“If I can still walk, if I can still move, if I can still see, I will play baseball.” – Old Cuban man, translated from the Spanish, fr. Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey
Bill Spaceman Lee doesn’t concern himself with dignity. Anyone who talks as fast as he does can’t worry about the occasional joke that falls flat.
Lee is concerned with baseball, and making sure that he plays as much baseball as possible, in whatever game he can find. It’s downright undignified for a pro ballplayer to grow old, and for that pro ballplayer to continue to take the mound after his professional value has expired, but that doesn’t bother Lee. He’ll pitch anywhere, because pitching anywhere is better than not pitching anywhere.
I bring it up because the other day the MLB Network ran a documentary on Bill Lee: Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey. The film is a kind-hearted venture; half bio and half travel journal. We learn about the Spaceman’s career, watch some (wonderfully 70s) archival video, learn the highlights and the lowlights before trekking with Bill and his baseball club of dumpy dudes as they travel to Cuba to play baseball in pick-up games against Cubans who are of a similar age but look about a hundred times better.
From said archival footage there was an exchange to emphasize Lee’s viewpoint about his baseball shelf-life. The conversation covered Les Expos’ expulsion of Lee from the team after he left the clubhouse for the barroom one game:
News Lady: “You could get blackballed, you know.”
Bill: “Well then I’ll go out to California and grow walnuts or go to British Columbia and grow peaches like I always said I would after I was done playing baseball.”
News Lady: “You don’t care if you’ll be out of baseball for good?”
Bill: “Oh, I’ll never be out of baseball for good. It’s my life.”
The film’s finest feature is Lee’s endless monologue, a spoken-word soundtrack that runs wild through the countryside of the mind, veering from one subject to another, and which usually has something to do with baseball. Lee punctuates his stories with an open-mouthed grin. He illustrates his pitching explanations through gesture (he has massive hands and a farmer’s physicality).
The traveling team is an amateur collection of over-aged and under-talented men who’ve gone to Cuba to play dodgy ball games on sagging Cuban fields, just because they want to. Lee, the only player on the team to have been paid to play baseball at any point in his life, is a lob-baller with bad knees and a big belly, and he’s not particularly good, even against the level competition (though I’d take a team of 50-year-old Cubans over any other national team every time). But Lee is there, and his endless banter boils the otherwise sluggish stew of crappy baseball. He talks ball like he’s twenty. He breaks down his last turn at bat (for yes, he is a hitter, too, and a better one now than he is a pitcher, even if he’s requiring of a pinch-runner) as though he is at Fenway facing Juan Marichal.
(“I’m like Juan Marichal,” he said after cursing his bad knees. “Marichal always played hurt.”)
The thesis: good baseball, bad baseball, it’s all baseball and it’s there to be enjoyed. Treat yourself like A-Rod, because nobody else is going to and there’s no point in standing around waiting for them to.
Lee can’t get over how much Cubans all over enjoy baseball so deeply. “I love Cuba,” he went. “God damn they play baseball for all the right reasons. Cause they like it. They don’t play it to make more money or sell some more satellite dishes.”
The documentary reminded me of the day that I spent with the Spaceman, when I helped out at a baseball clinic that he led one Vermont fall day. It was a modest affair: a rag tag collection of seven or eight people who were clearly more interested in hanging with the Spaceman than in improving their baseball skills. An average age of around forty-five, I’d guess, and as a whole the group showed the coordination and agility of a roomful of broken vacuum cleaners. But no matter, as Bill Lee would entertain them in the manner that they hoped for.
The Spaceman didn’t stop talking. He answered questions all day, most of which revolved around the favorites or least favorites, the toughest, etc. The only answer I remember is that his least favorite hitter to face was Thurman Munson. Ever expounding, Lee went on to describe Munson’s style at the plate, how to pitch to him, his locker room habits, his favorite restaurants, etc., spinning a single word answer into a sonnet.
Lee brought a giant wooden bat with him to the clinic. Custom-made, he explained. The knob at the handle-end was the size of a kid’s rubber football, to provide a counterweight and propel the barrel through the hitting zone, went the idea. Lee, who loved hitting near as much as he loved pitching and talking, took BP with us. He swung the mammoth bat like a heavy gate swinging open, and he lofted pitches around the outfield.
I bring up the bat because numero uno it’s a marvel to behold, and there was a Paul Bunyan effect, especially being up in the Vermont mountains as we were, but numero dos because in the documentary there was a scene in which an older Cuban man, a spectator at one of the games, asked the Spaceman for a bat. Lee looked around himself like the man had asked him for a light, then he said, “Yeah, I gotta bat for you.” And he brought over a wooden model with that enormous knob and handed it over the chain-link fence to the Cuban.
During the baseball clinic’s pitching session, I caught for Lee. It was a pleasure because the lefty threw the ball about 65 miles per hour and he hit his spots. He threw to the attendees too, in a semi-scrimmage. After the paying guests finished their turns flailing at the bat and romping around the bases, I hopped in there and wallopped a Spaceman slow curve to an empty place in right center. Some oohs came from the gang, but I was young and a baseball player to boot. It was a lollipop pitch to hit, and still there was Lee saying “I hung that one.” The truth was, he hung them all.
He hung them all but he never hung them up. And that’s saying something. Fourteen years of organized baseball and I wouldn’t know where to find a full-on game to save my life, and here he’s in Cuba playing the Steel Workers Union and whatever else he can find. And that was him, for the day I hung with him and in the movie and in every interview I’ve heard or read: he finding baseball in everything, when most of us keep trying to find everything in baseball.
Because he talks so much, and because he makes a great soundbite, I pulled a few more quotations from the movie, from Lee and others. They might be verbatim.
Bill Lee quotations from the film:
“I got a secret power: I’m left-handed. It helps.”
In his VW bus in the parking lot of Olympic Stadium, to the parking attendant: “I pitch for the Expos, name’s Lee. I’m pitchin the second game, you wanna let me in?”
“I never quit playing. The Expos released me and two days later two Frenchmen came to my door in Montreal. I woke up in a drunken stupor and they said, ‘Bill, would you want to play in Longay for the Senators, and I go, ‘Well, that’s a sobering experience.'”
“And once the Russians pick up the game of baseball, world peace will be established.”
“Why am I in demand? Because I provide an alternative.”
“It’s funny, it’s a great game. It goes on forever.”
“These people ask me if I’ll go out and throw the ceremonial first pitch. I say, ‘not unless I get to throw all the rest.'”
“What’s wrong with baseball? Nothin…Only at the highest level of the economic structure of baseball are we in trouble. Cause eventually it’ll die at that level. But the kids’ll keep on playin.”
Quotations from others:
“I never passed up a left-handed pitcher in my life.” – USC coach Rod Dedeaux
“What you call a good pitcher, he know what to do.” – Luis Tiant
One Fun Link:
One more quotation, because I can’t resist. On Manny Ramirez leaving Boston:
“He’s the greatest hitter I ever saw. I loved the guy. He’s a prima donna, and he pushed down the traveling secretary. Well, you pick the traveling secretary up, and you dust him off, and you apologize and you go back to work. He’s the greatest I ever saw. I like Jason Bay. I’m not saying anything disparaging against Canadians, because I’ve married two of them.”