Seeing Lee Is Well Worth the Journey

One of my favorite former ballplayers is pitcher Bill Lee.

Lee pitched for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos from 1969-1982. He was

Bill Lee (right) with Baseball Reflections columnist Charles Fracchia

also blacklisted from Major League Baseball for standing up for his teammates. The Expos released one of Lee’s teammates, Rodney Scott. Lee and Scott were friends, and Lee thought that Scott was a valuable asset to the team with a great glove, a great on base percentage, and lots of stolen bases. No other team in baseball signed or looked at Lee. He was a valuable commodity—a left-hander who could get batters out. And, yet, no one wanted him. Of course, there is more to the story….Lee was born in Southern California, grew up in Marin County and went to college at USC. He was drafted in the 22nd round by the Red Sox. Lee moved up through the Red Sox minor league teams, and made his major league debut in 1969. Lee has the third most left-handed wins by a Red Sox pitcher, more than Babe Ruth. Lee also won 17 games three years in a row (1973-75), with his home games at Fenway Park, which is a notoriously difficult ballpark for left-handed pitchers.

Lee was always outrageous and iconoclastic, and he was not afraid to share his opinions with reporters. There were reporters and others who felt that Lee should not express his social or political opinions publicly. (I’ve never felt that athletes’ opinions are any more or less valid than anyone else. They just happen to have a big soapbox, and a lot of professional athletes use their celebrity for good causes, but I don’t really consider them role models.)

After Lee’s professional career was over, he stayed busy—playing semi-pro baseball wherever he could, traveling to Russia and Cuba promoting baseball and his love of baseball. There was also a documentary made about Lee, which included one of his trips to Cuba with his girlfriend.

As a San Francisco Giants baseball fan, I always had hypothetical questions, which I never got answered. There is one particular question that has always bothered me. In 1982, the Giants had a very competitive team, winning 87 games, They finished in third place only two games out of first and, unfortunately, out of the playoffs. (The Giants did eliminate the Los Angeles Dodgers on the last day of the season.) I would have loved for the Giants to sign Lee after his release by the Montreal Expos during the 1982 season. I sincerely believe that he could have helped the Giants make the playoffs. I had the opportunity to ask Tom Haller, formedr Giant vice president of baseball operations, this question once, but didn’t ask the question. I wish that I knew why I didn’t ask him, but I didn’t. Lee did have a chance to join the Giants out of spring training in 1983, but was told that he wasn’t needed. The 1983 Giants finished 79-83; they could have used him!

I didn’t appreciate Lee when he was an active major league pitcher, and I don’t recall seeing him pitch against the A’s or the Giants. I have followed Lee since his major league career ended through his books and a documentary that was made about him. I definitely feel that I now have an appreciation for his honesty, and his leftist political leanings, along with the fact that he is definitely different from other major league players, then or now.

One day a few weeks ago, while surfing the Internet, I saw that Lee, now 65 years old, was going to start and pitch for the San Rafael Pacifics, an independent league team. I was so excited by this! I would finally get to see Lee pitch in a professional game. I started a correspondence with the Pacifics to see if I needed to buy tickets ahead of time or if I could just buy them when I got there. I was advised to get there early, and that they expected the game to be a sell-out. I started calling around to my friends to see if there was anyone interested in going to see him pitch. I got turned down by three of my friends, but one friend, Robert, said that he was up for this and willing to go. It also helped that he was off work that day for a doctor’s appointment. He told me that after the appointment he’d be spending part of the day with friends from Antioch, but that he’d be there after that.

I was so excited about this event — going to see Bill Lee pitch in a professional game. Even though it was not the majors, it was still pretty damn good!  I felt the anticipation growing day by day as it got closer and closer to the day. It reminded me of being a kid waiting during the week for Saturday morning cartoons, just a heightened sense of excitement and anticipation, watching the Road Runner, Tom and Jerry or Scooby Doo.

