HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — The Spaceman, 68, is still in orbit. He’s speeding across Nova Scotia in his ’98 Buick with 126,000 miles on the odometer and a cracked windshield.
“They recently asked me on the radio, ‘What would you be doing if you weren’t playing baseball?’ ” says Lee as he makes his way to the ballpark in Moncton, New Brunswick. “I said, ‘20 years to life, somewhere.’ ”
The appearance is a homecoming of sorts for Lee, who pitched for the Moncton Mets in the mid-1980s. He is the quintessential Peter Pan of Baseball. The three-consecutive 17-game winner for the Red Sox (1973-75) still wanders the Earth, pitching, coaching, and being an ambassador of the game.
“It’s unadulterated love,” says the longtime Craftsbury, Vt., resident.
According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., Lee, at age 67, became the oldest ballplayer to win a professional game when he hurled 5⅓ innings for the Sonoma Stompers in a 6-3 victory over the Pittsburg Mettle.
The Spaceman also loves to hit. In August 2012, Lee also became the oldest professional player to record an RBI (a single) while pitching a complete-game victory for the San Rafael Pacifics at age 65.
The trunk of the car is filled with baseball bats he makes and sells, including one with the rings of Saturn surrounding a baseball engraved on the barrel.
In his old Montreal Expos duffel bag, he’s got a beat-up 1946 replica Bobby Doerr glove and patched-up David Ortiz pants that were rescued from the old spring training complex at City of Palms Park.
“They give me confidence to hit,” he says.
He is in Nova Scotia to be an honorary coach for the Canada-Cuba Goodwill Tour games. The first night he arrived at the Halifax airport at midnight to welcome old friends — the 16-and-under Cuban team arriving from Matanzas and their Canadian counterparts. They will play four games in the Maritimes. Last winter the Cubans hosted the Canadian teams.
“Why show up?” says the Spaceman, who had just pitched in Bangor, Maine, and had been rained out in Calais. “To treat ’em with respect and to show ’em we care.”
Cristian Borrero Emarado, a pitcher from Matanzas, is thrilled to see the Spaceman again.
“Yeah, he’s crazy but he’s a very good person,” says Borrero. “He helped me with a lot of pitching advice when he came to Cuba.”
Major league success
Lee had a career record of 119-90 in 14 seasons (with the Sox and the Expos between 1969 and 1982). But his outspoken views often got him more headlines than his pitching performances. He briefly left the Sox in ’78 when they sold his friend Bernie Carbo and then did the same thing in ’82 when Montreal dropped Rodney Scott. The Expos released him the next day and he never played in the majors again. He claims he was blackballed, but he has no regrets.
“It may have hurt me economically for a short time,’’ he says. “If you’re a Zen Buddhist Rastafarian like me, it’s in my best interest not to make money.”
Traveling with the Spaceman is like being in another dimension of space and time.
He has no cell phone, computer, or wristwatch. He doesn’t drink water but loves beer, Jameson whiskey, and tequila. He also sells Spaceman Wines, a petite Syrah and Cabernet blend from the Napa Valley.
“We picked it, crushed it, inoculated it, and put it in oak,” he says.
He calls it the last Syrah. It’s currently sold out. Lee likes it so much he tracked down the last bottles in Northampton and bought them at retail.
“Not a good business model,” he says.
The Spaceman never cared much about money, anyway. In his wallet he keeps an old worn Graig Nettles baseball card. It was the Yankee third baseman who body-slammed Lee from behind during a brawl in 1976, tearing ligaments in his shoulder. He never forgave Nettles.
“Oh yeah. I carry his baseball card in my wallet and he’s up against the right cheek of my [butt] for eternity.’’
The Spaceman got his nickname from former Red Sox infielder John Kennedy, who couldn’t get near his locker to dress because media surrounded Lee asking about a recent moon landing.
“Looks like we’ve got our own Spaceman right here,” said Kennedy, and the moniker stuck.
“I didn’t like it back then but now I embrace it,” says Lee.
He estimates he travels a million miles every five years, all because of baseball. The rubber-armed Lee has pitched in Cuba, Russia, China, Venezuela, and Alaska, and in leagues in Florida, California, Vermont, and Nova Scotia.
Being Bill Lee is fun, says Diana, his third wife.
“If he didn’t have baseball he’d be a homeless man, because he wouldn’t be able to hold down a job very long,” she says.
Plenty in the tank
On this journey, Lee convinced fellow Red Sox Hall of Famer and teammate Luis Tiant, a Cuban native, to join him as a surprise guest.
“I think he’s going to give [baseball] up when he passes away; that’s the only time,” said Tiant. “He’s still playing with young guys, he beats them and they get mad at him. Good for him, he’s keeping young.”
Lee is also the subject of an upcoming film, “The Wrong Stuff,’’ adapted from the 1985 book about Lee. Actor Josh Duhamel plays the Spaceman. The film chronicles Lee’s life with the French Canadian Longueuil Senators amateur club after his release from the Expos.
“The movie is a chapter of my life and it’s the worst chapter . . . It’s a Greek tragedy,” Lee says.
The Spaceman even makes a cameo, speaking a line in French to Duhamel.
Lee, who once said he sprinkled marijuana on his buckwheat pancakes to make him “impervious to bus fumes” while running, now says “I’ve never had a real problem with pot. I’ve had a lot more problems with alcohol. My problem is I have a really high bar bill.”
But on this trip he’s on good behavior and full of suggestions for young ballplayers.
“He’s just amazing,” says Lisa MacKay, mother of a 13-year-old catcher. “My son Peter said to me, ‘he’s just making dreams happen for kids.’ ”
“I like competing against guys that still think they can hit me,’’ says Lee, as he exercises his rotator cuff for his upcoming start with the Burlington Cardinals in Mad River. “Guys half my age. I see these kids and I say, ‘don’t worry, grab a bat, I got your grandpa out, your Dad out, and now I’m going to get you out.’ ”
The exercises worked. Lee tosses a two-hitter in an 6-0 victory. But Lee knows the force can’t be with him forever.
Asked what should be his epitaph, the Spaceman launches a big smile.
“I told you I was sick,” he says.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.