Bill Lee, 1974May 27, 2010
Well, I met Bill Lee. It was last Wednesday at Fenway, or actually at the Red Sox Team Store right outside Fenway on Yawkey Way.
I’ve been having trouble writing since I got back from my book tour through the Northeast, possibly because the foundation of my writing has always been whining and complaining, and what’s left to whine and complain about if you get to meet Bill Lee at the Red Sox Team Store right outside Fenway on Yawkey Way?
I guess at least I can try to tell the story. I drove over to the park in the late afternoon with my wife, who’d just flown in to meet me, and our friend Alex. We found the alley that led to the lot where I’d been told I could park. A guy ambled over to us as we pulled in, and I explained why I was there.
“You’re the authah,” he said.
This accented utterance made the dream of my life official. For good measure, the man then directed us where to pahk the cah. After that, we went up a back way to the store (my second Goodfellas entering-the-Copa moment in the last two weeks). We found two guys from Seven Footer, Pete the editor and Robert the sales honcho, up near the front by a table with a couple stacks of my book.
“Bill was here,” Robert said. “He said, ‘I’ll be back in a few. I gotta go “tune up”.’”
It’s hard for me to make judgments on time for that evening, which went by in a euphoric blur, but I guess about a half hour went by before Bill was done tuning up. He barged in and made his way over to our table. We shook hands. I don’t remember what I said. Probably not much—he pretty much runs any conversation he’s in. He is a big guy with a booming voice. He had the rough hands and sunburned face of a farmer. He had white hair and a gray and white goatee. At one point during the signing someone asked me if I was his son.
“You guys look exactly alike,” the person said. This was a surprise to me. I later related it to Bill.
“All white people look alike!” he boomed.
Here are those two white people, in a picture taken by my aunt Bonnie:
The moment captured in the picture is one of my favorites from the evening. Bill was leafing through the book and telling stories about the players in the cards at the head of each chapter. He said J.R. Richard almost ended his life with an errant fastball that passed close to his head during a spring training game. He said John D’Acquisto once got so down after getting a tongue-lashing from manager Dick Williams that Lee and others had to hold D’Acquisto back from leaping out of an airplane. He criticized Mike Kekich for trying to distance himself from his unusual marital experiment involving teammate Fritz Peterson in the early 1970s (“You’ve got to own that kind of thing,” Bill said). He may or may not have said that [someone whose name rhymes with “Wedgie Paxson”] was an [something that rhymes with “mass soul”].
“I had to ride to the 1973 all-star game with that guy,” Bill said, briefly and uncharacteristically morose as he relived the ordeal.
I could have talked baseball with him all night, but he was of course besieged by fans. I noticed that he always asked each person where they were from, and wherever it was, he had been there and had a story to tell about it, a way of connecting. Everyone walked away smiling.
When the signing was over, we watched an inning of the game on a television in the store. Bill didn’t want to go across the street to the game because he’d be mobbed.
“When I go I make sure to always have a cup of beer in both hands so people can’t ask me to sign stuff,” he said, “but then people just buy me more and more beer and I end up getting hammered.”
Bill watched David Ortiz bat with special interest. He’s a bat-maker, and Ortiz uses one of his creations, made from a tree Lee had chopped down himself in Vermont. Later, after we said goodbye to Bill and went across the street to the game, Ortiz used that Vermont wood to clout a two-run home run, the difference-maker in a 3-2 win. It just barely cleared the top of the wall. I choose to think that Bill Lee’s handiwork made the difference.