The raspy, tin voice of the public address system barked across a sunbathed baseball diamond in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, “…and pitching for the Moncton Mets: No. 37, Bill Lee!” At that, the crowd—838 paying customers and a few hundred kids admitted gratis—lustily cheered the chance to watch a legend in action. At 37 years of age, Lee is renowned not only for a very respectable major-league record—119 wins and 90 losses in 13 seasons with the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos—but also for his bizarre off-the-field behavior and acerbic off-the-wall comments that have earned him the nickname “Spaceman.” Lee’s controversial career has been widely chronicled: He is the subject of a rock song by Warren Zevon, a Canadian documentary film and a recently published autobiography, The Wrong Stuff (Viking, $15.95), which was hailed by the Washington Post’s reviewer as “the funniest baseball book in nearly a decade and a half.”
But fame and good blurbs don’t win ball games, even in the New Brunswick Senior Baseball League, and Lee promptly pitched himself into a corner. He walked the first hitter, then threw two consecutive balls to the second batter. At that point, Lee—who seems to relish getting into trouble just for the pleasure of wiggling out of it—had the Woodstock Shiretowners right where he wanted them. Using his arsenal of curveballs, junkballs, change-ups and oh-so-slowballs, he struck out the second and third batters, then got the clean-up hitter on an easy grounder. Before the sweltering afternoon ended in a spectacular blazing sunset, Lee had fanned 13 Shiretowners en route to a 2-1 victory, his seventh win against only one loss. The Spaceman may be traveling in a lesser orbit these days, but he is still flying high.
Lee believes that he can still pitch well enough to win in the big leagues. But he harbors little hope that he’ll get another chance. “They don’t want me because I’m a bad boy,” he says. And he’s right: Lee is a born rebel with a congenital inability to hold his tongue, a combination that did not endear him to the bosses and the bureaucrats of baseball. He called his Red Sox manager, Don Zimmer, a “gerbil” and was imprisoned in the bullpen. He joked that he liked to sprinkle marijuana on his morning pancakes, and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined him $250. Then in May 1982, when the Expos abruptly released his teammate and friend Rodney Scott, Lee went on a wildcat sympathy strike, quitting the stadium to drown his sorrows in a Montreal bar. That was the Spaceman’s final flight: the Expos released him the next day. Despite his abilities, no major-league team has picked him up.
He professes no regrets. “It takes guts to speak out,” he says. “I’m basically an honest person. When they dump on people, I don’t let them get away with it. Economics wasn’t the underlying factor in my life; honesty was. And they didn’t like that. You saw The Natural. They didn’t want Roy Hobbs around. They knew the guy was a troublemaker from the beginning and they wanted to control him.”
Despite his exile from the big leagues, Lee refuses to give up the game. In 1982 he played softball on an Indian reservation in Canada and baseball with a semipro team called the Longueil Senators. “I always said I would play baseball for nothing,” he wrote in his engaging autobiography, “and this proves it.” Last winter he pitched for the La Guira Tiburones in Venezuela, and in the spring he got a call from some strangers who wanted to form a semipro team in Moncton and thought the Spaceman might serve as a drawing card. Lee, who is receiving deferred payments of $20,000 per year for the next eight years from his Expos contract, was not difficult to convince. “He told us, ‘I don’t need a lot of money but I’ve got a family to feed and I need housing,’ ” says Jim Keefe, the president of the Moncton Mets. “So we took care of that. He’s getting $500 a week and expenses.”
Lee is more than satisfied with the arrangement. “I’m doing this because I’m a ballplayer and I always have been, and it would be an unjustified waste if I gave up now and tried to be something else,” he says. That is his serious answer. Then he grins. “Besides, I’m addicted to pine tar.”
Moncton’s Kiwanis Park is a long way from the bright lights of the big leagues. It’s a small-town ballpark where the cramped locker room has no showers; where local kids throw crabapples at the visitors’ dugout; where the boys in the press box hide their beers beneath their chairs so as not to corrupt Canadian youth; where even the PA announcements are quaintly provincial: “Star Industries offers a complete line of janitorial supplies…” Lee has learned to love the place. “I’m playing more ball here than I did with the Expos,” he says. “I’m not just specializing in pitching, I’m playing left field and first base and hitting. I’m getting in excellent shape to go elk hunting or mountain climbing or to play winter ball.”
Lee has settled into a rented house about ten miles outside of Moncton with his second wife, Pam, 24, and his children by a first marriage that ended in divorce—Michael, 14, Andy, 9, and Caitlin, 7, who live with their mother in the United States during the winter. Together, Lee’s brood is thriving on a regimen of baseball, bicycling, swimming and fishing. “The necessities of life, I think, are sports and fishing,” the Spaceman philosophizes. “Fishing provides protein for your family and sports burns off that protein. It’s a circle.”
Life in Moncton has mellowed Lee. In the big leagues he was a carouser with a particular fondness for beer and rye whisky. Now, Pam complains that her husband is becoming an old fuddy-duddy. “Bill never wants to go out,” she laments. With a shrug, Lee admits that he is no longer a big-league partier: “I’m getting too old for that.”
After a sleepy summer in New Brunswick, Lee has even mellowed so much that he is—perish the thought—getting along with his bosses. Mets’ manager Pete Slauta, who also coaches at Brown University, credits Lee with helping to develop real ballplayers out of a collection of college students, teachers, construction workers and salesmen. “He’s made pitchers out of guys who were just throwers,” Slauta says, “and he’s helped them with their hitting, too.” Jim Keefe is also impressed with Lee’s intensity. “He does everything as if he’s playing in the final game of the World Series,” says the team president, “and it’s not phony, it’s genuine.”
Of course, the Spaceman couldn’t live without getting into some kind of trouble. In Moncton, though, his confrontation came not in the general manager’s office, but in a cow pasture. One day Lee was driving to a local fishing hole with his wife and kids when his angler’s license blew out of the car window and into a field full of walking beef. Clad in hip boots, he hopped a fence and chased after the fluttering license. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an angry bull, head down and charging. “I’m bending over and trying to pick up the license, and it keeps blowing away from me,” he says. “Finally, I grabbed it and dove over the fence just as the bull runs right by me. I got a standing ovation from everybody in the car.”
Be it raging bulls or baseball bureaucrats, Bill Lee always seems to be running one step ahead of the horns—and enjoying every minute of the chase.