LINCOLN – At the core of Bill Lee’s multi-faceted personality is a baseball pitcher who remains fascinated -- even at the age of 64 -- by the process of getting batters out.
Lee came here on Wednesday to serve as keynote speaker at the annual “Welcome Home, PawSox” luncheon hosted by the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. He walked into Kirkbrae Country Club’s 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 “baseball ambassador” 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.
“Who do you like in the American League East?”
“I’m pulling for the Red Sox,” he said, taking off the hat and holding it in his hands. “They 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. They’re not a very good team right now.”
“What do you think about unbeaten Baltimore?”
“I’m not happy for the Orioles. Listen, I love the city of Baltimore. I love H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allen Poe. But you can’t get me to like the Orioles. They were the dominant team in the American League East back when I played. It wasn’t the Yankees. Earl Weaver’s Baltimore teams were up there year after year. I hated the Orioles and I can’t like them now, just because they are underdogs.
“I 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,” Lee added, warming to the subject as a few PawSox players watched from 20 feet away, quietly observing this “Baseball Original.”
“You know how (sports writer) Grantland Rice wrote that ‘It’s not whether you win or lose but how you played the game?’ Well, he was wrong. It’s not about how you play the game. Professional athletes want to knock their opponent to the ground and jump on their throats.”
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.
“Are they still located in Canada?” Lee asked with a smile, his eyes sporting their standard mischievous glint. “Trust me, the Blue Jays will go quietly into the night. They’re not even owned by a beer company anymore. A Belgium company bought out LaBatt’s. How can anyone root for a baseball team owned by Belgiums?”
Lee’s hatred of the Yankees is well-known. He has compared former Yankees to Hitler, and that was just a starting point.
“The Yankees?” he said, repeating the question. “They’re OLD. (Mark) Teixeira’s legs are going to give out on him again this year. He’ll be trying to stretch a single into a double and he’ll 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.
“Derek Jeter is like one of those ballerina dancers who do little pirouettes on the stage,” Lee said, moving on to another target. “Have 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.”
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.
“Bill, I’m Rich Hill.”
“Hey, I saw you pitch your last game down in spring training,” Lee said, grabbing the hand of the Massachusetts native. “Rich is a local guy, you know,” 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.
“You looked good down in Florida,” Lee added. “You 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.)
“Then I would mix in a few offspeed pitches and get them on the fastball,” Lee said, looking right into Rich Hill’s eyes.
This was another side of Bill Lee’s 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 writer’s 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.
“I never saw Bill pitch,” Rich Hill said. “My brothers and my dad told me stories about him. I can learn things from Bill, just by listening to him talk about pitching.”
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.
“We lefties have to stick together,” Lee said, looking back at the sports writer. “The 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.”
Speaking of breaking the mold, Lee set a record last September when he pitched for Brockton.
“At the age of 63, I became the oldest pitcher to win a professional baseball game,” he said. “I pitched five and two-thirds innings and got the win over Rich Gedman’s Worcester Tornadoes. Gedman said so many nice things about me, I thought I was at my own funeral. You know, I went to Earl Battey’s funeral down in Florida last year. I was one of only five white guys at the funeral. Jim Kaat and Jim Perry (Gaylord’s 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.”
Lee is asked if he thinks about his own mortality.
“Not at all,” he replied quickly. “When 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.”
The sports writer looks at his notebook.
“It’s all filled up. Thanks for everything.”
Bill Lee shakes hands and resumes his conversation with Rich Hill. The two lefthanders had more pitching ideas to discuss.