Bill Lee is one of the more interesting figures in sports, but just calling him interesting (or zany, or out there or any other seemingly complimentary way to call him an oddball) is selling the former major league pitcher short.
Lee continues to be immersed in baseball even into his 60s, and it’s not just away from the diamond. It’s on it as well. The Spaceman has continued to play, and he continues to pitch, crediting his active lifestyle for his ability to keep taking the hill.
The crafty left-hander also has plenty of ways to fix baseball, a sport that he says will always live on thanks to its appeal to kids, but could definitely use some work.
Lee spoke with NESN.com on Thursday. Read the transcript of his discussion below.
NESN.com: Is the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry still alive like it was back in the 70s?
Bill Lee: The rivalry exists because they’re the two best teams in the American League. It always boils down to the Yankees and Red Sox. It has, it did for us back in the day. In fact, it was the Baltimore Orioles, the Detroit Tigers and the Red Sox. The Yankees didn’t come into the picture until [George] Steinbrenner took over in 1976. And then, they became contenders again. That was the first year of the new history of the Yankees. Then the Red Sox were good, and they got bad. Then John Henry bought the team and now they’re good.
That animosity exists, but it’s more of an economic thing and a strategy thing than a “I’m gonna kick your ass” type of thing. [Red Sox catcher Carlton] Fisk didn’t like [Yankees catcher Thurman] Munson and Munson didn’t like Fisk. And they basically were the two captains and we fought. And we fought all the time — any chance we could get. We’d drill a Yankee and they’d drill us and we’d go fisticuffs.
NESN.com: Is there less dislike between the two teams these days?
BL: We didn’t like them. They didn’t like us. The difference is ballplayers carry Halliburtons with money nowadays and we carried a lunch bucket. We were more blue collar. And now they don’t fight because the Halliburton turns into a purse every now and then.
NESN.com: How much of a problem is the length of games these days?
BL: Terrible. Terrible problem for baseball. The length of games, you have a director from the TV network and every game is televised. He controls the tempo. Every time there’s a break in the action, that break in the action was brought to you by “new back supports — keeps you from breaking your back.” It’s all scripted.
The umpires these days don’t call strikes like they used to. They’re scrutinized by that screen that’s on there constantly. You have to take that strike zone and just throw it off the TV. Play the game. Let the guys do the commentary, let the umpires ump. Very little instant replay. Let’s play the ballgame, lets increase the tempo, let’s teach pitchers to throw strikes, get the hitters to swing the bat. Everybody works the count to 3-2 now, and that, is a problem. Back then, I’d throw the ball right down the middle with a little sink on it and everyone was first-pitch swinging and the game got over in a decent time.
Whatever it was — a guy named Bill James — Bill James ruined this game. And then “Moneyball.” And then people who use statistics and computers and graphics … the coaching is not as good. I don’t believe you’re getting a lot of good pros who know the game coaching. Everything is scripted, and it’s not the same game. And that’s sad. It takes too long. The game is supposed to be uptempo. The ball’s supposed to be put in play, and people are supposed to make plays.
NESN.com: What do you think of the way that pitchers are treated in today’s game with pitch counts and the way teams keep close tabs of them?
BL: We never had pitch counts. We had a four-man rotation and we threw. I threw, the next day I loosened up, the next day I threw batting practice, the next day I threw lightly and then the next day I started.
I threw strikes and we never really got deep in the pitch count. We knew when we were coming out because they started hitting us. It was amazing. I started backing up third, the next thing I knew, I just continued by third and go right into the dugout.
The game had a nice, bigger pace back then, but I don’t think they handle pitchers right. From Little League, they don’t handle them right. From Little League, they become neurotic with the aluminum bats and they become jittery when they’re getting hit with line drives at an early age. They’re gun-shy and they can’t throw strikes. Then they get up to high school and they either dominate and go to the next level and get their brains beat out.
You gotta eliminate the designated hitter, eliminate aluminum bats and make kids pitch. I’ve never been an American League fan. Never will be. You can bet the National League is going to win the World Series this year because they won the All-Star game and [they’ll be ready] for that kind of play.
NESN.com: How are you able to continue to play the game like you do at your age?
BL: I’ve never hurt my arm pitching. I’ve only hurt my arm in brawls, and swinging the bat and running into walls falling out of buildings. … I’ve never hurt myself pitching. I’m still pitching. People ask me how I do that — I roll logs, I work for a living, I do yoga and I drink a lot.
It’s like Satchel Paige, it’s mind over matter — if you don’t mind, it don’t matter.
[You have to] play. You have to pitch once a week. You gotta get out and throw. You have to do all your rotator cuff exercise and I do that by making bats. I’m always working with my legs because you have to use your legs to save your back when you’re lifting. Light weight, a lot of repetition.
At the end, I’ve got a really good product — a bat that I have made. I feel satisfied. I have a great meal, my wife cooks me a great meal. I drink about a half-bottle, three-quarters of a bottle or a full bottle of my own wine and I go to bed. It’s amazing. And I sleep like a baby and I never have to wake up to take a leak in the middle of the night. Know what that tells you? The kid’s a camel and he has a helluva prostate.
NESN.com: Is baseball going to be all right as a sport?
BL: Baseball will survive even its worst critics and everything because the game is played by kids.