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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Other observers have not been so enamored. Clif Keane and Larry Claflin are two veteran reporters with rather rigid beliefs about how baseball players should look and act. Their radio talk show, Clif and Claf, is a popular nighttime entertainment in New England, and the two have waged a campaign to rid the region of Lee almost since he originally toed the Fenway rubber. Teammates say Lee rescued Claflin once by stepping in where others feared to tread when former Red Sox Pitcher Gary Peters was ready to rearrange Claflin's face in a Detroit bar. Keane, however, has no such reasons for restraint when criticizing Lee on the air.

"Imbecile," "goon-head" and "drug addict" are some of Keane's milder descriptions of Lee. When Keane questioned how Lee's wife and family could put up with his nocturnal meanderings, Lee came close to filing a lawsuit. "The guy is on flea powder or angel dust," Keane will rant in the press box. "Did Lee get a cortisone shot in the shoulder or in the head?" he loudly asked Red Sox General Manager Sullivan at the June press conference after Lee left on his 24-hour sabbatical. "If this team has any class you'll tell him to shove it."

George Kimball, a tattooed, irreverent representative of the local journal most closely aligned with Lee's style, the underground The Boston Phoenix , makes an important distinction between Lee's fanatical friends and fanatical foes. "Nobody who can count doesn't like Bill Lee," Kimball says.

Now wait. Fisk has argued vehemently and publicly with Lee on the mound. When he was with the Sox, Reggie Smith beat up on the pitcher. In the Puerto Rico winter league, Lee was jumped by Catcher Ellie Rodriguez and Rodriguez' cousin and brother—one of whom reportedly carried a knife. The assault was in retaliation for Lee's one-punch knockout of Ellie in an earlier encounter. Lee suffered no knife wounds against the Rodriguez tag team, but he was urged to contact a dentist immediately.

Then there are the Yankees. On the night of May 20, 1976, while backing up home plate in Yankee Stadium, Lee unwisely took part in a full-scale rumble, the results of which nearly cost him his left arm, not to mention his career. While trying to prevent the Yankees' Otto Velez from joining the fray, Lee was punched by Mickey Rivers, and then grabbed from behind by Graig Nettles and heaved to the ground on his shoulder. At that point, films show, Rivers pounded away at Lee under a mountain of bodies. When Lee finally was able to get up and throw a punch, his arm was shot. Nonetheless, he went after Nettles, who opened up with both fists, and Lee was hammered into a bloody pulp.

Because of his assault on Lee, Rivers has been pelted with racial epithets, bottles, bolts and firecrackers in Fenway, and Lee still wonders if his shoulder is all there. "I don't think the Yankees started the fight to get me," Lee says, "but once it started, I know there were a few Yankees looking for me. My opinions may have caught up with themselves." A long time before the fight, Lee had described the Yankees' gladiatorial prowess as the equal of "a bunch of hookers swinging their purses."

It was August 1976 before Lee won his next game. He finished with five victories—this after his three seasons of 17 each—and has not been the same pitcher since. Nonetheless his reputation as a Yankee killer convinced Zimmer to shuffle his pitching rotation last year, so that in each of the first four Red Sox-Yankee series Lee was the Sox' starter in the opening game. He finished 1-1, with two no-decisions and one dead fish courtesy of Billy Martin, who sent the Mafia-style gift to Lee with a note reading, "Put this in your purse, you no-good——."

This season Lee's one turn against the Yankees was rained out, but it has made no difference, as the Red Sox have opened a lead on the Yankees as well as the rest of the division.

Contradictions continue to abound in Lee's life. Two years ago, after spouting off against overpopulation, Lee was embarrassed to learn that Mary Lou was pregnant with Kate, the youngest of their three children. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the Save the Whales movement, but around his neck he wears a Yin-Yang symbol that looks suspiciously as if it is fashioned from a whale's tooth. He lobbies against sugar, but he is the only one in his family who takes his coffee sweet.

"It all started out as a joke, a put-on," says Clark Booth, another of Lee's media friends. "Bill entertained us and amused us and it was, you know, 'all seriousness aside' and that routine. Somewhere along the line, though, Bill started to think he had to keep it up. He was like a little kid who wanted to please the elders. Maybe he still wants the role and all the attention. But maybe he's tired of it, too."

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