November 12, 2011
This past May, the Memphis Redbirds honored broadcaster Charlie Lea on the 30th anniversary of the no-hitter he pitched for the Montreal Expos. Six months and a day after that celebration, Lea was gone.
On Friday, police said Lea died after a suspected heart attack at his home in Collierville, Tenn., where he was found by his wife. He would have turned 55 on Christmas Day.
Easily the best of the nine major leaguers known to be born in France, Lea in his second season became the first Frenchman to toss a no-no, May 10, 1981 at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. After starting the All-Star Game for the National League in 1984, Lee missed the next two full seasons because of a shoulder injury. He pitched the 1988 season with the Minnesota Twins, but retired after posting a 3.54 ERA over six full seasons. His teams went 85-67 in his appearances.
His shining moment was the no-hitter — that's catcher Gary Carter, in the photo, congratulating him after the final out — so the Memphis Commercial Appeal asked Lea to recall that day in Montreal. Enos Cabell of the Giants flied out to Andre Dawson for the last out:
''It was a slider, a little bit away from him,'' Lea recalled. ''I don't know if it was up or down, but he hit it off the end, a little lazy fly ball to center. Dawson really didn't have to move out of his tracks. Andre was a fairly emotionless guy. When he caught it and immediately threw his arms in the air and started jumping up and down, me seeing his emotion, it was something special.''
Lea went to high school in Memphis, played baseball at Memphis State and pitched for Memphis in the late 1970s when it was Montreal's Class AA minor league affiliate. Though he worked in broadcasting as an analyst since 2002, Lee had been considering getting closer to the game, perhaps as a pitching coach.
He was something of a local superstar in Memphis in his youth, but Lea was finding that memories of his career as a player have grown faint.
''I guess the more you're away from the game, there are people now in Collierville when they see you, they don't even know you ever played baseball,'' he said.
Lea pitched for some of the very good Expos teams that were stacked on offense with names like Dawson, Carter, Tim Raines, Al Oliver and Tim Wallach. The pitching was good too, with names such as Lea, Bill Rogers, Scott Sanderson and Bill Gullickson. In Lea's first couple of seasons, they also had Bill Lee at the end of his career. Lea and Lee on the same staff, which was funny. And in those days, I always assumed that Lea grew up in Quebec and spoke French, which must have been why the Expos wanted him, like with Denis Boucher. To this moment, I'm not sure if Lea spoke French like he was brought up a Nordique.
But he was a good pitcher, on a team that's no longer there, sadly. And both are worth remembering, even after all of these years.