If there was a Mount Rushmore for Major League pitchers who had a professional stop in Pittsfield, it might be hard to keep Bill Lee off the mountain.
Lee made 10 starts for the 1969 Pittsfield Red Sox before being called up to begin a 14-year Major League career.
“I was in A Ball in spring training that year in Ocala [Florida]. I was on the Double A squad. They were going to put me back to A ball, but I pitched against Florida State and I threw six no-hit innings,” Lee said. “The next thing you know, I’m back on the Pittsfield roster.”
If you go back to the arrival of the Pittsfield Red Sox in the mid-60s, you might want to put The Spaceman on that Mount Rushmore, along with Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer of the Cubs and A.J. Burnett of the Mets.
“So I go north to Pittsfield,” Lee said, when we sat down for a chat before last week’s Futures League championship game in Burlington, Vt. “I drove up in my ‘62 Chevy. I stayed up on the Green River in Hancock, in a little resort there. I fished every morning. It was unbelievable.
“It was the greatest time. The fishing was good. I’d catch brook trout in the morning. I’d eat them before the game, and I’d go to the ballpark.”
Lee made 10 starts for the 1969 Pittsfield Red Sox, playing for manager Billy Gardner Sr. Lee went 6-2 with a 2.06 earned-run average. He struck out 6.2 batters per nine innings. His catcher in Pittsfield was Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, and he was a teammate of former Taconic High School coach and athletic director Carl Boteze, and a teammate of the late Paul Dowd.
But on June 25, 1969, the Red Sox called Lee up to pitch at Fenway Park, and he never saw Pittsfield again.
And there were sun delays back then too.
“Oh, my God, yeah,” Lee said. “If I were a right hander, I’d have thrown three no-hitters there. I was a left hander and with the sun, they could actually see my pitches.”
For those of you who might not remember, Lee locked in a role in the Red Sox rotation in 1973, going 17-11 with a 2.75 ERA in 33 starts. His ERA was the lowest of his big league career, the 17 wins the most in his career, and he threw a career-high 284 2/3 innings.
Lee, who played college baseball at Southern California and was the Red Sox’s 22nd-round draft pick in 1968, came east and never really left. He spent 14 seasons in the Major Leagues, 10 of them with Boston and the last four years of his career with the Montreal Expos.
“Double A is where you go because you’re a prospect. Triple A is where you go when you’re a suspect,” he said. “These were all kids on the way up. I was way ahead of them because I had four years at USC and I knew how to pitch. I couldn’t throw. I didn’t have as good an arm as anybody. If you look at my ERA, I didn’t walk anybody and I didn’t lose. That was my M.O. for most of my career.
“People ran up to hit against me. They could hit me, but they’d be right at somebody.”
Bill Lee had to smile when I pointed out Matt Gedman throwing batting practice to Pittsfield Suns players. Lee wasn’t a teammate of Gedman’s father Rich, but did pitch against the elder Gedman in 2010 in the old Can-Am League.
“Geddy was the manager with Worcester, when I played for the Brockton Rox at 63 years of age,” Lee said, “and I beat them to be the oldest guy to win a pro game. I won one at 65 and then at 67.”
While Bill Lee still does some barnstorming on the baseball field, he also has an opportunity to watch his old MLB team and the rest of the game. He said that there’s “something wrong” with the game.
“They don’t put the ball in play. They don’t hit the ball the other way. They don’t bunt. They don’t steal,” he said. “It’s not the game I grew up with. It kind of upsets me in that respect. The way they’re trying to fix it is all wrong.
“The game has a tempo,” Lee continued. “Each game has a tempo. Some are quicker than others. Commercials are what made games long. The fact that they don’t throw the ball over the plate — there are a lot more balls and there’s not a lot of contact. You get a Glavine, a Maddux, you get me and Jim Kaat, you’re going to have a 2-hour, 10-minute ballgame, just by the nature of the way we pitch.”
I’d take a 2:10 game every day, and twice on Sundays.
I’d also take some time with Bill Lee any day.