MANCHESTER, N.H . — When the Chicken Man spies the Spaceman, he acts as if he has just seen a ghost.
“Oh, my God, you’re alive!” shouts Hall of Famer Wade Boggs as he embraces Bill Lee at the 2022 Granite State Baseball Dinner Experience. Hugs are shared with former Red Sox teammates Rico Petrocelli, Bob Stanley, and Dick Drago.
On Aug. 19, Lee, the 75-year-old Red Sox Hall of Famer, was in the bullpen warming up for the Savannah Bananas when he collapsed and reportedly wasn’t breathing. He was paddled twice and revived, and walked to the ambulance. Later he underwent a surgical procedure at a local hospital and received a pacemaker.
Channeling Lou Gehrig, Lee says he is “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” for the timing of his emergency.
“I went down on First Responders Night. There were hundreds of them there. They beat the [expletive] out of me,” he says with a laugh.
Lee has no qualms about dying while playing the game he loves.
“I always thought I’d die on the field, but not in the [expletive] bullpen,” he says.
This past season he pitched effectively for the Bananas, a professional traveling squad that is part circus, part Globetrotters, but never boring.
Here at Delta Dental Stadium, home of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, fans gave Lee a rousing ovation when he was introduced from behind some makeshift “Field of Dreams” cornstalks.
Lee high-kicked his sandals in the air, then caught them while running toward the infield. He later pitched batting practice, signed dozens of autographs, and felt the love of Red Sox Nation. It is a homecoming of sorts for Lee, who pitched a game in Manchester the day before he was called up to the Red Sox in 1969.
Forty years after his turbulent big league career ended, the Peter Pan of Baseball has never stopped competing. In 14 seasons with Boston and Montreal, Lee went 119-90 in a controversial career that included three consecutive 17-win seasons for the Red Sox (1973-75) and an All-Star selection in 1973.
He arrived on this day several hours before the event in his old gray Prius. He’s already dressed in his Savannah Bananas uniform.
Lee has an old Montreal Expos duffel bag, a copy of “Lure the Tiger Out of the Mountains: The Thirty-Six Stratagems of Ancient China,” a Bobby Doerr 1946 glove, and a couple of bats he made stashed in the backseat.
In an interview later at the Hilton Garden Inn, which overlooks the Fisher Cats ballpark, Lee acknowledges he was very dehydrated when he went down on that hot and humid Georgia night.
There were signs it would be a bad day.
“Lightning struck right at the ballpark,” he says. “We thought someone was going to get killed.”
Lee hustled back to his Savannah hotel for the third time that day during a rain delay. He was stressed out because his wife was ill. He hadn’t eaten all day.
“I’m anxious,” he says. “I drink two of these giant sport drinks because I was dehydrated. Bad idea. It wasn’t Red Bull. Let’s put it that way. Because if you’re going to drink Red Bull, make sure you have two shots of vodka in it.”
Revived in the bullpen
At Grayson Stadium, the ancient Savannah park where the Babe, the Mick, and Henry Aaron all played, the wooden dugouts still smell of sun-baked chewing tobacco. Lee went to warm up in the fourth inning to prepare for tossing the fifth against the Party Animals. They’re the Washington Generals-type foil to the Bananas, except they try to win.
“I warm up too fast, and I am hyperventilating,” recalls Lee. “I throw a really hard fastball. Take a breath, come back, and throw a changeup. It was perfect and I was really happy. Then boom, the lights went off.”
Mat Wolfe, a pitcher, EMT, and Oklahoma City firefighter, was his batterymate in the bullpen. He says he tossed the ball back to Lee.
“He literally went down, just out of nowhere; right when he caught it, he went straight backward,” Wolfe told the Savannah Morning News.
“I never remembered landing,” says Lee. “Never felt a thing.”
Wolfe told the Morning News that initially Lee was not breathing or responsive. As emergency crews attended to Lee, both teams huddled in the outfield and prayed. Lee was given CPR and reportedly two shocks from a defibrillator.
“Next thing I know, the lights are coming back on,” Lee says. “I’m waking up, I’m breathing. I take a deep breath. And [the paramedics] go, ‘Bill?’ Yeah. ‘What day is it?’ I tell them what day it is. I give them my full name. They go through a bunch of questions. They said, ‘You sound OK.’ ”
“I said, ‘I’m OK.’ ”
“You want to stand up?”
“They helped me up. I stand up. I’m not dizzy or anything. And I’m saying, ‘OK. I’m fine.’ ”
Lee started talking about his changeup as if nothing happened. He still wanted to pitch.
