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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Moreover, Lee's spiritual leaders are pop music legends. He has repeatedly seen American Graffiti, a movie about rock 'n' roll and the '50s, which was filmed along Fourth Street in San Rafael, Calif., where Lee grew up. His brother Paul was stabbed at a Jimi Hendrix concert, an event that gave shape, Lee says, to his own "wariness of peripheralness and the absurdities in daily life." Records and tapes and programs from rock concerts clutter up the front room of Lee's large duplex in suburban Belmont. Then there is the new guy, Zevon.

In the music industry, Zevon, a bespectacled, disheveled former songwriter for Linda Ronstadt, is usually described as being from the " California Outlaw" school, which is also known as " California Weird." It would be impossible for Lee—the guru of baseball's flakes, the game's Spaceman—not to relate to that. Among the songs of Zevon's latest album are Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, Werewolves of London and Accidentally Like a Martyr. Lee has the album practically memorized. Then there are the lyrics to Excitable Boy, which begin:

Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
Excitable boy, they all said.
And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest
Excitable boy, they all said.

After a couple of months of this banging into his consciousness, it was little wonder that Lee made sure gravy was spilled all over the place when it came time to get out of the game he loves to shock almost as much as he loves to play.

The Spaceman has always said things like "I wasn't supposed to be around here 15 days after I got here," referring to the day in 1969 when he was called up from the bushes to temporarily replace Jim Lonborg, who had injured his toe while attempting to bunt. So what could it matter when the Spaceman left? Though Lee could not supplant Lonborg as Boston's ace, his 84 victories over the next nine years, including three straight 17-win seasons, were enough to endear him to Sox fans, whether or not they knew Ouspensky or Gurdjieff, the mystics Lee says are his "psychological" advisers.

The Boston-area public always has been divided along geographical as well as generational lines in its feelings toward Lee. In the blue-collar Irish bars of Southie, Lee was anathema after he defended Judge Arthur Garrity Jr., who ordered the desegregation of Boston schools by busing, as "the only guy in this town with any guts." On the other hand, the Spaceman was a prince to the city's hip-liberal college population—largely based in Cambridge—which was thrilled by his outspoken lobbying for decriminalization of marijuana and his open defiance of pot laws.

The Red Sox were left in a quandary as to just what to do with Lee. Possibly the most straitlaced organization in all of pro sports, Boston was one of the first teams to impose a no-liquor rule on team flights and one of the last to dress out in form-fitting knit uniforms. In the matter of race, the Sox signed their first black player—Pumpsie Green—long after every other team in the majors had blacks. Even today only two U.S.-born blacks are on the Red Sox' roster, Jim Rice and George Scott.

In Lee, team officials saw a flaming radical, junkballing journeyman lefthander with no fastball, no loyalty and no moral values. Yet they also saw a media hero who visited all the sick children, kept the sports talk shows in clover and drew crowds to Fenway Park. This same man also refused to believe there was no tomorrow—even after his team lost the seventh game of the 1975 World Series.

Lee's friend, former Red Sox Pitcher Tom House, who now plays for Seattle, says, "Deep down inside—where nobody has ever gotten to him—Bill is a great human being. It's just that in baseball the Peter Principle reaches its highest level, and the absolute worst people run the show. Bill realized very early the ludicrousness of being in a position where so many intellectual vegetables have so much authority and influence over the way he lives his life. I always thought Bill was an accident looking for a place to happen. But he's too intelligent to be self-destructive. He knows marginal players have to play by the rules. Any deviation from the norm is a ticket out. But he's a master at walking the tightrope. Bill never let anybody or anything diminish his character. And he never will."

Nor will he flinch when it comes to saying what is on his mind:

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