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Low and Inside

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page C02

HAVE GLOVE, WILL TRAVEL

Adventures of a Baseball Vagabond

By Bill Lee and Richard Lally

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Crown. 297 pp. $23

One morning in May 1982, Bill Lee, a relief pitcher for the Montreal Expos who to that point had accumulated 14 years in the major leagues, with 119 victories and an earned-run average of 3.62, got himself a most unpleasant surprise. The previous night, he had protested the release of a player whom he regarded as valuable to the club by leaving the bullpen and setting up shop on a stool in a bar near the ballpark. Now he was in the office of the general manager, John McHale, who told him: "We just released you from your contract." When Lee, startled but never at a loss for words, replied that another team would quickly sign him, McHale said: "Don't bet on it."

The truth didn't sink in right away: "A blackball had just thudded onto the floor, but the sound took its time reaching my ears." A couple of years later, after being cold-shouldered by team after team -- every one of which could have used a competent left-hander on its pitching staff -- he finally was invited by the manager of the San Diego Padres, Dick Williams, to a spring training tryout. But when he arrived, the front office refused to let him in. Williams, "apologetic" and "embarrassed," said:

"I'm going to tell you the truth. I've never had this happen before. You look as if you're in shape, and I want you on this team. I just told our general manager I think you can help us and we should at least give you a look. But he said we cannot touch you. . . . Now, that's how it is. If you tell anybody I told you this, I'll have to deny it. But you know what's going on, right?"

Well, Lee's telling now. "Have Glove, Will Travel" is the story of his baseball life after his baseball death, an occasionally amusing and intermittently poignant account of what happens to a gifted athlete whose strong, eccentric opinions and inability to keep his mouth shut finally get the best of him. The story is told strictly from Lee's point of view, with no opportunity for the defense to testify on its own behalf, but his case is convincing -- all the more so to anyone who knows how hidebound, unimaginative and thin-skinned the baseball hierarchy is.

Lee left, he says, in a "defiant" mood: "All right, I thought, screw them. Who needs major-league baseball? It had become nothing but a business, corrupted by greed and run by agents. . . . Team loyalty had become arcane. Comradeship no longer mattered. And I had tired of the false glitz and glamour marketers used to sell the game." True then, true now. But in his heart Lee "longed to pitch against the top hitters in the world again, to play in front of large crowds, to bask in all that attention and feel the heat of a big-time pennant race."

It never happened. So Lee carved out a new life for himself, a baseball life outside Major League Baseball. He wrote (also with Richard Lally) a wonderfully funny, perceptive book, "The Wrong Stuff" (1984), that gave baseball better than it deserved: an affectionate view of the game and its players, candid but not sensational or vindictive. Of course, baseball doesn't like players who write books, as Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton doubtless would be quick to testify, so Lee didn't do his cause any good, but he did get himself a spot on the very small shelf of baseball literature that has some staying power.

He had, in any event, devised a way to indulge, if not wholly satisfy, his love and longing for the game. Since "there were never enough games to feed my habit," he went wherever he could find one. The Longueuil Senators of the Quebec Senior League had his services for a while; so did the Tiburones de La Guaira, in the Venezuela League, and a slow-pitch softball team connected to the touring Hockey Legends (which gives him an opportunity to tell a few amusing tales about that ultimate hockey legend, Bobby Hull), and the Moncton Mets in the New Brunswick Senior League, and the Winter Haven Super Sox, in the Senior Professional Baseball Association. Et cetera.

He went to the Soviet Union, back when the Cold War was still hot, with a motley team of American amateurs and semipros who beat the Russian teams soundly; the Soviets were "poorly schooled in every aspect of baseball." He made four trips to Cuba between 1999 and 2003 with "various senior teams" that "won very few games." Why? The "Cuban players were simply better than we -- more talented, better conditioned, and far more competitive." In 1988 he was the American presidential candidate of the Canadian Rhinoceros Party, "a progressive, even anarchist organization with a political philosophy based on Dadaism." All he knew about dada had been learned in college at Southern Cal -- "as soon as you understood what Dada was, it became something else" -- but the party's platform appealed to him. Among its planks:

". . . abolish the environment rather than protect it on the grounds that it took up too much space to keep clean. . . . bulldoze the Rocky Mountains so that Alberta could receive a few extra minutes of daylight. . . . paint the White House pink and turn it into a Mexican restaurant. . . . a ban on guns and butter, since they both killed."

He was the "ultimate stealth candidate" and received, so at least he claims, "twelve write-in votes," but baseball being more to his liking than politics, he returned to the diamond. He is there to this day, now in his late fifties, playing wherever and whenever he can. It's a pretty goofy life, but then he's a pretty goofy guy. By his own admission he is an "optimistic skeptic," an "eternal frat boy who cannot resist getting in one last dig," a radical who preaches "socialism fluently until the time comes when I actually have to participate in it." He's gone through two wives and heaven knows how many girlfriends, and seems to have exhausted all of them with what he cheerfully calls "my narcissism."

Baseball, as Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his obituary tribute to his friend Ring Lardner, is "a boy's game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure." The conclusion Fitzgerald drew from this -- that Lardner's years of writing about baseball, of "moving in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy's game," had narrowed his range and accomplishment -- is questionable at best, but it gets somewhere close to the truth about Lee, whose boyish existence within baseball's bubble has lasted his entire life.

Yet how can you argue with a man who loves what he does and refuses to stop doing it? For Lee, "the game's mystery still entrances." The "justice of the baseball diamond," with its insistence that "the law of averages evens out for everyone if you play the game long enough," strikes him as unexceptionable. He loves "breaking in a new glove," "preparing a new bat," "stretching before a game," "lacing up my spikes," "rolling in the newly mowed outfield grass," "running out ground balls." Life may offer greater, more meaningful and more lasting pleasures elsewhere, but those aren't half bad.


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