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Is He Baseball's Flake of Flakes? Montreal's Bill Lee Says Yes, No and Maybe

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Most players answer questions yes or no. I end up with a two-page dissertation on the Coriolis effect on how the ball spins. I’m not putting people on. I’m telling the truth. But people consider me flaky. The word “sinister” comes from the Latin for left-handed, you know.

—Bill Lee, 1978

In the tight little world of major league baseball, a reputation for flakiness is easy to come by. Yogi Berra got one by looking funny. Dizzy Dean got one by talking funny. Paul Dean got his, and the nickname “Daffy” to go with it, just by being Dizzy’s brother. Au fond, as Bill Lee’s new Montreal Expos fans might say, the free-spirited pitcher known as the Spaceman is no crazier than anyone else, and possibly a little less so. But there is no denying that Lee isn’t the average major league ball player. Headstrong and hyperbolic, he is a torrent of off-the-wall babble. Managers wince when Lee flaps his limber (and often liberal) jaw, conservatives cringe and even baseball’s phlegmatic commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, has been known to exhibit occasional signs of arousal.

Lee is willing to put his career where his mouth is. Last season, at the start of a tight pennant race, he quit the Boston Red Sox for one memorable day after the team sold his friend and soul mate, outfielder Bernie Carbo, to Cleveland. Why did he do it, he was asked by a reporter. “Get some graduate degrees in sociology, economics and psychology, and then I’ll tell you,” Lee said wryly, but the explanation wasn’t really that complicated. “Friendship is first with me, then competition,” he says. “I played this game in the streets for a long time. If it isn’t fun, there’s no reason to play. I walked out because of the way they treated Bernie—abuse of power. People said what I did was selfish, but I had nothing to gain and everything to lose.” (Lee himself was traded to the Expos by Boston last December.)

Is the man serious? Certainly that day he was, but it isn’t always easy to tell. He once wore a gas mask at batting practice to protest air pollution. Another time, during an end-of-sea-son game in the rain, he lobbed the ball up so softly that batters were falling down trying to hit it. At the end of the game, Lee himself executed a graceful swan dive into the wet grass. Why? He wanted to, that’s why. “I live on the principle that when Julius Caesar was carried into Rome after his triumph, the slave waving the palm keeping the bugs off him whispered into his ear, ‘All glory is fleeting,’ ” says Lee. “Everything is temporary. I live in the present.”

Needless to say, Lee’s irreverence has not endeared him to the baseball establishment. Last March, during spring training in Florida, he admitted to a reporter that he had occasionally used marijuana—”but only on my buckwheat pancakes and other health food,” he later explained. “I’ve never smoked the stuff.” If the news was only mildly alarming to the maple syrup industry, it came as a thunderclap to Commissioner Kuhn, who sharply rebuked Lee, fined him $250 and ordered him to pay it to charity. Lee sent the money, plus an extra dollar, to a mission in Alaska, where he had once pitched for a team called the Goldpanners. “If I’d sent it to the charity of his choice,” he said of the commissioner, “I’m sure it would have gone to Nixon.” When the tempest subsided, Lee was bemused, but hardly contrite. “People think I bring these things on myself,” he says with a shrug. “I didn’t go to the press and say I smoke dope. They came to me. If you’re a public figure, you have no privacy. All I ever wanted out of life was somewhere to go fishing.”

Until last season, he might not have thought to find it in Canada. Then, after Lee had floundered in a midsummer slump, Boston manager Don Zimmer removed him from the Red Sox starting rotation. With characteristic tact, Lee had once called Zimmer a “gerbil.” Later he elaborated. “Gerbils have big puffy cheeks, store food, waddle a lot and kids love ’em. Zim and I have a lot in common, but he tries to win at all costs and I try to enjoy at all costs.” Tolerant, but by no means equipped with an inexhaustible sense of humor, Zimmer decided he wanted Lee far away. The change has worked wonders, both for Lee, now 32, and for the Expos. Though the team had never, in 10 years, won more games than it lost, it was tenaciously fighting for first place in the National League’s eastern division as the ’79 season turned into August. Lee had already won 10 games, as many as he won all last year, and was beginning to appreciate his northern surroundings. “Montreal’s the same as Boston,” he says, “except the working people speak French-. After a game I shoot pool with ’em or sit in the beer garden. They’re fatherly-like. They pat you on the head and shake your hand, real tactile and friendly-feeling.”

