The Spaceman

The career stats of former major league pitcher Bill Lee doesn’t stand out. He won 119 games in his career playing for both the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos.

But the man nicknamed The Spaceman left a legacy of his own by being one of the most anti-institutional and outspoken players that’s ever played the game. 

There was the time when a three day rain delay preceded his Game 6 start in the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. When reporters asked what he would do if he won, he said that he’d declare three days of darkness so that their staff ace Luis Tiant could pitch Game 7, or as he explained: "That’s what Zeus did when he raped Europa. He asked the sun god, Apollo, to stay away for a few days."

He was known to butt heads with managers, most notably with Red Sox skipper Don Zimmer, whom Lee nicknamed "the designated gerbil".

Lee would eventually wear out his welcome in Boston, and was traded to Montreal.

He was also known to have experimented with drugs, once telling a reporter that he regularly spread marijuana in his pancakes. On the topic of drugs, he once opined: "The other day they asked me about mandatory drug testing. I said I believed in drug testing a long time ago. All through the sixties I tested everything."

The nickname itself comes from the infamous eephus pitchthat Lee himself dubbed “The Spaceball” or “The Leephus”. He’s most well known to have thrown that pitch to Reds hitter Tony Perez in Game 7 of the aforementioned World Series. After retiring Perez with the pitch in the first two at-bats, he went back to it again and Perez homered off him and started a comeback that extended Boston’s championship drought.

Many considered Lee to be counterculture to the increasingly corporate environment of baseball. But some of his comments show him to be more of a purist of the game. He once said that if he had his way, he would bring back natural grass and nickel beer. Lee believed that baseball was the "belly-button of our society". And if we straightened out baseball, we’d straighten out the rest of the world.

Towards the end of his time with Montreal, the same problems rose to the surface. Lee didn’t get along with manager Jim Fanning, and when second baseman Rodney Scott was released, a lot of players including Lee were upset at management for the move.

Lee was so upset that he left the team on a one game protest. The story goes that Lee was once playing pool at a local bar while the Expos were getting beat up. Seeing that the pitchers were struggling, he reported back to the ball park during the game.

This type of behavior didn’t help extend Lee’s major league career. He was released by the Expos in 1982 and never pitched another game in the majors again.

But Lee continued to pitch in semi-pro leagues and last month, became the oldest man to win a professional baseball game at the age of 65, throwing nine innings for the San Rafael Pacifics of the North American independent baseball league.

In his book "The Wrong Stuff", Lee clarifies what he set out to do as a baseball player: "If I accomplished anything as a player, I hope it’s that I proved you could exist as a dual personality in the game. I had to pass through the looking glass every time I went out on the field. Away from the ballpark, I tried to care about the earth, and I wasn’t concerned with getting ahead of the ‘other guy.’ On the mound, I was a different person, highly competitive and always out to win. Who I was off the field fed the person I became on it. I had to make the stands I did. To be silent in the face of injustice would have made my life and my pitching meaningless. If I was able to keep my compassion while retaining my competitive senses, then I would judge my career a success. I hope I was able to make more than just a few fans smile, while showing them that the game shouldn’t be taken too seriously. If I am remembered by anyone, I would want it to be as a guy who cared about the planet and the welfare of his fellow man. And who would take you out at second if the game was on the line."

I think we need more athletes that are cut from the same cloth as The Spaceman.

photo via SI Vault

Footnotes:

1 The easiest way to describe an eephus pitch is that it’s a low speed pitch with a very high trajectory to the plate. Essentially, it’s a lob that throws hitters off. Here’s a video example of a well executed eephus.

40 notes

  1. honusthebench reblogged this from stevenlebron
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  5. scorebookz reblogged this from sbnation and added:
    Halloween is coming up. Get your costumes ready.
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  9. dachzickey reblogged this from sbnation and added:
    I think I found a new hero. What a cool cat.
  10. illestraighter reblogged this from stevenlebron
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  12. perspectiveanonymous said: Spaceman was a true original. Though there are plenty of athletes in today’s sports that try to be “original”, they usually come off as contrived. Not so with this guy. Nice read.
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  16. stevenlebron posted this


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