Former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee speaks at the "Welcome Home, PawSox" luncheon hosted by the Northern R.I. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday in Lincoln.
LINCOLN â At the core of Bill Leeâs multi-faceted personality is a baseball pitcher who remains fascinated -- even at the age of 64 -- by the process of getting batters out.
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Lee came here on Wednesday to serve as keynote speaker at the annual âWelcome Home, PawSoxâ luncheon hosted by the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. He walked into Kirkbrae Country Clubâs dining area a few minutes before noon, dressed like a cowboy, his still-athletic frame topped off by a wide-brimmed hat that identified the former Red Sox pitcher as a man of great presence.
In short, Bill Lee still lights up a room. And before he spoke to a large audience, Lee took 10 minutes to entertain a sports writer and several PawSox players in a private room that looked out over the golf course. The writer asked a few questions and Lee showed off the âbaseball ambassadorâ side of his personality, following in the footsteps of colorful legends of days gone by like Casey Stengel and Dizzy Dean -- who could fill notebooks and entertain audiences with their wide experiences in baseball.
It only took one question to get Lee going.
âWho do you like in the American League East?â
âIâm pulling for the Red Sox,â he said, taking off the hat and holding it in his hands. âThey went from overdog to underdog in four games! If you count the last 13 spring training games they lost, Boston has now lost 17 games in a row. Theyâre not a very good team right now.â
âWhat do you think about unbeaten Baltimore?â
âIâm not happy for the Orioles. Listen, I love the city of Baltimore. I love H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allen Poe. But you canât get me to like the Orioles. They were the dominant team in the American League East back when I played. It wasnât the Yankees. Earl Weaverâs Baltimore teams were up there year after year. I hated the Orioles and I canât like them now, just because they are underdogs.
âI go by the philosophy that if you get a team down, you beat them humanely and then you step on their throats. My college coach, Rod Dedeaux, taught me that,â Lee added, warming to the subject as a few PawSox players watched from 20 feet away, quietly observing this âBaseball Original.â
âYou know how (sports writer) Grantland Rice wrote that âItâs not whether you win or lose but how you played the game?â Well, he was wrong. Itâs not about how you play the game. Professional athletes want to knock their opponent to the ground and jump on their throats.â
It seemed like a good time to ask Lee what he thought of the Toronto Blue Jays, another potential playoff contender in the A.L. East.
âAre they still located in Canada?â Lee asked with a smile, his eyes sporting their standard mischievous glint. âTrust me, the Blue Jays will go quietly into the night. Theyâre not even owned by a beer company anymore. A Belgium company bought out LaBattâs. How can anyone root for a baseball team owned by Belgiums?â
Leeâs hatred of the Yankees is well-known. He has compared former Yankees to Hitler, and that was just a starting point.
âThe Yankees?â he said, repeating the question. âTheyâre OLD. (Mark) Teixeiraâs legs are going to give out on him again this year. Heâll be trying to stretch a single into a double and heâll pull a hamstring and then that injury will metastasize into a quadriceps pull and then his leg will go into atrophy and eventually it just falls off.
âDerek Jeter is like one of those ballerina dancers who do little pirouettes on the stage,â Lee said, moving on to another target. âHave you ever seen an old ballerina? Branch Rickey used to say all middle infielders got old overnight. Jeter is no ballerina anymore, jumping over sliding runners.â
Lee sets his hat down and executes a pirouette on the floor that would make Jeter envious. That moment of levity allows lefthanded pitcher Rich Hill to walk over and introduce himself.
âBill, Iâm Rich Hill.â
âHey, I saw you pitch your last game down in spring training,â Lee said, grabbing the hand of the Massachusetts native. âRich is a local guy, you know,â Lee said, turning to the sports writer with this nugget of information.
Hill, 31, is 6-foot-4 southpaw trying to pitch his way back to the big leagues as a specialist who can get lefthanded hitters out.
âYou looked good down in Florida,â Lee added. âYou had that hard curveball working. The 12-to-6 curve. I threw both curves myself, the hard one and the slurve. But you know how I got lefthanded hitters out? With fastballs. It worked every time. I would throw them strike one. I always threw strike one. I hardly walked anyone. You can look that up. (We did: one walk every four innings.)
âThen I would mix in a few offspeed pitches and get them on the fastball,â Lee said, looking right into Rich Hillâs eyes.
This was another side of Bill Leeâs personality, the one that may be closest to his core. Bill Lee as the pitching guru, talking shop with another professional pitcher. Gone were the exotic verbal comparisons made to fill a sports writerâs notebook. Here was the real Bill Lee, the 64-year-old man who won a game last September 5 for the Brockton Rox, a minor league franchise that brought Lee in to fill seats and got more than it expected.
âI never saw Bill pitch,â Rich Hill said. âMy brothers and my dad told me stories about him. I can learn things from Bill, just by listening to him talk about pitching.â
The two lefties begin comparing release points on curveballs, dropping their left hands down below their waist, their index and middle fingers gripping an imaginary baseball. Lee and Hill exchange theories, mentioning what works best for them.
âWe lefties have to stick together,â Lee said, looking back at the sports writer. âThe world tends to favor righthanders. People used to look down on lefties. Back in the old days, they would whack lefties on the hands in grade school, trying to get them to stop using their left hands. There used to be a lot of prejudice against lefthanders until Babe Ruth came along. He was the greatest lefthander there ever was and the greatest ballplayer of all time. Babe Ruth broke the mold.â
Speaking of breaking the mold, Lee set a record last September when he pitched for Brockton.
âAt the age of 63, I became the oldest pitcher to win a professional baseball game,â he said. âI pitched five and two-thirds innings and got the win over Rich Gedmanâs Worcester Tornadoes. Gedman said so many nice things about me, I thought I was at my own funeral. You know, I went to Earl Batteyâs funeral down in Florida last year. I was one of only five white guys at the funeral. Jim Kaat and Jim Perry (Gaylordâs brother) were speakers. They said so many nice things about Earl, who was a great guy, I wanted to jump in the box with Earl.â
Lee is asked if he thinks about his own mortality.
âNot at all,â he replied quickly. âWhen I am 73, I want to come back and pitch for Brockton again and extend my own record as the oldest pitcher in professional baseball. That would be great.â
The sports writer looks at his notebook.
âItâs all filled up. Thanks for everything.â
Bill Lee shakes hands and resumes his conversation with Rich Hill. The two lefthanders had more pitching ideas to discuss.