Bill LeeDecember 2, 2016
“Baseball will survive . . . everything because the game is played by kids.” – Bill Lee
I want to be Bill Lee when I grow up. Or maybe I’m already on the wrong track with this line of thinking, this notion that as time goes on we grow up, or should aspire to grow up, or even that there is any inherent hierarchical structuring, any fixed orientation of up and down, to our brief partial awakening here on Earth. We can grow up, we can grow down, we can grow sideways. We grow old, if we’re lucky, but if we’re even luckier we grow young too. Just ask Bill Lee. He just keeps growing.
This year, at age 69—as with all ages he’s known since he was no older than my younger son, who’s 2—Bill Lee played baseball. Pitching for the Burlington Cardinals of the Vermont Senior League, he logged the eighth best ERA in a league made up of lifelong hardball players twenty and thirty years younger than him. He wasn’t just appearing in games as a stunt either: no one with a better ERA had more innings pitched. After finishing third in the league in wins, with 9, he went all 11 innings in his team’s quarterfinal 2-1 victory and won the semifinal with a complete game 3-1 victory. The championship game went into extra innings. You can probably guess who pitched them all. Courtesy of the Vermont Senior League site, here’s the box score:
It’s not what’s generally understood to be a masterpiece. It’s a mess! The pitcher shown in his 1975 card at the top of this page, young and handsome and riding a crest of excellence that would see him win 17 games three seasons in a row, not far away from pitching in the seventh game of the World Series, seems to have been knocked around a good deal on this day by some middle-aged north country amateurs: 14 hits allowed, 8 runs allowed, 4 of them earned. But maybe the real masterpieces are messy, failure and success interweaving. Bill Lee wasn’t anyone’s idea of perfection that day, but he did go 2 for 4 at the plate, and on the mound he walked just one player, and then there’s that most old-fashioned and now maligned of pitching stats, connoted by the letter I still see hanging from windows and porches here in Chicago, tangled in with the Christmas decorations: the W. Yes, failure is always going to be part of any life, but on this day Bill Lee—white-haired 69-year-old Bill Lee—went 12 fucking innings and won.
Bill Lee also lost this year, garnering just 2.8% of the vote in his run for governor of Vermont. (He’s run for office once before, in 1988, when he vied unsuccessfully for the presidency on a platform that included a vow to repeal the law of gravity.) After his loss this November, he was asked by a Canadian journalist whether he’d now make good on a desire he’d voiced earlier in the year to move to Vancouver Island. The question was less about Lee’s personal election experience than it was about the impending presidency of Donald Trump, who Lee had recently characterized thusly: “He’s an anal-retentive white homophobe with short arms, deep pockets, and he’s made his living screwing the American public by stealing their money through bankruptcy. The guy’s a crook. Should be in jail. I can’t believe there’s that many stupid people in America that would even consider voting for him.”
“Oh my god, I’d come there in a heartbeat,” Lee told the Times-Colonist in Victoria, British Columbia. It’s not an empty notion—Lee’s married to a Canadian woman (“I always marry Canadians as an exit strategy”). But he sees that now is the time to stand your ground.
“I’d come there,” Lee said, “if I didn’t think I was running away from a problem.”
In the 1975 card at the top of this page, Bill Lee signs just his name, but nowadays Bill Lee signs his autographs, “Bill Lee, Earth.” This suggests that he, as his nickname Spaceman suggests, has travelled to other worlds. This is just one of them. This also suggests that he’s a citizen of Earth, the whole world, all its people, all its living beings, all its grasses and trees and seas and mountains. It also seems to me an affirmation of life. Here I am on Earth. I won’t always be here, at least not in this particular body. But I’m goddamn here right now.
The 1975 card at the top of this page reminds me of a moment from this past weekend. I managed to capture it in the video below. I was in Asheville, North Carolina, where my mom and dad and brother and his family now live. My mom and dad live right next to a baseball field that’s bordered by a hill similar to the hill shown behind the young Red Sox southpaw in his 1975 card. The video catches my younger son, Exley, imitating my imitation of a pitcher and throwing an imaginary baseball to my older son, Jack, who swings and (you can hear this if you listen closely) makes a faint clicking sound with his tongue and the roof of his mouth, a sound effect for connection. Some running ensues, rules and baselines only faintly suggested, and then both boys hustle back to their points of origin. The video ends as it starts, with Exley bringing his hands together to the set position, just like Bill Lee is doing in his 1975 card, just like Bill Lee did before recording the last out of a championship game earlier this year. When I watch my boys, and when I think about Bill Lee, the same beautiful hope arises: no matter what, the game will go on.