Back when I wrote about Doug Hornig’s book on the ’75 World Series between Boston and Cincinnati, I touched on the fact that Red Sox ace Bill “Spaceman” Lee was my all-time favorite baseball player. I admire the guy because of his gifts on and off the diamond. When he was on the bump, Lee was a trickster. This was out of necessity as much as anything else: He didn’t have a heater in the high nineties, so he had to rely on his own cunning and a combination of curves, sinkers and the infamous “Leephus” pitch, AKA the Space Ball.
Have Glove, Will Travel starts at an interesting point — the end of Lee’s career in the majors in 1982. In his telling, he squabbled with the manager of Montreal, the team he was playing for at the time, for unjustly cutting Rodney “Cool Breeze” Scott, a second baseman who contributed a great deal to the Expos’ play and also happened to be Lee’s best friend on the roster. In protest, Lee challenged the manager to a fight and then didn’t report for a game. The Expos GM unceremoniously fired him for those offenses.
Although past his prime, Lee still had quite a few seasons of good pitching left in him. Problem was, he found that no MLB team was interested in picking him up after the ‘Spos dropped him. He even offered to play for any team in the bigs at the league’s minimum salary (since Montreal had to keep paying on his existing contract), but still had no takers. He couldn’t prove it, but he was pretty sure they colluded to keep him out.
Lee initially dealt with this by partying non-stop in Montreal for a short while, then set off on what was truly a baseball odyssey. He pitched at hockey matches. He pitched in tiny towns set on the vast plains of Canada. He pitched in Venezuela, Cuba and the USSR. (In Soviet Russia, base steals you!) He pitched for total amateurs. He pitched in senior leagues with rosters full of formerly great players. Essentially, he pitched everywhere except big-league baseball stadiums.
Through this roughly two-decade stretch in sports purgatory, Lee went through two divorces, sampled all kinds of drugs and booze, and struck up friendships with The Golden Jet and Teddy Ballgame. Oh, and almost got eaten by a bear. And he recounts all of this with incredible wit, verve and fearlessness. Lesser men would have gone crazy through all of that stuff, but fortunately, the Spaceman was already crazy to begin with.
Seriously, though, Lee seems to have come out of all of this a better person. He still loves baseball, and still pitches in spite of the fact that he’s eligible to collect Social Security. And he accomplished something great with this book: Hitting bottom has never looked this fun.