Karl Lindholm: Lefty and the Mayor: A lifetime sport
Time to check in with the Northeast Kingdom’s favorite son, Bill Lee, who has been much in the news lately: front page stories in the Boston Globe, Burlington Free Press, Seven Days, and a guest appearance on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”
As many of you no doubt know, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, famous baseballist, is running for governor, having heeded the call of the Liberty Union Party in Vermont. He has injected a bit of a Merry Prankster element to Vermont politics not seen since Tunbridge farmer Fred Tuttle, the Man with a Plan, won the Republican U.S. Senate primary in 1998.
Actually, “Spaceman” is a misnomer. In the baseball classes I teach at Middlebury College, Bill is always the guest lecturer in our last class. He’s my “closer” and he never fails to stimulate the troops.
But he’s no “Spaceman.” He’s hardly “spacey” as we use the term: loopy, flakey, out of it.
He is, on the other hand, irrepressible, irreverent, original, outspoken, occasionally outrageous, unconventional, quick-witted, outré, but decidedly not a Spaceman.
I have to say “outré” because he is so big in Montreal, where he played his last four years in the Majors. If Canadians could vote, Bill Lee would be our next governor, winning in a landslide.
He didn’t want to discuss politics this week when we spoke. He preferred to talk about baseball, and not the Major League Baseball postseason, but rather the playoffs, recently concluded, of the Vermont Senior Baseball League. The VSBL has 17 teams from all over the state, with players age 35 and older.
Bill Lee is 69 years old. He’s the oldest active player in the league.
Nobody loves the game of baseball more than he does, nor plays it with greater ardor. In Vermont’s beautiful summer months, he drives from his home in Craftsbury every Sunday to play for the Burlington Cardinals.
Just a couple of Sundays ago, the Cardinals won the 2016 VSBL Championship defeating the Montpelier Monties in an extra-inning thriller at Montpelier Rec Park.
“There were a lot of people there, probably over 100!” Bill said with no apparent irony (this from a guy who pitched before packed houses in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park). Bill was the winning pitcher in all three of the playoff games.
Bill’s batterymate for the Cardinals is catcher Miro Weinberger, 46, who, when he’s not playing baseball, is the mayor of Burlington. Bill described him as a “great guy and a good catcher, played college ball at Yale.
“He told me if we won the championship, he’d vote for me for governor, but I won’t hold him to it.”
On Sept. 11, the sixth seeded Cardinals (14-5) defeated the fourth-seeded Middlebury Woodchucks, 2-1, in 11 innings. According to Bill, the Woodchucks were “the best team in the league.” He pitched all 11 innings, striking out 10 and walking two.
The following Sunday, in the semi-finals, the Cardinals knocked off the top-seeded Colchester Cubs in another pitcher’s dual, 3-1. Bill went the full nine innings, battling a blister problem late in the game (“just like the one in Game Seven of the World Series in ’75”).
“I started the last batter out with a slow curve ball, then a fastball in — and I figured he would be looking for another fastball, so I threw my Carl Hubbell fadeaway change for strike three. He expected the Express but he got the Local!”
In the championship game, a week and a half ago, the Cardinals were down 8-2 in the 8th inning, but scored two in the 8th and four in the ninth to tie things up, before winning in the 12th 10-8. Again, Bill pitched the whole game, all 12 innings.
“I hit a one-hop bullet off the first base bag and stretched a single into a double, and then Miro knocked me in with the winning run,” exulted the lefty ace of the Champion Cardinals.
“We refused to lose! When the game ended we celebrated on the field. The team would have carried me off the field if they could have lifted me. Then we went and had a couple of beers in the Three Penny Bar in Montpelier.”
How good a pitcher was Bill Lee in his prime? Good enough to pitch the University of Southern California to a national championship; good enough to win 119 games in the Major Leagues; good enough to make the American League All-Star team in 1973; good enough to start Game Seven of the 1975 World Series (and turn the game over to the bullpen with a 3-2 lead in the 7th); good enough to be in the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame.
How good is he now at 69? Good enough to beat the Montpelier Monties in the championship game of the Vermont Senior Baseball League 34 years after he threw his last pitch in the Majors.
“It’s best to be on the field,” he said about, well, not just baseball, “and die with your boots on!”