Say the word “spaceman” to ’70s-era Red Sox fans, and they will likely break into a fond grin — and it has nothing to do with NASA. No, the Spaceman was (and still is) William Francis Lee III. That’s Bill Lee, to those of you keeping score at home.
The free-thinking, dope-smoking, junk-throwing lefthander played for the Sox from 1969 to 1978, winning 17 games each in 1973, ’74, and ’75. He might have done it in ’76, too, if Graig Nettles hadn’t body-slammed him at the beginning of the season during a brawl with the Yankees, messing up Lee’s shoulder. Bucky “Bleeping” Dent? Graig “Bleeping” Nettles.
Lee’s consistency on the mound earned him his place in the Red Sox Hall of Fame (Class of ’08). But what made him a baseball legend was his being such an outspoken free spirit. Lee sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes. He called Don Zimmer (his manager!) a “gerbil.” He proclaimed Judge W. Arthur Garrity, who presided over Boston’s court-ordered desgregation in the mid-’70s, “the only guy in this town with any guts.” He posed for the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing an astronaut suit and propeller beanie.
That photograph appears in “Spaceman,” the new sort-of biopic about the southpaw, and in that image, Josh Duhamel’s face is superimposed on Lee’s. Duhamel, who looks more athletic than Lee ever did, stars in the title role of “Spaceman,” which looks at Lee in the days and months after the Montreal Expos released him, in May 1982. In one of the more lamentable moves in franchise history, the Sox traded Lee after the ’78 season for the immortal Stan Papi.
Brett Rapkin, who made a similarly titled 2006 documentary about Lee, “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey,” makes his fiction-film writing and directing debut. “Much of this actually happened,” a credit line tells us.
“Spaceman” commences in Lee’s kitchen, where he’s naked but for an apron, making his breakfast pancakes. Yes, there is cannabis involved. It’s the day the Expos release him. Will another team pick up Lee? If none does, the senior-league Longueuil Senators definitely want him. Definitely not the bigs, they’re like a pot-bellied version of the Bad News Bears. The catcher wears goalie equipment, for starters. There’s a brief glimpse of the real-life Lee in a Senators uniform; and in this summer of the “Ghostbusters” remake, it’s a treat to see Ernie Hudson here as a teammate.
Overall the results are amiable, if also slack and talky. Various Lee pronouncements are heard (“I’m a Roman Catholic Rastafarian Zen Buddhist”), both as dialogue and in voice-over. Many are funny, though they do get a mite ranty as they pile up. Duhamel drives a very ’60s VW minibus here and there. Much beer is drunk. Animated sequences provide background on Lee’s Sox days.
Amid all the fun and games, a few scenes showing Lee with his kids and soon-to-be ex-wife are a bit jarring. The Spaceman has a snappy comeback for any general manager or other authority figure. In perpetual orbit, he never has to answer to ground control. For Bill Lee, the person, it was a different story — a sadder one, but also richer and less predictable.
Written and directed by Brett Rapkin. Starring Josh Duhamel, Ernie Hudson, W. Earl Brown. At Somerville Theatre, Cinema Salem. 86 minutes. Rated: R (drug use and language).