Friday, August 24, 2012

Maybe the Red Sox should sign this guy...

Bill 'Spaceman' Lee's visit to San Rafael a success

By Daniel Brown

A few hours before his game Thursday night, as groundskeepers readied the field, Bill "Spaceman" Lee eyed a shovel suspiciously.

"What's that for?" he asked. "To bury me?"

Hardly. Even at 65, one of baseball's all-time most colorful characters remains in full orbit. Spaceman, who delighted Boston Red Sox fans and irritated baseball's stuffed shirts for large parts of the 1970s, is still throwing change-ups — on the mound and off.

Lee signed a one-game contract with the San Rafael Pacifics of the independent North American League in what the team ballyhooed as his chance to become the oldest pitcher to win a professional game.

Lee not only won, he pitched a complete game in a 9-4 victory over the Maui Na Koa Ikaika and was mobbed by teammates and fans as he bounded triumphantly off the mound.

"Honestly, this is one of the most amazing performances I've ever seen," Pacifics manager Mike Marshall, the former Dodgers outfielder/first baseman, said. "I can't believe what I just saw -- I'm like Jack Buck."

Introduced by the public-address announcer as "a visitor to planet earth," Lee took the mound with no other trace of silliness. There was no Daniel Boone cap, no gas mask, no beanie with a propeller -- all things he wore at different times a major league career that lasted from 1969-82.

Instead, the left-hander looked serious and worked quickly. His fastball was clocked at 70 mph and a handful of
high-arcing "Lee-phus" pitches were clocked at ... well, those didn't register at all.

Lee allowed four runs on eight hits, striking out none and walking none. He threw 94 pitches -- 69 for strikes.

As a minor league publicity stunt, Lee's outing was an even bigger triumph: The Pacifics sold out -- all 1,200 seats. Albert Field is essentially a high school ballpark, as Lee knew firsthand. "I threw a no-hitter here in 1962, against Drake," the Terra Linda High grad said. "This is like a home game for me."

So continued a week of nostalgia for Lee, who traveled to Boston on Monday to attend the funeral of former second baseman Johnny Pesky, a beloved member of the Red Sox family.

Lee said that when his cab from Fenway Park pulled up curbside for services, he noticed a New York Yankees fan in the car behind him.

"So I flipped him off," Lee said.

Wait. At a funeral?

"Johnny would have wanted it that way," Lee explained.

Lee's burning loyalty to Boston shows that time can heal all wounds -- or at least heal petty grievances. An All-Star in '73, the irascible left-hander clashed often with Red Sox power figures during his playing days -- including a running feud with manager Don Zimmer, whom he once referred to as a "designated gerbil."

Always eager to tweak management, Lee was a counterculture eccentric even by '70s standards. Once, as Sports Illustrated recounted, he called a conference on the mound -- catcher, coach, third baseman, the whole cast -- and informed them that his lips were chapped.

Oh, and he could pitch. Lee won 17 games each year from '73-75. His catcher, Carlton Fisk, later said that Lee was "was the best left-hander in the league" during that three-year stretch.

In those days, as now, Lee threw a baffling assortment of junkballs -- an appropriate repertoire, given his personality type. Lee said a high school knee injury, combined with an already weird body type -- "sway back, big ass," is how he put it -- allowed him to put a natural sink on the ball.

Lee said he feels spry most of the time. He's been a fixture in the Vermont Senior Baseball League since 1988 and is eager to hurl junk for anybody who calls. Lee was already the oldest pitcher to win a professional game, having triumphed at age 63 in a Can-Am League game in 2010.

"I'm able to still do this," Lee explained, "because I've never quit."

Mike Shapiro, the CEO and general manager of the fledgling Pacifics, his original plan was to name his team the Spacemen, partly to honor Lee, partly because of nearby Lucasfilm Ltd. and partly, he said, "because Marin County is kind of spacey."

Though he settled on the more stately "Pacifics," Shapiro still wanted to let Lee pitch for the team that nearly bore his nickname.

"I called him up, asked him and he said, 'Sure, how about Aug. 22 or 23?' " Shapiro said. "That might have been the easiest negotiation I've ever had."

Lee was by far the most distinguished man on the field, and not just because of the gray hair. Still, Lee took this seriously. He reacted wildly to tough calls, high-fiving teammates after big plays and resisted Marshall's notion of taking him out of the game.

Lee reacted to the final out with a fist pump so big it looked like Game 7 of the World Series -- which he once started, in 1975.

Lee will probably be back in future years. He still owns a home in the area. He also partners with a Napa winemaker for a blend of California syrah, cabernet and petite sirah.

It's called Spaceman Red. Here's guessing it ages well.


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