'Spaceman' displays competitive fire at charity tournament
Former Red Sox lefty helps raise money for Travis Roy Foundation
By Joe Trezza
ESSEX, Vt. -- Bill Lee stared at the 6-year-old crowding his plate like he did at Johnny Bench doing the same thing more than 40 Octobers ago. At 69 years old, Lee's eyes are still wide. His hair still kicks wildly from underneath his cap. He's still wearing all red. And a Green Monster is again at his back.
But it's not Bench digging in against Lee, as he did during the 1975 World Series at the real Fenway. It's a child waving a plastic yellow bat. Lee is throwing WIFFLE balls. He kicks his leg high and hums a riseball under the kid's hands.
"It's the same intensity," Lee said afterward. "When I'm out there on the mound, I want to win!"
Only here, deep in the bucolic Vermont woods, do these types of moments unfold. For the 15th consecutive year, the Travis Roy Foundation has brought more than 1,000 people together for a WIFFLE ball tournament at its unique complex. Thirty-two teams are competing this weekend on to-scale replicas of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the "Field of Dreams," from the iconic 1989 movie. All of the fields are cloned with excruciating detail.
The goal of the event is to raise money for spinal cord injury research. The result is a community weekend involving teams from all over the region, and games with people of all ages -- toddlers, teenagers, expectant mothers and, yes, even former Major Leaguers -- sharing the same field.
Lee, who lives in Vermont and is running for governor of the state, is the lone Major League connection to the tournament besides the fields. The acerbic lefty pitched in 416 games for the Red Sox and Expos from 1969-82, while earning the nickname, "Spaceman," for his colorful and sometimes controversial antics and interests. He was an All-Star in 1973 and started Games 2 and 7 of the '75 Fall Classic for Boston against the Cincinnati Reds.
He's been a mainstay at the tournament since its inception in 2001, when Lee met Travis Roy and, like many others, felt drawn to his story. Roy was a freshman hockey player at Boston University in 1995 when he fractured his vertebrae 11 seconds into his collegiate hockey career. Roy, whose book "11 Seconds" inspired many to donate to his cause, is a paraplegic. The Travis Roy Foundation has raised more than $4 million for spinal cord injury research and equipment.
"You're raising money and you're playing the greatest game ever made," Lee said. "Whether its baseball or WIFFLE ball or softball, it's the most amazing game."
Lee threw 784 2/3 career innings at the real Fenway Park, and countless more WIFFLE ball innings at Little Fenway -- which features almost all the detail of the original.
"It's the exact dimensions, just shrunk," said Lee. "They put it in a little microwave, then sprinkled some water on it and they shrank it down and brought it here."
In his adopted New England spirit, Lee still follows the Red Sox passionately.
"They are still in the thick of it, but they lost six ballgames they should have won -- at least that I've watched," he said. "It drives me nuts."
Lee continued pitching after his Major League career, playing in adult leagues, managing fantasy camps -- and he even made Independent League appearances in 2010, at age 63, and '12, at age 65.
"I'm the oldest professional baseball player of all time," Lee said.
Why should he stop? He's having too much fun.
"Did you see how I handled that six-year old?" Lee said. "He took me to the gap last time and showboated all the way to second base. Next time, I set him up with the eephus pitch and then I threw the whistler right in his kitchen. You knock the 6-year-olds down. Teach them how to play the game right. Don't be showing up here tomorrow!"
Two minutes later, he's telling a World Series story.
"I'm pitching Game 2 in 1975 and I have a 2-1 lead and it rains. In the eighth, I give up four line drives and get three outs. I have nothing left. I go out for the ninth and I have to face Bench. During the rain delay, they interviewed Johnny Bench. He said I had been pitching him tough and that he was going to hit me to right field. He gets up and doubles to right field. Forty-three million Americans watching, you think any of them would have told me?"
Lee grabs a bat and jogs back onto the field.
On his second swing, he hits a grand slam over the miniature short bullpen wall in right field, off the 6-year-old's father. Little Fenway goes wild.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.