After 49 years, Bill Lee is pitching again in the World Series.
Last time around, Lee, known in baseball circles as “Spaceman,” was a brash 28-year-old lefty for the Boston Red Sox as they faced the Cincinnati Reds. Now, a few months short of his 73rd birthday, his opponents are among the 325 teams competing in the Men’s Senior Baseball League World Series in Arizona.
While his amateur team, also known as the Red Sox, was at bat in the sixth inning the other day, Lee slumped on the ground in a small patch of shade behind the dugout, breathing heavily in 97-degree heat as he spoke with his wife Diana. She: “Are you drinking enough water?” He: “I never should have thrown that guy a change-up.” She: “Your face is quite red, Bill.” He: “He lined it up the middle! I should have stuck with the curve.” She: “But you’re winning.” He: “Right. Three more innings. I’ve got this!”
It’s mildly interesting that this septuagenarian is able to play competitive hardball. It’s far more intriguing to ask why. Why pay an entry fee to be in a game you used to earn money playing (the Red Sox paid him $45,000 in 1975)? Why risk injury and embarrassment?
His answer sounds well rehearsed but rings true. “When I’m on the baseball field, time seems to stand still. For two or three hours I feel like I’m 12 years old. Why would you stop doing something that makes you feel that way?”
But studying Bill Lee on the diamond as he teaches and often berates his teammates, you realize there is more to it. Competition is in his blood. He has the rare ability to elevate everything he does to the maximum level and to thrive on it. The amateurs around him are occasionally hurt by his harsh criticism but more often they are in awe.
Also, there’s the fact that the Spaceman has a seemingly limitless supply of stories. For instance, he speaks of the time in 1976 when the Red Sox and Yankees got into an on-field brawl during which, as Lee recounts it, Yankees infielder Craig Nettles wrestled him to the ground, separating his shoulder, and outfielder Mickey Rivers sucker-punched him in the face. After months on the disabled list, Lee returned to find a package from the Yankees manager Billy Martin containing three dead mackerel along with a threatening note. By comparison, the amateur games in Arizona are quite the picnic.
As Lee wrapped up his complete game victory in Maryvale, a team known as the LS Warriors was celebrating a win at a field in Tempe. The Warriors, sponsored by the Louisville Slugger bat company, play with the same gusto that Bill Lee exudes. To them, every baseball game is a celebration of how good it is to be alive.
They are wounded Warriors, the nation’s only nationally sponsored amputee baseball team. As Army veteran Carlo Adame explains it, “This team means a lot more to me than just playing baseball. I get a chance to play baseball at an elevated level alongside brothers that have fought a lot of the same physical and mental battles as I have.”
On this day the Warriors defeated the Pirates from Washington, D.C. by a score of 25-0 — a feat aided by modern prosthetics and an old fashioned love of the game.
More than the great American pastime, baseball remains the great American metaphor. It’s message, sometimes lost on the high-paid superstars taking the field in the Major League World Series: Do the best you can for as long as you can and, win or lose, be grateful for that.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.