Refreshing perspective was always a key element in Bill Lee's repertoire. Call it odd, bizarre, hilarious, and thoroughly invigorating. So, of course, Lee had a unique approach Sunday when he pitched the first 5 1/3 innings for an independent league team in Massachusetts and held the opposing team to two runs to earn the victory.
At age 63.
"I lift wood and make bats for a living," he told reporters. "This is fun for me. It doesn't take anything out of you to pitch."
Yes, the "Spaceman" was otherworldly. Lee, who in his day job makes bats for David Ortiz(notes), among other major leaguers, is thought to be the oldest pitcher to appear in a professional game, let alone win one.
Satchel Paige was 59 when he pitched three innings for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965. Another longtime Negro Leagues player, the legendary Buck O'Neal, batted twice in the Northern League All-Star Game in 2006 at age 94. He swung at one pitch and walked in both at-bats. Earlier that year, Jim Eriotes, 83, led off the game for the Sioux Falls Canaries and struck out. He did foul off a pitch.
Like those appearances, this had the distinct whiff of a gimmick. That is, until Lee took the mound for the Brockton Rox and exhibited superior command, holding the Worcester Tornadoes to five hits. He struck out one and walked one.
"Everything was where I wanted it to be," he said.
Lee, who pitched in the major leagues from 1969 to 1982 and for many years starred for the Boston Red Sox, originally planned to appear at a fundraiser the Brockton club was holding to combat autism. One thing led to another and Brockton pitching coach Ed Nottle – who has known Lee for years – asked the left-hander if he'd be game.
"Hell, yeah, I'll do it," Lee replied.
His first pitch was an eephus, a slow blooper that the batter banged up the middle for a single. Was that all he had? The 6,126 in attendance had to wonder.
Then Lee got down to business. He got out of the first without giving up a run. Nick Salotti homered to lead off the second, but Lee allowed only three hits and a run the rest of the way. Perhaps after giving up the homer, he reminded himself of one his most famous quotes: "I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won't matter if I get this guy out."
Meanwhile, spectators were amazed.
"He's getting the ball over," Brockton team official Hoffman Wolff said in the third inning. "He looks like a legitimate hurler out there."
The Rox scored four runs in the bottom of the fifth, helping to ensure that Lee would be the pitcher of record in the 7-3 victory. The performance was reminiscent of the last time he took the mound in a game anybody cared about, the 2008 Midnight Sun Game in Fairbanks, Alaska. Lee pitched into the seventh inning and got the win, avenging the loss he took in the 1967 Midnight Sun Game when he was 21 and hadn't even reached the big leagues yet.
Lee has been pitching for more than 50 years, a feat that might even trump his never-ending string of wacky quotes and outlandish behavior (Upon being called up to the Red Sox for the first time in 1969, Lee took a look at the Green Monster and said, “Do they leave it there during games?”). He is a regular in men's leagues in Vermont, where he lives with his wife, Diana, and has traveled extensively as an unorthodox ambassador for the game, visiting Cuba, China and Russia.
"I don't want to get to cocky because there's always some kid out there with an aluminum bat who's gonna hit one back at my head, or at my nose like General Patton," he said two years ago after the game in Alaska. "Then I'll be dead, but that's not a bad way to go."
He had only one regret after winning Sunday, although like most of what he says, the comment was tongue-in-cheek. "I got pulled before I could use all of my pitches today. I was hoping to be able to break out my Juan Marichal screwball," he said.
Afterward, Lee repaired to nearby Mulligan's bar for a four-hour session of autographs, storytelling and beer drinking. It was a legendary day by a pitcher-performer who constantly outdoes himself. Actor Woody Harrelson owns the movie rights to the Bill Lee story. On Sunday, Lee provided more material for the screenplay.