Traditionally, lefthanders assigned to pitch in Boston have asked for pardons, amnesty, executive clemency, stays of execution—anything that would get them out of having to throw to right-handed batters in Fenway Park. Now there is a lefty who actually enjoys Fenway, who laughs at right-hand hitters as they drool at the sight of him and the infamous left-field wall only 302 feet away. His name is Bill Lee, and what makes his laughter and success at Fenway all the more improbable is that he plays for the Red Sox and must pitch half his games there.
This year in games played in Boston his statistics read six wins, three losses and a 3.18 ERA. Overall, Lee is 12-7 and has a 2.80 ERA. All of which is not bad for a pitcher the Sox would gladly have traded this spring for a song, only to find that nobody would make a remotely melodic offer.
In 3½ seasons Lee had done well enough with 19 wins, 11 losses and a 3.47 ERA. His faults, it was felt, were that he had not been a bigger winner, that he had not become a Sparky Lyle-type reliever and that he had contentious ways.
That added up to three strikes against Lee, so it was no wonder that the Sox were trying to ship him out when he fielded a line drive with his ankle during spring training. When asked what the X rays showed, Lee replied, "A Dewar's bottle cap." What they did indicate were enough bone chips to scare away any prospective bidders. After the season began, Lee was still in Boston and back in the bullpen, where he insists his talents are wasted. Only when Red Sox pitching turned out to be even worse than expected was he given a chance to start on May 1. He won four of his five starts that month and has been a mainstay in the rotation ever since.
A winning, low-ERA lefty at Fenway is unusual, but then so is Lee; he is 6'3" and 210 pounds of idiosyncrasies. He believes in extraterrestrial life, wears an Egyptian ankh ring, has green eyes, uses green or blue contact lenses while pitching and has a smooth face that barely looks post-adolescent although he is 26 years old. In five years at USC he majored in prepharmacy, predentistry, geography, geology and finally graduated with a degree in phys. ed.
Lee once convulsed his Trojan teammates while they waited for their luggage at an airport by popping up through the baggage chute. Not surprisingly, nobody bothered to claim him. Then there was the day he made a bet during a heavy rain that delayed a game in Hawaii. "Brent Strom [now a Cleveland Indian] bet me $10 I wouldn't strip, go on the field in the rain and do 10 push-ups," Lee recalls. "So I went out there in my sliding pads, socks and jock and did the push-ups."
As a senior in 1968, Lee was 12-3 and helped USC win the College World Series with a win and a save. He thought those efforts would net him a bonus that would enable him to pay off the national debt and still leave plenty for himself. "I fell a little short of that," says Lee. "All I got was $4,000 and expenses for my final semester at USC."
His ego having met a psychological Waterloo, all that remained was for the rest of Lee to be sent off to a similar destination. He was duly assigned to the Boston farm team in Waterloo, Iowa. "The first person I met in professional baseball, a coach, took one look at me and said, 'You're overweight and you're a hot dog." That's the way it's been ever since. Now I'm called Space Man, Moon Man, Flake, Super Psych. I'm misunderstood...."
Forcing Lee to surrender the rest of his sentence was teammate Bob Veale, who clomped through the clubhouse and yelled, "To understand Space Man, you gotta use Skylab."
Lee smiled. He combs his hair straight forward and wears his sometimes inflammatory personality the same way. "I don't know where I rub people wrong," he says.
Among those he has abraded is Red Sox Outfielder Reggie Smith. "He knocked me down with a good left-hand punch a few weeks ago," Lee admits. "My lip was split for 10 days."
Lee's troubles with Milwaukee Catcher Ellie Rodriguez have been worse. It all began when Lee hit him with a pitch in Puerto Rico in 1970. "He dragged his bat toward the mound, dropped it and leaped at me," Lee says. "I hit him with a left hook. Five days later I was jumped by Rodriguez. I was knocked down, my face was pushed into a steel pole and I lost two teeth. It would have been worse if my teammate Ron Woods hadn't come along. While Woods pulled Rodriguez away, I crawled into the stadium. They had to fly me back to Boston to have a new bridge made."
For a while this year much ado was made in Boston about an alleged feud between Lee and Red Sox Catcher Carlton Fisk. There really has been no such problem, although Fisk did become irritated one day and told Lee, "How can you shake off my signs six times when I've only got five fingers?"
Lee is also one of the game's premier fungo hitters, batting a ball skyward, grabbing his glove off the ground and racing to catch the baseball. But his accession to winning consistency has forced him to forgo another favorite pastime: kicking field goals. Lee used to boot them when he was a regular in the Boston bullpen. There, he kicked pieces of bubble gum up into the bleachers and between the upraised arms of Mike Mulkern, a member of the Bill Lee Fan Club. As a reliever and now as a starter, Lee has always gotten a kick out of Fenway Park.
RED SOX BILL LEE kicked in the bullpen, but now he is stepping high as a Boston starter.