In the fall of 2003, the Boston Red Sox faced the New York Yankees in the third game of the American League Championship series. It was the bottom of the sixth, and Nomar Garciaparra, Boston’s All-Star short-stop, faced Roger Clemens on the mound. The Red Sox, perennial also-rans, had not yet broken the “Curse of the Bambino;” Boston had not won a World Series since they traded away pitcher Babe Ruth in 1918.
On a couch in Vermont watching the game was Bill Lee, aka Bill “Spaceman” Lee, the former Red Sox pitcher. He fidgeted and wrung his hands. His eyes bulged. He stood up. He sat down. On the couch with Bill was my brother, Steve. He patted the Spaceman on the back and passed him the cheese dip.
“Everybody. Watch Nomar,” Bill Lee said. “Watch his hands.” As one, all 10 of us in the room leaned forward. The screen was no more than five feet from our noses. Roger Clemens, pitching from the stretch, checked the runner on first, bobbed his head, and fired a fast-ball. Nomar, swinging from the hips, missed badly. “Did you see that? Did you see that? Oh my god!” Bill slapped his forehead and erupted from his seat, grabbed a cold one, and “slam” went the door.
“See what?” I whispered to my brother Steve. We were campers at Bill Lee’s Fantasy baseball camp in Upton, Vermont. This was the high-light of our weekend with Bill and his associate, Jeff McKay, a former coach at the University of Massachusetts. As over-the-hill, former high school baseball players and never has-beens, we had soaked up Bill’s instruction and witticisms for the past three days. We had scrimmaged, done batting practice, and listened to Bill expound on his theories on such diverse topics as Cuban baseball, the best Craft Beer, and why he could still pitch in the majors at age 57, if only someone would give him the damn ball.
Bill also made his case for World Peace. “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.” Which, after spending 3 days with Bill, to my mind, made perfect sense.
This was not your usual Fantasy baseball camp where the celebrity player flies in for a pep talk, shakes hands all-around, signs a few bats, and leaves the baseball instruction to an assistant. No, when you go to Bill Lee’s camp, it is Bill Lee 24/7.
The first thing I noticed when The Spaceman greeted us when we arrived was that he was wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform circa 1918. And at 6’5” with a slightly rounded paunch, he looked the part, a time when baseball players, particularly pitchers, eschewed weights and ate and drank “whatever,” and plenty of it.
Then we broke up for a little pepper. Pepper involves one player tossing the ball to their partner who bunts or taps the ball back. The participants are only about 10-15 feet apart, and the drill is intended to improve eye/hand coordination. It’s simple yet deceiving; the pitcher must present the ball to the right spot, the batter must tap the ball back so that it doesn’t go around or over the head of the pitcher. It’s fast and light and easy and fun. It gets you in the mood for baseball, unless you’ve recently torn your rotator cuff and have to toss the ball underhand. Like me.
Bill Lee sauntered over to watch me play pepper with my brother Steve. He stood off to one side, with his arms crossed across his chest, humming, something. In A Godda Da Vida? Never mind. Steve was doing his part. No matter where I threw the ball, he expertly adjusted his bat and tapped it back to my glove. Then I decided to throw overhand. Big mistake. The ball floated over Steve’s head and rolled into the dugout.
“Hold it. Hold it! Chuck! (he knew my name!), what the hell is going on?” He strode over to where I stood, and reached up and squeezed my right shoulder with his enormous left hand. I blurted out my story…slipped on my skies at Huntington Ravine, fell into a snow-fed creek, was carried downstream with my pack, hit a boulder, dislocated my shoulder, tore my…but Bill would have none of that. “Chuck,” he said simply, “You don’t have shit in there.”
“Right. You’re so right.” I replied.
“Keep it underhand, okay?” he said.
“Sure. Thanks Bill.”
My brother added, “We’re going to put him in right field and move the second baseman to the edge of the infield apron and shift the center fielder over to cover for him.”
Bill appraised my brother. “SOMEBODY AROUND HERE KNOWS BASEBALL!” He clapped his hands and said, “LET’S PLAY SOME BALL!!”
That was my brother’s second memorable baseball moment. The first occurred against Montclair High School in a sectional high school tournament. My brother singled to start the inning. Larry Berra (yes, the son of Yogi Berra), Montclair’s talented second baseman (who would also have a notable career in the majors), glanced at my brother and weighed his options: If it’s a line-drive, I double up this nobody on first. If it’s a grounder to short or third, I take the throw over second base and throw to first: double play.
It was a grounder to short. My brother broke for second, two steps behind Larry Berra. Larry received a perfect throw, just to the right of his glove, pivoted, and… my brother roared into second base, spikes up, and took him out. He absolutely plastered him. Broke up the double play. Larry dusted himself off, picked up the loose ball, and glowered at my brother.
From the stands, my brother heard, “Bush! That was Bush!” In the blink of an eye, Yogi Berra jumped the fence and stormed to the third base-line. Then he pointed to my brother. “That was Bush-league!” he repeated, before realizing that Larry was okay, that my brother’s play was only a little over the top, and Montclair was still winning. He slumped back to the stands.
