Pedro had shock on his face. They interviewed me and I said, "Itís really hard to grab a bowling ball by its ears." I was actually very proud of him.
Q: Of Pedro?
A: No, of Zimmer! And Pedro did a great job of olé-ing the bull, not getting skewered. On both sides, I thought it was very entertaining, and I didnít put it past that thatís Zimmerís true colors. When they interviewed him afterwards, it upset me ó I said, "Zim, thereís no crying in baseball!" It was like a Tom Hanks movie. Iím going, "Címon, go down with the ship!"
Q: So talk to me about this yearís ALCS game seven. What would you have done differently if youíd been manager?
A: Oh, God. Everybody, they go, "Would you have taken Pedro out?" Iíve said, "Not only would I have taken him out, Iíd have taken him out to dinner in Paris." I wouldíve left with him. Because that was my only job I had to do. He could have gone out with a gun and shot both of them, and we wouldíve won the world championship. No. You never know. It couldíve been the last act of a desperate man.
Q: Where were you watching that game?
A: You know what? I had lost a bet and had to go down, and they wanted me to watch it at the Fox studios in Dedham, and I went, no way. I said, I donít want to be anywhere near there. So we got in the car and we drove. We got to Methuen and got to the Outback [Steakhouse] exactly at the first pitch. Everything was falling into place. I got there for the first pitch, we saw it, it was just a great game. It was just amazing. We were doing everything right, everything was going fine. We finished eating, I hadnít been recognized, kept a low profile ó everybodyís eyes were tuned to the TV, so no one was looking at anyone else. It was intense. We had first and third, nobody out, [Mike] Mussina was coming in, we paid the bill, we got in the car, and I was just saying, "God, I think we got íem this time." And the moral of that story is, never change a barstool in the middle of a playoff game.
Q: Where were you headed?
A: I was headed home. And as I got home, it got worse and worse, and it started flurrying, and I got through Franconia Notch, and came by the deathbed of the Old Man of the Mountain, lying face-down in a heap at Franconia Notch, and then I got closer and closer to my house and he wouldnít take him out, he wouldnít take him out ó
Q: Were you yelling at the radio?
A: Oh yeah, I was yelling at the radio. I was just dumbfounded. What got me was, Pedro did what he had to do. He tried his damnedest, he got 0-2 on everybody, but he couldnít put anybody away. He got to what I call, itís the mentality where you get the two strikes with such ease that you believe you can put them íem away immediately, without nibbling and setting him up. And he went at their jugular all the time, and they kept flaring balls into the outfield. It reminded me of the í86 World Series when the Mets came back and you could see the momentum rolling. Youíve got to get him out. Youíve got to bring in the left-hander to face the left-hander. You had them all lined up. [Mike] Timlin was throwing good. The lefty was throwing good. And you had your closers behind them in [Scott] Williamson and the other guys. I thought the stars were aligned. You spend all this time trying to establish a bullpen, and youíve finally got it.
Q: And you donít go to it.
A: And you donít go to it. You look in retrospect, maybe itís good we lost there, because I donít think we couldíve beaten the Marlins. I thought the Yankees were not that good. And if the Red Sox could only beat them by that thin line, then I thought the Marlins were the best team in baseball.
Q: By the time this interview runs, the A-Rod deal will either have happened or not. Regardless of the outcome, what are your thoughts on that matter?
A: Right now I believe it shouldíve been done, that all you had to do was go to the Players Association and say, you guys write it up the way you want it. A-Rod wants out. The only people that are really hurt here are Manny [Ramirez] and [Nomar] Garciaparra, who I donít believe would want out, and I wouldnít want to leave Fenway Park ó Iíd go kicking and screaming if I was a hitter. They donít realize how good they had it when they were here, and I donít believe any hitter realizes it. People that want to leave Boston, and theyíre hitters, it just goes to show how dumb hitters are. As a pitcher, yeah, give me a ticket out of here, for my sanity and everything else. The fans are in such close proximity, if youíre not deaf, youíre going to be neurotic. I thought it shouldíve been a done deal.
I like Manny ó I mean, a lot of people hated Manny. I thought he made two great plays in the outfield that got us to the playoffs, with his relay throw off the wall without looking, he hit Garciaparra and Garciaparra threw a strike to home and the catcher made a fabulous tag, or we wouldnít have even been worrying about getting to the World Series. It was a great season, it was very entertaining, and the drama of this winter is even spectacular. If youíre a baseball fan in New England, you shouldnít be happier.
Q: Talk to me about the Yankees-Sox rivalry. How do you think itís changed over the years?