Lee grew up in California. His father, who worked for the phone company, gave him a “healthy attitude” about sports, he says, but he credits his Aunt Annabel with teaching him to pitch. “She played in a women’s professional hardball league in Illinois,” he claims, “and she was the greatest pitcher I ever saw.” After graduating from Terra Linda High School in 1964, he enrolled at USC, where he majored in physical education and geography and talked longingly of becoming a forest ranger. He also won 38 games for the university baseball team and signed with the Red Sox in 1968. He spent a year in the minors, touching down briefly in Waterloo, Iowa. “The prevailing atmosphere there,” recalls teammate Carlton Fisk, now a Red Sox star, “was a whole lot of screaming between Bill and the manager.” By June 1969 the prodigal left-hander was summoned to Boston.

Not surprisingly, Lee’s exploits as resident oddball have tended to obscure his athletic achievements. In nine and a half seasons with the Red Sox he won 94 games, making him the third winningest left-hander in the team’s 78-year history. Never gifted with a menacing fast ball, he got by, then as now, on finesse. He won 17 games each season from 1973 through 1975. Then, in 1976, during a game at Yankee Stadium, he became involved in a brawl that nearly ended his career. When Yankee outfielder Lou Piniella charged into Fisk at home plate, the excitable Lee ran to the rescue. “I got pinned on the ground,” he remembers. “Then Graig Nettles dumped me on my shoulder.” The result was a ruinous shoulder separation, involving torn ligaments and muscle and nerve damage. Later in the season Lee began a bitter verbal sparring match with Yankee manager Billy Martin, a blood-and-guts leader whose style Lee finds appalling. After the Spaceman referred to Martin and his players as “that neo-Nazi and his Brown Shirts,” he received a dead mackerel by messenger, accompanied by a note from Martin reading, “Put this in your purse, you (expletive deleted).”

During the next two years Lee painstakingly worked his way back. But he was never the pitcher he had been, and some Boston fans let him know it loudly and often. “People started sports to resolve inner conflicts,” he observed philosophically to the jeers of the boo-birds. “It keeps them from robbing banks and shooting people.” Bostonians, he decided, were hung up on winning. “I,” he declared, “can get off on a really fine helmet throw. A connoisseur appreciates that, doesn’t boo and watches the game as if it were Nureyev defying gravity.”

Although his arm still pains him from time to time, Lee is pitching again these days with the consistency that once was his trademark. “That’s the only thing I’m concerned about,” says Expos manager Dick Williams. “The other part is not my job.” Trusting that “the other part,” too, will find a spiritual nesting place in La Belle Province, Lee recently moved his wife, Mary Lou, and their three young children into a Montreal split-level.

A physical fitness buff, Lee eats meat sparingly and jogs every day “to keep from freezing up,” though he was struck by a cab in April. Shaken up but not badly hurt, he resumed pitching within a week. Despite his bizarre marijuana confessional, he insists that drugs are simply alien to his vision of fitness. “I used to run to the ball park in Boston,” he says, “and it killed all the poison I inhaled on the way. I’m not addicted to anything. If I was, tell me how I could run five miles faster than any Red Sox player my age.”

When his playing days are over, says Lee, he would like to return to California and settle down in a commune. “We need alternative ways of living and energy,” he muses. “We need to get into caring for each other and living in harmony with the planet.” That isn’t idle talk about some dim Utopia. “Everything I do is in the form of constructive criticism,” he explains. “I’ve been a little more sensitive and concerned than some others, and I won’t change my style. My feet are planted more firmly on terra firma than most people’s in this world.” Then again, the Spaceman never runs out of surprises.

“Maybe I’ll just take off for Brazil next year. There are a lot of Germans down there, and I’m part German. No, come to think of it, Brazil is too expensive. The Scotch in me would never permit my going there.

“I hear Marrakesh is a great city. Maybe I’ll go there. I could live with that scene. Then people could call me the ‘Marrakesh Express.’

“Ah, I don’t know, I just don’t know. But someday, someday soon, I’m just going to disappear and no one will ever see me again.”

—Bill Lee, 1979