The game of baseball has had its share of characters, from Dizzy Dean to Yogi Berra to Mark Fidrych. One man, however, stands head and shoulders above all others: Bill “Spaceman” Lee.
A fan favourite, the former Boston Red Sox (1969–78) and Montreal Expos (1979–82) pitcher will be appearing at Nat Bailey Stadium Monday evening (August 31). As part of the Vancouver Canadians’ Superstar Series, Lee will sign autographs and throw out the ceremonial first pitch as the Canadians take on the Eugene Emeralds.
As famous for his time off the field as on, the 62-year-old southpaw is never at a loss for words. In fact, you don’t interview him so much as strap yourself in and enjoy the ride: in the course of a half-hour phone call to his Vermont farm, Lee manages to work in Buckminster Fuller, Alexander the Great, Ponce de León, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Jimmy Carter. He touches on subjects as disparate as health care, global warming, xenophobia, and agribusiness. He even quotes Rudyard Kipling.
The thread that ties everything together is baseball. Lee loves the game, and it’s quite clear that it’s not just his profession but his life. He’s cowritten four books on the subject; he’s working a new bat design for little leaguers; and he barnstorms the world, playing baseball with missionary zeal in every semipro-, senior-, or recreational-league game he can find.
One such trip to Cuba became the subject of a 2006 documentary film, Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey. “They don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of,” Lee says, “all basically because of the sanctions that we imposed on them.” In spite of this, the film shows Lee, and the common bond of baseball, helping to thaw the last remnants of the Cold War. “The Cubans are the best people I’ve ever met,” he adds with warmth.
Lee’s love of the sport has also brought him to Vancouver many times. “Gosh-darn, it’s a great, great little city. I’ve played at Nat Bailey, and I play with a team out of the Comox-Courtenay area called the Oyster Chuckers.” He’s also played in Prince George (where he and Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins were chased and nearly mauled by a bear), Chilliwack, and Hope. The Okanagan Valley, though, is Lee’s most fertile ground: “I hit six home runs in Kelowna in six at-bats, which will never be beaten. And 22 RBIs—I was a one man wrecking crew that day.”
Although it’s tough to imagine Lee ever slowing down, the California native plans on returning to the Okanagan for good. “I’m going to retire to Naramata and grow the best Syrah grape.” Having come from a family of vintners, Lee has big plans for his wine: “15.2-percent alcohol by volume—it’s gonna knock your socks off. You’ll have to wear two pairs of socks when you drink my wine!” Lee seems content to hold out for the perfect spot, though. “I may even go north of Naramata, north of Vernon; somewhere in the Salmon Arm area there’ll be a little valley with southern exposure that’s going to grow the most perfect Syrah grape in the world.”
Naturally, the talk of farming in B.C. brings up the subject of the province’s biggest cash crop, one that Lee is well acquainted with. “B.C. bud!” Lee exclaims. “Best in the world!” And he knows his stuff, having lived the life of a 1970s sports superstar (Lee was famously fined by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn for telling a reporter that he liked to sprinkle pot on his pancakes). “It’s all good and all medicinal and all natural, and it’s all healthy,” Lee says. “It lowers your blood pressure and makes you eat well when you’re in chemotherapy. I see nothing really bad about the product. Just don’t operate a chop saw”¦”
The subject leads to the story of a 1970s fundraiser for Senator Edward Brooke at the Museum of Science in Boston. Breaking away to have a quick toke under a life-sized T. rex exhibit, Lee encountered another partygoer, with whom he shared his joint. A man who, he finds out later, is none other than pre-sobriety George W. Bush. “I didn’t know he was George W.,” Lee says. “I didn’t know him from Adam.” This leads to the obligatory presidential marijuana question, to which Lee roars: “Sure, he inhaled!” Lee then pauses reflectively and says, “The funny thing is, Senator Brooke was a Republican. To this day, I don’t know why I was there.”
Lee did, however, develop a keen interest in politics. In 1988, the Canadian Rhino Party approached him to run as the first American Rhino candidate—for president of the United States. “A guy named Charlie McKenzie, up in Quebec, came to me and said, “Every time the U.S. sneezes, we catch a cold, so you have to run for president with the Rhino Party.” Lee agreed, but he capped donations at 25 cents per person (he calls the presidency “a two-bit office”) and chose Hunter S. Thompson as his vice-presidential candidate. Lee says with a laugh, “He knew more about vice in America than anyone.” Sadly, the ticket went down to defeat, and the Rhino platform of lowering the boiling point of water to save energy went unfulfilled. When asked what his final vote count was, Lee nonchalantly says, “Beats me.”
Although he never made it to the White House, Lee had a great kick at the can and he knows it. Thinking ahead to reincarnation, he says: “When I come back, you know what I want to come back as? Me.”
In the meantime, Lee will continue to live each day as an adventure. “You know, that’s just it. I answer the phone and it sends me on my next mission.”