A: I think itís become more of an economic war instead of a physical war. And now that we have owners that are actually alive, now weíre able to spend. When I played there, the Red Sox owners had deep pockets and short arms. Now theyíve got deep pockets and long arms. Theyíve got Bill Russell arms. Theyíre there, and they want to do this; they want to be the people that eliminate and change history and bring the Red Sox back to the dominant team that they were in the early 20th century.
Q: How do you feel about the salaries of todayís players? If youíd been making that kind of money, what would you have done with it?
A: Oh, Iíd be dead. Thereís no doubt about it, with all the bar owners I know. Thereís no way Iíd be alive today. So Iím actually very thankful that they waited this long to become dumb. Itís the economic system. The people who have it, have it, and the people that donít, donít, and it just exacerbates the two-tier system. Nothing was more demonstrated than today when they had the news that 53 percent of all Americans think Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. Which goes to show that they all shop at Wal-Mart and they all watch NASCAR. Itís a sorry state of affairs. Iíd say 80 percent of the US public has their head in the sand, and the other 20 percent have their head up George W.ís ass, or theyíre lip-locked on it. Iím just thankful that I only live 22 miles from Canada.
Q: Whom do you endorse for president?
A: I want [Dennis] Kucinich and [Al] Sharpton. Those are the only two that I would ever vote for. If the other ones get to the forefront, which is probably whatíll happen, then Iím typically, like I usually am, shit out of luck as far as having someone I can look up to. I was a Naderite and a McCarthyite and a Trotskyite. You can always put "ite" at the end of my name.
Q: How do you feel about the "Spaceman" nickname?
A: Well, as itís gone down in history, itís become very affectionate. Back when I got it, I was like Tom Wolfe who wrote the book The Right Stuff, which was a parody on Chuck Yeager saying that the space program was the wrong stuff, and that he was a true fly-by-his-pants pilot and didnít want to become an astronaut because he called it spam in a can. So I always looked on it as kind of a joke, and when I was nicknamed the Spaceman, thatís why I wrote my autobiography The Wrong Stuff, because I wasnít what they wanted. I was a freethinking left-hander that could throw strikes. They wanted me to throw strikes, but the thinking part was optional. They didnít want me to voice my opinion. But now Iíve become a critic, and Iíve got my third book coming out in the baseball season coming up, and Iím writing a whole bunch of other things for other people, and people come to me now and ask me my opinion, because after 30 or 40 years, itís become fact. Itís good. A prophet in his own time is not well-liked. I like being up on this hill because youíve got to have a howitzer to hit me now. When Iím walking through the streets of Boston, it just takes a shiv in the ribs.
Q: What do you think is ultimately going to happen to Fenway Park?
A: Oh, itís going to stay like it is. Youíre going to have the Boston Pops playing on the top of the right-field roof between innings. Itís a jewel. Itís going to be used for American Legion tournaments. People are going to rent it and use it. It could be a money-making thing all year long. Itís a historic monument that should be treasured and rebuilt and fixed up all the time. Thatís why the new owner is actually, I think heís a good guy and weíve got the right ownership in the right place at the right time.
Q: What are your predictions for next year?
A: I think the Red Sox will win 122 games and walk off with everything. If I had that ball club, boy ó Iíd die to have that ball club. Iíd have them all on Pilates balls, I would have them doing whatever the big guy, [Curt] Schilling, does for his training.
Q: You appeared in a documentary about Cuban baseball. Do you still travel to Cuba?
A: Yeah. Iím sending out wedding invitations to George W. and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Fidel. Weíre going to have a reconciliation tour when I get married [in Cuba]. Iíll have George W. stand up, and Laura, and the kids will love it down there ícause beerís a buck.
Q: What is it about baseball in Cuba that attracts you?
A: They play for nothing. They play for the love of the game. They play the old way. Thereís pick-up games all the time, everywhere. They donít have to have uniforms and be organized like we are here, and have a sponsor. Itís something that starts spontaneous, like their music. And the fact that the weatherís nice down there, itís just nice all the time, never too hot, never too cold, and when you get a rain-out, you just go into a cabana and start dancing.
Q: What do we have to do to get rid of the curse of the Bambino?
A: Youíve got to dig Babe up, bring him back to Boston, and apologize to him. Maybe if you throw enough money at the Yankees, you can beat them at their own economic game, but does that make it right? I donít want to do that. I want to beat them with less, I want to beat them with spirit, and I want to beat them with intellectual guile. I donít want to beat them with the economic hammer. But thatís why Iím up here on this hill and Iím sanding my own driveway and Iím a utopian dreamer. And you can put the emphasis on, Iím dreaming in Vermont.
Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]phx.com
Issue Date: January 9 - 15, 2004
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