'Spaceman' Lee, 65, goes distance for win
Former Major Leaguer earns complete-game victory in independent-league game
SAN RAFAEL, Calif. -- Many of his teammates' grandparents are his contemporaries. His 52-year-old manager's Major League career began just as his was ending. He'd pitched on this field before, only it was 50 years ago.And there he was Thursday night, making history. Again.Bill "Spaceman" Lee went back into orbit in a professional game at age 65, pitching where his baseball journey began that half-century ago in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco at a field called Albert Park that's light years from the Majors.Lee not only became what's believed to be the oldest man to win a professional game on Thursday, but he went the distance for the San Rafael Pacifics in an independent North American League game against the Maui Na Koa Ikaika, earning the win and the everlasting adoration of the sellout crowd of 1,265.That's right, a complete-game victory in a crisp 2 hours and 21 minutes --- just like old times."When you're as old as me, you'd better work quickly," Lee said as he began more than a half-hour of signing autographs with fans and players after the game.It was the perfect ending to a perfect day at Albert Park.As the very veteran lefty's temporary teammates went through their pregame workout, one of baseball's all-time eccentric, engaging and sometimes controversial characters shared laughs with the pitching staff and then took some fierce batting practice -- no designated hitter for him on this night.Once the game began, he brought whole new meaning to a 65-year-old retiring. As in, he retired the side in order in the first inning and took a no-hitter into the fourth. He threw in a few "Lee-phus" pitches for good measure and brought the crowd to its feet with an RBI single, using a bat he'd made with his own hands from his own Vermont yellow birch.All the while, the question in the minds of his fellow players and the sellout crowd: How is this space oddity still able to take the mound and pitch against players who weren't even born when he supposedly hung up his spikes in 1982?"I'm able to do it because I never quit. I still play all the time. This is just another game," Lee said as the sun started lowering in a clear sky toward his twilight first pitch.John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com.
* * * * * Perhaps that inability to quit was why he was asking manager Mike Marshall, the former slugger for the Dodgers, Mets, Red Sox and Angels, for just one more batter with one out in the eighth inning. And again with two outs. Soon, he was pitching the ninth.When second baseman Boon Maeda leaped and snared the last out, Lee pumped his fist, celebrated with his teammates and then kissed the ground after delivering 94 pitches, 69 for strikes, with exactly zero strikeouts and zero walks."What people don't realize is that just yesterday he threw 70 pitches in batting practice, and he wasn't doing it from the front of the mound like I was -- he was throwing from the rubber," Marshall said afterward. "Then he took BP himself. Pretty amazing."Chalk it up as just another chapter in the strange baseball odyssey known as Spaceman.D.J. Dixon, a 29-year-old catcher, not only got to receive Lee's pitches Thursday, but also bask in the presence of a ballplayer whose experience exceeds his by several decades."It's such a great experience because of the major separation of generations, going way back from when he pitched to now," said Dixon, a non-drafted free agent with Giants in 2004 who played two years in that organization before toiling the next seven years in independent ball. "We're in 2012, and for him to still pitch in a professional game is amazing. He's in amazing shape for his age, and he still carries himself around like he's in his 20s." * * * * *About three hours before Thursday's game, Lee donned his navy blue jersey with "SR" on the chest in a clubhouse about the size of many Major League coaches' rooms, which house about eight people -- not about 30.On his way out to the field, a fan who arrived early noticed Lee was wearing No. 31, not the No. 37 he wore for all 416 appearances (225 starts) he made in the Majors in 14 years with the Red Sox and Expos."Why aren't you wearing 37?" the fan asked. "They don't have a 37," Lee replied.Then it was out to the bullpen, where the pitchers were waiting for the game to start -- and a man who first took a professional field more than four decades earlier held court."I never hurt my arm pitching," he tells them, setting up the punchline that didn't miss. "I always hurt it in fights."And ... "I'm pitching in a doubleheader in a 60-and-over league Sunday. Those guys look like cardboard cutouts back there. They're like sheep on a leash," Lee said of his age-peer teammates.But his basic philosophy about pitching doesn't bring any laughs. It just gets people nodding their heads."You don't walk anybody, you keep 'em in the ballpark, you win ballgames," Lee said. * * * * *In the end, it was a summer night in San Rafael that went exactly as scripted.The Pacifics packed the house, winning a game as they battled Maui for the league title on the final weekend. Lee impressed with the arm, the bat and the personality. Everybody had smiles on their faces."He's been nothing but charming this whole time," said Mike Shapiro, a former executive with the Giants, Braves and Nationals who serves as president and general manager of the first-year franchise. "He's one of those rare examples of someone who is what he seems to be. It's not an act. He's the Spaceman."Lee himself noted how it was on this very field that as a sophomore at nearby Terra Linda High School he threw a no-hitter against Sir Francis Drake High in 1962, throwing another the following year."You go to '72, '82, '92, '02, '12 -- that's 50 years ago, I threw a no-hitter here. You ain't gonna see a no-hitter tonight," Lee said.For 3 1/3 innings, the fans did. For nine innings, he just kept dealing.The way he looked, Lee could probably do this the rest of his life, when he's 75 or 85, not just 65 -- but he's definitely not counting."I don't own a watch. I don't have a calendar. I don't have a cellphone, and I don't have a computer," Lee said. "All I did was wake up and it was a beautiful day."In the evening of this day, Bill Lee looked and felt like a kid again. That's nothing different for him, and he's always been a bit different, from when he actually was a kid. At eight years old, he was considered different enough physically that he was sent to a special phys-ed class to strengthen his awkward body."I had a sway back, a big [behind] and they said I was a freak -- and they were right. I have the ability to stand on one foot and pitch at the age of 65, which is amazing," Lee said.