The Spaceman who’s gone Bananas

The day I heard Bill Lee had suffered a “cardiac event” that could have ended his life, in the midst of a ball game, my first thought was if any ballplayer was ever destined to die on a baseball field, it would be him.

Lee is the only former major-leaguer pitcher called “Spaceman.” He hasn’t thrown a major-league pitch since 1982, when he was cut loose by the Montreal Expos. Now, nearing his 76th birthday, he is (or was) playing for the Savannah Bananas, a team loosely categorized as a comedy routine that plays baseball.

When Lee arrived in Montreal, I was a baseball writer emeritus, having moved into radio sports, yet still deeply involved in covering the Expos. So my interviews with Bill Lee were usually less in-depth and more designed for audio clips. Even so, they were entertaining. What the interviewer and the interviewer had in common was that we liked baseball and stories; he liked telling them, I liked writing them. Otherwise, we were from different worlds: Lee had a college degree and World Series pedigree, was left-handed and had multiple marriages.

He also knew all about fossil fuels, articulating that they were the Earth’s curse. The first time he dropped that expression during one of our interviews, I probably looked at him like he had three heads, as some people suspected. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he always did it with a smile because confusing or educating others was among his life’s pleasures. As the years passed, we all learned about fossil fuels. For me, that started with Bill Lee.

In 1979, the Expos were managed by Dick Williams, Lee’s first manager in Boston. He put Lee (32 years old and a 17-game winner three times in his prime) in a starting rotation that featured three lefties — Lee, Ross Grimsley and Dan Schatzeder — with a fourth (Rudy May) in the wings. They all won at least 10 games (Lee won 16) on a team that had never played .500 baseball. That season the Expos blew by .500, at 95-65, and for the first time became legitimate contenders.

Imagine a pitching rotation today that features two soft-tossing lefties, Lee and Grimsley. Together, they started 60 games that season, and Lee pitched 222 innings (last season, no pitcher threw that many). Those Expos were within a weekend of going to the World Series, and they laid the groundwork for the successes that followed.

Lee was a delight for people like me. If he wasn’t the most irreverent baseball player I ever met, it’s because I’ve forgotten who was. He saw humour everywhere. He twisted cliches to stimulate people’s minds, or to entertain them, or make them laugh. Teammates loved him. Fans loved him. Baseball writers mostly loved him.

How appropriate that Lee’s team is now the “Bananas,” who play baseball that has no crying, only laughing, in a league of “prospects” the ages of his grandchildren. They play “Spaceball” with eccentric rules, dance with fans and sometimes wear kilts.

When Bill Lee does die (he plans another comeback), it should be on a ball field, 60 feet 6 inches from home plate and with a smile on his face.