I got the background information that I needed, namely how was I going to get there, and where the ballpark is located in San Rafael. Not having a car does make life more adventurous and challenging, but also more fun; I have no regrets about it. I figured out what time I needed to leave, and looked at a map from the San Rafael Transit Center to the ballpark. I made sure to leave extra early so that I could get to the ballpark early to hang around, and just enjoy myself.

I made my way to downtown San Francisco, and waited for the Golden Gate Transit bus. I waited 10 minutes for the bus while reading a book, and texting my friend Robert, who would be meeting me there. The bus arrived and I boarded it still very full of excitement and adrenaline.

I half paid attention as I read my book and the bus rolled through San Francisco toward the Golden Gate Bridge. I love looking out over the bridge at the city of San Francisco. It is a spectacular view! The bus rolled through Marin towards San Rafael.

The bus pulled into the San Rafael Transit Center, and I got off along with some others as other passengers waited to board the bus. I walked around San Rafael slightly lost until I was able to better get my bearings. I walked down to the ballpark; it wasn’t what I was expecting. It was inside this park, and it looked sort of like a high school or college field, not a professional ballpark. I guess that I was spoiled going to Giants games at AT&T Park.

I was there so early that I think I was the first or second person there aside from the club employees. I got interviewed for KGO Radio wanting to know why I was there. The tickets weren’t going on sale for three hours.

I waited for the sales table to be rolled out, and I was the first person in line. They told me that they had 12 premium seats and 100 bleacher seats left for sale. The bleacher seats were in the stands behind home plate. All on a first-come, first-served basis.  Not too bad, eh? Even better, the premium seats were right on the field … that’s what I wanted. And the premium seats were only $22.

I stayed in line … everyone was friendly, some with Red Sox caps. No one had on caps for the Expos, Lee’s other team, which has since moved to Washington D.C. Someone pointed out that Bill Lee was getting something out of his car. Someone spoke up and said, “We’ll save your place. Go get his autograph, if you want it.” I got two books and a 1979 Topps card signed, and got a photograph with him. I thanked him, and got back in line.

I texted Robert and let him know that I did see Bill Lee and got his autograph. Robert sounded so jealous, along with the fact that he didn’t know if he’d be able to get Lee’s autograph. He had a sense of uncertainty. Robert said he was leaving shortly, and that he’d be on his way to San Rafael.

I bought two premium seats, and waited for Robert. He arrived shortly, excited, and anticipating the ball game. It was a sell-out with people there for all different reasons. Lee had gone to Terra Nova High School in Marin so that was another reason why people went to the game.

So Lee started the game, and pitched great, initially. Three perfect innings to start off the game. He got into trouble in the middle innings, giving up four runs, but limiting the damage. Lee also had a single, driving in a run; a fly out to the left field fence; and a beautiful sacrifice bunt. Lee throughout the game would throw his famous Leephus (kind of like an Euphus) pitch, and then throw his fastball to throw off the timing of the hitters. It looked like Lee was losing gas in the seventh inning, but he kept telling the manager, former Dodger Mike Marshall, “one more batter, one more batter.”

Lee not only started, he also finished. That’s right, a complete game, nine innings, allowing four runs. Lee also didn’t mess around on the mound — he got the ball and threw it. No messin’ around. After the last out, a pop-out to second base, it was absolute pandemonium with everyone running on the field, autograph seekers, well-wishers and the media. Lee looked very tired, but also very happy as he drank a tall beer. Robert went and got the autographs that he wanted.

As I stood on the field with Robert and all the other fans, I was inspired. I turned to one of the kids doing groundskeeping on the field, and asked him “Can I run the bases?” He said “Yeah, go ahead.” I turned to Robert, and said “The Giants never let adults run the bases, only kids on Sunday after the game.”

So, Robert and I ran the bases. And, it was great! This was everything that I had wanted it to be, and more. It is like that game on that date at that small ballpark in Marin added to my love of baseball.

My journey home was exhausting and I did finally make it home at 2 a.m., still flush in the aftermath of an exciting day. As I drifted off to sleep, it occurred to me that this day, this experience is exactly why I love baseball. As my life has gone forward and changed, baseball is truly the one thing that has remained constant.









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