“They go, no, you’re going to the hospital,” says Lee. “I go, ‘Really?’
“You were dead. We paddled you.” Twice.
“The paramedics, you know where they were from?” Lee says with a laugh. “Thunderbolt.”
Thunderbolt, Ga. Five miles away.
Some fans initially thought this was just another Bananas skit. Jonathan Papelbon came in and pitched in a kilt this summer, and former Red Sox players Jake Peavy, Josh Reddick, and Jonny Gomes have also made guest appearances.
Eventually, Lee got up and walked to the ambulance with rescue workers on each side of him for support. He waved to the crowd, which gave him a standing ovation.
The cardiologist at Memorial Health University Medical Center wanted to put a pacemaker on his left side. Lee refused.
“That’s the side I shoot my rifle and pitch from,” he says.
The device was successfully implanted on his right.
“Now I’ve got more wires in me than an Uber-driven Tesla,” he says, adding that the pacemaker has left him energized. “But I wish it would quit playing the ‘Adagio for Strings’ by Samuel Barber. I wonder if it will be able to jump start my car in the winter.”
He was still wearing his baseball pants in the hospital the next day. At one point, he got out of bed against his doctors’ orders.
“ ‘You can’t do that,’ said the nurse. ‘You can’t get out of your room.’ And I go, you want to dance? Yeah, and that’s what I did. It was 4 in the morning.”
A week later he was back at Grayson Stadium throwing out the first pitch.
“He’s the eighth wonder of the world,” says Jesse Cole, the Savannah Bananas owner.
In 10 appearances, Lee had the second-best ERA on the team. On two occasions, he chugged a beer in the stands, took the mound, and got quick outs.
“He can compete as good as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Cole. “He throws strikes. He only went to a three-ball count once all season.”
A secret to his longevity
Back in Manchester, Lee decides he needs coffee and drives to Blake’s Creamery, where he orders that and two scoops of chocolate ice cream with hot fudge. He does a little stretching in the restaurant, and the waitresses and customers fawn over him.
Lee says reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated, and that he did not suffer a heart attack.
“I have really shallow breathing. My pulse is 62 on the button,” he says. “My blood pressure is 113 over 71. My heart is fine. What happens is I have a lower bundle branch block in my left ventricle. It’s an electrical beat malfunction. A little beat. Nothing big.”
He recalls a game in Fort Myers, Fla., five years ago where he passed out while running to first base.
“When I came to, the umpire was standing over me and he goes, ‘Bill, what happened? You pull a muscle?’ I went, ‘No, I got dizzy,’ and the umpire goes, ‘How would you know? You’re always dizzy.’ This was very similar.”
Initially, his young teammates questioned whether it was safe for a 75-year-old man to play with them. They held a meeting last February right after Lee’s successful tryout.
“The young kids, they go, what happens if he dies?” Lee says with a laugh. “I said, ‘Well, if I do, I would suggest just put a little small tarp on me, behind the mound, continue the ballgame, and then deal with me after the game is over.’ “
The Craftsbury, Vt., resident says he’s going to resume pitching competitively next month in Arizona and rejoin the Bananas next season. He shares the secret to his longevity.
“I have an ace in the hole. It’s 6 a.m. in the morning. I do 20 minutes of yoga and stretching with a ballerina from Edmonton, Alberta, named Miranda Esmonde-White,” the host of a long-running PBS show, “Classical Stretch.”
Lee also volunteered to pitch for the Red Sox against the Yankees last week. He’s serious.
“I’ve got a great changeup. I could beat the Yankees,” he says. ”I’ve got a good knuckleball, too. I haven’t even broken that out yet. I’m waiting for when I get old.”
What did he learn from his big scare?
“Drink more fluids,” he says.
The Spaceman leaves his ice water untouched and heads back to the ballpark. Out on the field, Lee lugs the pitching screens himself, to the dismay of the announcer.
He does a theatrical high kick before tossing batting practice for New Hampshire’s governor, Chris Sununu, who marvels at his breaking ball. Every pitch is a strike.
After the exhibition, Boggs shakes his head in amazement at the Spaceman.
“Oh, my God. He’s an icon for baseball,” Boggs says. “He’s good for baseball, he really is. He said, ‘In order for me to get out of this game, you’re going to have to rip the shirt off of my back.’ And that’s his philosophy. God bless him.”
Lee, ever the showman, wants to leave ‘em laughing.
“Dying is easy,” he says. “Comedy is tough.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.