SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
August 07, 1978
Bill Lee, the Spaceman, takes a different track, whether he's "retiring" from the Red Sox, lofting a Leephus pitch or probing the wisdom of Zevon
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August 07, 1978

In An Orbit All His Own

Bill Lee, the Spaceman, takes a different track, whether he's "retiring" from the Red Sox, lofting a Leephus pitch or probing the wisdom of Zevon

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Bernie Carbo says that in baseball a flake is merely someone who is not boring, someone who enjoys himself. Someone like Bill Faul, whom Carbo remembers from the minor leagues because of his rather outr� appetite. According to Carbo, Faul once interrupted a dreary evening in the clubhouse by biting off the head of a live parakeet and gulping it down. This came as no surprise to those teammates who had witnessed Faul's performance the day before, when he chewed up a live toad and swallowed it. "Now there was a flake," says Carbo. " Bill Lee goes much deeper than that."

What does the number 337-7718 stand for? Bill Lee upside down. "I'm just an excitable boy," says Lee.

During the nearly 10 years that 31-year-old Bill Lee has spent pitching and performing in the uniform of the Boston Red Sox—two similar activities which in Lee's case can be vastly dissimilar—there have been countless occasions on which Lee has reinforced his image as America's paragon of lefthandedness.

More often than not, Lee's act has been punctuated by his blurting out a lyric or two from a rock song with which nobody in his right mind would be familiar unless he had an FM receiver firmly embedded in his gizzard. Since the overseers of our National Pastime are still poking around stacks of Vaughn Monroe platters while the world inhabited by Bill Lee boogies to Steely Dan, few of them can empathize with—much less approve of—him.

It is not so much that anyone objects to Lee jumping off motel balconies into swimming pools or playing bullpen Frisbee games with bleacherites. Or making references to his own error-prone infielders as "guys who are lucky they can see" and to former Yankee Manager Billy Martin and the New Yorkers as "that neo-Nazi and his Brown Shirts." These are run-of-the-mill nutty things to do and say. Mere rattles in the playpen of flakedom. Lee is not satisfied with such kid stuff.

Sure enough, so that nobody—not even his blonde, frizz-curled jewel of a wife, Mary Lou—would know what he was about to do on the afternoon of June 16, Lee kept mumbling rock 'n' roll non sequiturs during his daily rounds:

Speeding along in his lime-green BMW toward an appearance at the Massachusetts Hospital School for the Handicapped—"You can't run away from yourself.... Bob Marley & The Wailers." Riding in an elevator to the fourth floor of the Jordan Marsh department store in downtown Boston, where a group of housewives waited for him to divulge his recipe for vegetarian lasagna—"Obladi oblada, life goes on.... The Beatles." Walking through the players' parking lot at Fenway Park—"Don't go changin' to try and please me.... Billy Joel." Riding, walking, talking, everywhere, all day—"He's just an excitable boy.... Warren Zevon."

Later that day Lee stormed into the Boston clubhouse, cleaned out his locker, hurled his nameplate to the floor, walked out on the Red Sox and thoroughly "retired" from baseball.

This was so wondrous a news story to the millions of New Englanders who concurrently love and hate Lee that the baseball-mad Boston newspapers bannered it on the front pages, above the Carter-Torrijos meetings in Panama. In truth, the only novelty was how utterly unsurprising Lee's behavior really was. A man who lives by the sword dies by it. In this case Lee's blade was a career-long, counterculture appreciation of systematic, laid-back whimsy. "He's just an excitable boy.... Warren Zevon."

Much of Lee's rambling over the years has been about such terrific subjects as pyramid power, zero population growth, the goodness of soyburgers, the badness of sugar, interplanetary creative Zen Buddhism and heavy, heavy, zapped-out karma. But Lee's philosophy is more out of comic books—to be specific, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, which his 8-year-old son Michael shares with his dad—than Nietzsche or Vonnegut or even Paramahansa Yogananda.

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