My brother beamed. Yogi Berra was talking to me!
In the arc of life, baseball would be my brother’s constant companion. After high school, he was disappointed when he didn’t make the Marietta College baseball team, okay, crestfallen, but he never hung up his spikes. When he moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, he shifted his allegiance from the Yankees to the Baltimore Orioles. He admired Cal Ripken’s grittiness and basked in the success of the great pitching rotation of Cuellar, Palmer, Dobson, and McNally, who brought the Orioles multiple World Championships.
And he stuck with hard-ball. In Maryland, baseball guys don’t have to gravitate to slow-pitch softball. They can find their niche in hard-ball leagues where the ball comes off the bat with a crack instead of a whump. Into his forties my brother played, then into his fifties. After a successful bone marrow transplant for a blood cancer at age 61, he returned to the game with a plate in his neck and blood counts which never fully recovered. He was a scrapper. You wanted Steve on your team. He could pitch, had good hands, and boy could he hit. Along the way, he picked up baseball minutiae, a lot of it.
Me, I drifted away from the game. I played Little League but gave it up when Pony League beckoned. Maybe it was because our dad died suddenly when I was 12 and Steve was 14 and it affected us differently. Maybe I didn’t have the great team-mates or coaches my brother was blessed with, but I left baseball. Steve, he played ball.
So, when Steve called and asked me to go to a Bill Lee Fantasy Baseball Camp, I had mixed feelings (Okay, I didn’t want to go). I hadn’t played baseball in nearly 40 years and was not likely to pick it up again. But Steve persisted. The camp was in Vermont. You can drive over from Maine in four hours. There is excellent local craft beer. In the end, I relented. My brother was making an effort to get together. And that was more than enough reason to go. “I’m not going to have a good time,” I insisted to my wife Sandi as I fished out an ancient mitt stashed away in our toy bin.
“Go and be with your brother. Have a good time,” Sandi mused. “Play ball.”
On the first morning after playing pepper we went out for breakfast to a local diner. Bill Lee wore his 1918 Red Sox uniform. Over his shoulder, he carried his favorite bat. Say this about Bill Lee, he loved being Bill Lee. Afterwards, we hit the diamond. My brother settled into second base. I walked out to my assigned position in right field. Bill shuffled batters and fielders in and out of the line-up and lamented that we didn’t have enough players to field two full teams. So, he, Bill Lee, would pitch. When it was my turn to bat, I kept missing until the big lefty grooved pitch after pitch into my sweet spot. I sprayed line drives to left and center. Once, I lofted a ball over the center fielders head. Then he gave me a look at his famous Leephus, a lobbed, high-trajectory pitch which looks hittable, only it isn’t. I swung. I missed. I swung. I missed. Hands on his knees, Bill laughed till tears came streaming down his cheeks.
When my brother came to bat, Bill seemed to bear down. Steve waved his bat menacingly and rifled most every pitch into the farthest corners of the outfield. Once, he almost took the head off our third baseman who made the near-fatal mistake of reaching up and adjusting his sun glasses at exactly the wrong time.
On a fly ball, I watched my brother sprint out to shallow left field, catch the ball with his back to the plate, pivot and in one fluid motion fire a perfect strike to the catcher to throw out the runner tagging up from third base. When the dust cleared, Bill Lee declared the runner out. Double play. Bill quietly tipped his cap to my brother. That night, Bill and Dave and my brother stayed up late, talking baseball. They drank a lot of beer. They played baseball trivia. Bill Lee laughed at my brother’s Yogi Berra story. Before ubiquitous I-phones could be the final arbitrator in any stat discussion, my brother held his own.
That afternoon, we crowded into the farm house to watch the Sox against the Yankees on TV. After Nomar flailed miserably on the first pitch, Bill willed himself inside and collapsed onto the couch between Steve and me. The next pitch came in belt-high. Nomar swung, and missed again. Strike two. “Agh!” Bill leapt up. He pointed to the TV. “Do you know what that was?” The screen door slammed. Out went Bill.
I leaned over to my brother. “Steve, I mean, what’s the deal? We’re watching a player on TV and we’re supposed to pick up a flaw in his swing?”
“I don’t know,” Steve replied, staring at the screen. “Maybe Bill is seeing something we can’t see. Nomar is a superstar. He recently married Mia Hamm, one of the all-time great soccer players, plays a solid short-stop, clutch hitter. I think Clemens is just overpowering him.” The other campers nodded. They knew Steve was a baseball guy.
Bill Lee silently rejoined us on the couch. The curse of the Bambino settled over Nomar’s head. The count was no balls and two strikes. We held our breath. Clemens come out of the stretch and delivered the ball. Nomar swung and weakly tapped the ball back to the shortstop. He was out by a mile. There was a collective groan.
“Do you know what that was?” Bill Lee repeated. We looked at him blankly. Okay, now the teaching moment. Here was the real difference between a major league pitcher and the rest of us weekend wannabees. We leaned in as one. “That was too much,” he repeated before taking a long slow draw from his beer. “Too much Mia Hamm.” And you know, after spending a weekend with the Spaceman, it made absolute perfect sense. After all, we were baseball players.