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News | The Spaceman cometh: Bill Lee talks baseball

He’s one of the game’s most colorful personalities; a rare diamond in the rough among the cookie-cutter characters that seem to make up today’s Major League Baseball.

Bill “Spaceman” Lee is a southpaw pitcher drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 1968. Known for once pitching in his famous astronaut suit, Lee played nine seasons for the Sox and four with the Montreal Expos. He has a lifetime record 119 wins, 90 loses, a 3.62 earned run average and was a member of the 1973 American League All-Star team. But the one statistic that is “ hardwired in my cerebrum” he said is the 12 times he beat the New York Yankees when pitching for the Sox.

Like most Sox fans, there is no love lost between Lee, the New York Yankees, owner George Steinbrenner, and especially with former Sox manager and Yankees’ third base coach Don Zimmer. Zimmer had no tolerance for Lee’s antics and would often bench him, the most memorable of which was during a critical four-game series in 1978 known as “The Boston Massacre.” The Yankees outslugged the Sox 42-9 in the series.

Most of all, Lee loves the game and considers himself a baseball purist. He despises the designated hitter rule, games played on artificial turf, and polyester uniforms, and started a company that sells wooden baseball bats made from yellow birch.

He is the author of three best-selling books — The Wrong Stuff with Richard Lally, The Little Red (Sox) Book with Jim Prime, and Have Glove Will Travel, also with Lally.

Lee lives in Craftsbury and has called Vermont home for 25 years. Today, he still plays baseball in tournaments around the country, including the Vermont Men’s Senior League, and teaches an annual class at Middlebury College about the Negro Baseball League.
With the 2007 baseball season underway, the Vermont Guardian caught up with Spaceman to talk about the Red Sox, their new pitcher Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka, rising baseball ticket prices, and much more.

Bill Lee talks baseball

VG: So the Red Sox home opener is April 10 against the Seattle Mariners. How do they compare with the 2004 Red Sox that won the coveted World Series? And, do you also think “Dice-K” is the real deal?
Lee: Oh, he’s the real deal from what I’ve seen so far. I mean I’ve only seen him throw three games, but all three of them have been gems. He’s got good command and it forces Curt Schilling to be a better pitcher than he was the other night and if Josh Beckett can stay away from the home run ball and get his act together, you’ve got three great starters right there and if you get Jon Lester back, strong and healthy, that’s four, and then you can throw Tim Wakefield in who can throw a lot of innings, and save your bullpen. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a great year.

VG: And how do the rest of the players stack up?
Lee: Well, [the other pitchers] Julian Tavarez is starting right now and he threw well at the end of last season and Joel Pinero I thought threw well. His arm looks healthy and gosh darn with the closer they’ve got [in Jonathan Papelbon], he’s unbelievable. So, I’m pretty impressed. I just think they’re going to need one more hitter in that line-up somewhere. I don’t know about shortstop Julio Lugo or their lead-off guy Coco Crisp. Third baseman Mike Lowell should come on and have a pretty good season near the end, but catcher Jason Varitek is your big question mark. I worry about him. He just doesn’t seem to have any bullets in his gun when he’s at the plate.

VG: You’re a baseball purist. A concern is that with ticket prices going up will the average Vermonter be able to attend Major League Baseball games? Can anything be done?
Lee: Well, the New York and Boston common man can’t go to the ballpark anymore either. It’s a day of the past I think. It costs way too much money and it’s supply and demand and a very elitist thing. I mean [look at the opening series with the Texas Rangers]. There were more Red Sox fans then there were Rangers fans. If you go to spring training games, it’s more Red Sox fans selling out all these games. Something about landing the Mayflower on the east coast, everybody seems to have a claim to New England and thereby a lot of Red Sox fans. I think we’re even blowing out New York fans now for some reason.

VG: Do you think Steinbrenner shelling out cash for all these big name ballplayers has anything to do with driving ticket prices up?
Lee: Oh, for sure. You buy your own TV network and now you’re a conglomerate; you own everything and it’s just tough. You can’t get to the games. If people are waiting in line for season’s tickets for people to die, it’s almost like the [Green Bay] Packers. These two teams seem to be that way forever.

VG: I know you live in the Northeast Kingdom but what brought you there and what made you want to stay?
Lee: Oh, I came down from Montreal. I didn’t come up. Most people think you come up to the Northeast Kingdom. I came down into the United States because of the Red Sox fantasy camp. John and Stuart Savage ran it and they were from Vermont, that’s what brought me to Vermont the first time and one of the fantasy campers owned a farm up there and his barn collapsed and forced him to sell part of his property and I bought the 14 acres on top of the ridge and built a house up there and it’s been there ever since. It’s just the neatest little community in the world, Craftsbury.

VG: Now I understand every year Middlebury College invites you to co-teach a class about the Negro Leagues. Do you still do it?
Lee: Yep, still do. It’s Karl Lindholm’s. He brings me in and teaches a course on old-time baseball, the economics of baseball, and the race relations of baseball. I was the player rep and John Milner [of the Mets] said I was only white guy allowed on the back of the bus, so it’s kind of very apropos and he’ll bring me in on May 10 on the final day of class, have a little seminar and discuss the relationship of the past, present, and future of the game. It’s just kind of a little perk for the students. That’s why I think Middlebury is the greatest school on the face of the Earth.

VG: Now in terms of your baseball trips to Cuba, what are some of your favorite memories?
Lee: You could be driving the bus down and park it on the side of the road and have a pick-up game with the locals anytime after four o’clock. Everybody gets out of work and they go out and go out and play baseball on any little field. You can get a game anywhere in Cuba just by stopping the bus and that’s something you can’t do in the United States.

VG: You’ve written three books on baseball so far. Any more on the way?
Lee: Yeah, I have a new one coming out this month called Baseball Eccentrics: The Most Entertaining, Outrageous, and Unforgettable Characters in the Game that’s being published by Triumph Books and should be out any day now and they’re going have me tour it around.

Bill Lee-isms

Bill “Spaceman” Lee is remembered for his often funny and irreverent quotes. Here are some of his classics:

“I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The Earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won’t matter if I get this guy out.”

“I would change policy, bring back natural grass and nickel beer. Baseball is the belly button of our society. Straighten out baseball, and you straighten out the rest of the world.”

“There’s nothing in the world like the fatalism of the Red Sox fans, which has been bred into them for generations by that little green ballpark, and the wall, and by a team that keeps trying to win by hitting everything out of sight and just out-bombarding everyone else in the league. All this makes Boston fans a little crazy and I’m sorry for them.”

“You take a team with twenty-five assholes and I’ll show you a pennant. I’ll show you the New York Yankees.”

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