‘Spaceman’ to MLB: Stop Screwing Around with the Game
By Stephen Hanks

Ground control had questions for the Spaceman. His answers were, as usual, far-out.

‘Spaceman’ to MLB: Stop Screwing Around with the Game


On the subject of baseball – and all that’s gone wrong with it -- Bill 'Spaceman' Lee is an unvarnished source of sanity.

Yogi Berra once said that Whitey Ford used so many lubricants he could make the ball sing 'Aida'.  

Today's game was created by analytics guys. Pitch counts? "You think freaking Warren Spahn or Bob Gibson was ever going to come out of a game?"

"There's just too many stupid people out there, too many stupid managers, too many people trying to hit home runs. And they're not playing baseball."

I first met former Red Sox left hander Bill ’Spaceman’ Lee in 1990, in Moscow. The then-USSR hoped to enter a team in the 1992 Olympic Games, and he was part of a group of Americans trying to teach young Russian athletes how to play the national pastime.  In his opening address to would-be Soviet hurlers, Lee didn’t impart wisdom on how to throw breaking balls or holding runners on first base. “The pitching mound is your home,” he instructed, and if a batter belts a home run and hot-dogs it around the bases, “throw it as his fucking head” the next time he comes to the plate. The young Russians waited for the translation, then cracked up.

By then, Lee was already eight years past a major league career notable both for quality — 119 victories and a lifetime 3.62 ERA with Boston and the Montreal Expos — and a penchant for straightforward out-of-the-box thinking that earned him his nickname. Indeed, Lee is the only major leaguer who mulled  both running for president (on the Rhinoceros Party ticket), and made the cover of the marijuana bible High Times Magazine.

But on the subject of baseball – and all that’s gone wrong with it — the crafty lefty remains an unvarnished source of sanity, as I discovered when I caught up with him after a recent Sunday semi-pro game in Vermont. At 74, the ‘Spaceman’ is still throwing at speeds equal to his age, and baffling hitters many decades younger.

‘I want to play baseball the way it’s supposed to be played.’

PM: Looking at your lifetime stats, something that jumps out is that one year, 1974, you gave up a league-leading 320 hits in 282 innings—which, by the way, is a number of innings  nobody throws anymore—yet you won 17 games with a 3.51 ERA in Fenway Park with the Green Monster in left field. How did you do that?

BL: In a bandbox like Fenway with practically no foul territory, I didn’t want to walk guys. I had to pitch to contact while also trying to keep the ball in the ballpark. But those stats don’t show how many double plays I got guys to hit into.

PM: And here’s the other key stat. You only walked 67 in those 282 innings. That’s absurd. Nobody does that.

BL: And the hitters that I walked were guys that I had to walk because I knew they could take me deep.

PM: And we’re betting nobody knew your “spin rate” on a four-seam fastball. What’s been your reaction to the recent controversy about pitchers using “sticky stuff” on the baseball and now getting checked by umpires?

BL: When I pitched for the Red Sox, K-Y Jelly was a banned substance and I gave a quote that if they ever banned K-Y Jelly the California Angels would never win a ballgame. Jim Bouton once quoted Yogi Berra saying that Whitey Ford used so many lubricants he could make the ball sing Aida.

PM: So pitchers using “foreign substances” has been going on forever?

BL: Rosin was brought into the game in the late 1800s so pitchers could get a better grip on the ball and control it better. The crazy thing about all this controversy is that rosin is legal. And even licking your fingers is legal if you step off the mound. When you put water and rosin together they make pine tar which is illegal except for hitters using it on their bat so it doesn’t go flying out fo their hands.

PM: So is the problem not that that they’re using sticky stuff, but that it’s not a uniform substance that everybody uses equally?

BL: The problem is the rule. It’s not logical. You want pitchers to have a better grip on the ball and more control. When these umpires dress down a pitcher, how can they tell what he’s been using? It’s a big waste of time. We’re a litigious society, you know what I’m saying? Everything is laws . . . laws, laws, laws. But laws are like spider webs. They entrap the weak and are broken by the strong.

PM: But the criticism of the sticky stuff is not about the grip. It’s supposedly how it affects the spin rate on the pitches. Is spin rate something that you were ever aware of?

BL: No. I wasn’t a big flame thrower. I threw a lot of different breaking pitches. Spin rate is really great if the ball ends up in a good place. You can have all the spin rate in the world but if you throw it down the middle any good hitter is going to crush it.

PM: How do you feel about the philosophy of keeping pitch counts low and not letting pitchers go a third time through the order?

BL: Frankly, that’s the way it always was. Today most guys are two-pitch pitchers. It’s very seldom that you get a guy with three excellent pitches, including a good changeup. And that guy’s going to be your starter. But to quote Buckminster Fuller, “specialization breeds extinction.”  You got the guy that does this. Then you got the guy that comes in and does that. Then you got the other guy that comes in and closes. And that’s a form of baseball that was created by statisticians and all these analytics guys. Do you think freaking Warren Spahn or Bob Gibson was ever going to come out of a game?

PM: So let’s talk about The Shift. Do you think that with a lefty pull-hitter at the plate, the second baseman should be playing short right field like a short centerfielder in softball?

BL: Oh the shift . . . that really pisses me off. Some people want a rule where you must have two infielders on either side of second base. That’s BS. If I’m the Commissioner of Baseball, I don’t outlaw the shift.  It’s up to the ball clubs to teach their hitters to bunt the ball and hit the ball the other way. If you’re down two runs and there’s only one infielder playing between shortstop and third base, you bunt the ball down the third base line. If there’s an infielder playing short right field,  know what I’d do? I’d drag bunt the ball to second base. If I’m hitting and the first baseman is holding the runner on and the second baseman is playing short right field, I’d hit .400. There’s just too many stupid people out there, too many stupid managers, too many people trying to hit home runs. And they’re not playing baseball. They should just play the damn game and stop worrying about hitting into the shift.

PM: So what do you think of this automatic runner on second base during extra innings deal?

BL:  That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. I call it the “Man-Fraud Rule” [Rob Manfred is the Baseball Commissioner.] You can be pitching a perfect game and all of a sudden Man-Fraud puts a guy on second base, they sacrifice him to third and then a sacrifice fly wins the ballgame. Didn’t the pitcher still throw a perfect game? Man-Fraud can take that rule and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

SH: I know you love to hit and when you played four years in the National League (with the Montreal Expos), you averaged .241, which is damn good. Should the NL finally give up the designated hitter?

BL: Never . . . Never . . . NEVER!  Over my dead body. The only reason I stayed in the National League and wouldn’t sign with an AL team is because I wanted to swing the bat. I want to play baseball the way it’s supposed to be played. I want to steal, hit and run and bunt.  I want to play the game the old-fashioned way. The way Bucky Fuller would have played it—without specialization.