2008: A Spaceman Odyssey

Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Hey, Mr. Spaceman, won't you please take me along for a ride." -- The Byrds

It wasn't just about baseball. If it were, he wouldn't have lasted as long as he did.

Bill "Spaceman" Lee's performance as the honorary starter for the Fairbanks Goldpanners in the 103rd playing of the Midnight Sun Game on June 21 was the material legends are made of.

Every inning he emerged from the dugout, walking his 61-year-old legs to the mound, deliberately winding up like a softball pitcher and delivering a slower than normal pitch to 20-something, well-conditioned athletes, was just another chapter added to an already historic legacy.

It had Hollywood written all over it.

A white-haired, ivory-bearded grandfather who possibly receives the senior citizen discount at restaurants making fools of collegiate ballers, some of whom probably had no clue who they were facing in the first place, other than hopelessly believing they were about to knock him around the park.

Try again, lads.

But overall, the mind-boggling outing was less about America's Pastime, and more about conjuring memories of better times, facilitating a youthful feeling for the thousands in attendance and delivering the notion that anything's possible.

But let's first journey back in time.

From the instant we approached Growden Memorial Park in Fairbanks on the summer solstice, when the sun never really sets, instead just ducking behind the mountains for a few hours, space travel seemed absolutely possible.

After trekking 500 miles through windy, mountain-dotted, dual-lane roads, my buddy and I were officially on another planet.

Talk about an otherworldly experience.

It was the eerie light descending upon the antediluvian ballpark that's seen the likes of Barry Bonds and Tom Seaver take the field that facilitated that feeling.

It was also the crowd, a curious blend of tourists attending their first-ever Alaska Baseball League game and stubbly old-timers in thigh-high red shorts, skin-tight Goldpanners T-shirts and 1970s foam caps.

It was the music blaring from the stilted press box, The Byrds belting out lines about martians abducting them, or the Beat Farmer's seventh-inning stretch rendition of "Happy Boy," featuring the crowd-pleased chorus, "Hubba, hubba, hubba, hubba, hubba!"

It was "The Star Spangled Banner," too, a recorded version that lasted close to five minutes and seemed straight out of "The Simpsons."

It was the seagulls flying overhead at the close of the national anthem, an appropriate image for our current location, until the fighter jets, completely undetected, scared the wits out of any child trying to nab an autograph.

It was the Spaceman.

Imagine President Bush, born just six months before Lee, firing fastballs -- well, somewhat fast -- and breaking balls at potential major leaguers.

He'd last one batter, maybe two.

Spaceman faced 26!

But more than his rubber-toeing skills, it was the controversial history Lee toted with him that made the night, and morning, even more intriguing.

An author of four books, Lee was a 1988 presidential candidate, although he didn't appear on a single state's ballot. His campaign slogan, "No guns. No butter. Both can kill," obviously didn't get the job done.

During his 14-year Major League Baseball career, 11 of which were spent with the Boston Red Sox where he strung together three consecutive 17-win seasons and pitched in a pair of World Series games, Lee was a contentious advocate for anything and everything that ever crossed his mind.

A two-time Panner from 1966-67, Lee claimed to have sprinkled marijuana on his buckwheat pancakes. An extrovert, he once argued he could pitch effectively on a marijuana high, saying, "Hitters could not think with me because of the simple fact that I had ceased thinking."

High or not, he dazed and confused everyone who stepped foot in the batter's box on that sun-splashed night.

Consistently checking runners at first and even engineering a successful pickoff attempt, the mercurial hurler struck out three and walked two over six-plus innings, exiting with a win on the line after surrendering four earned runs and seven hits, the last a first-pitch single to begin the seventh which finished his night.

He could have faced just the first batter, which happened to be former Goldpanners' coach Don Sneddon, who Lee threw the first pitch to at 10:50 p.m. and fanned two pitches later, a crafty curveball, flying no faster than 50 mph, retiring the fellow grandpa.

Had the winningest lefty in Red Sox history departed after that, a rousing reception would have carted him off. Everything would have been dandy.

But Lee, sporting a red jersey with No. 337 (Lee upside-down) while the rest of his teammates donned blue, stayed in, set to stare down frat boys dreaming of playing where he spent the better part of his life.

Some in the dimly lit crowd weren't sure what they were witnessing. Most were, though.

"That's a 60-year-old man," one man explained to his child.

"He's as old as I am," exclaimed a proud beer vendor behind home plate.

Escaping the first inning unscathed, Lee surrendered two runs in the second, but to the amazement of many, trotted back out for the third.

While most of the country was sleeping, he retired the side in the third and slowly emerged for the fourth.

Another run in that frame didn't deter him. Neither did his fourth and final fun in the fifth.

Lee, who compiled a 119-90 record with a 3.92 ERA and 713 strikeouts in the big leagues and still plays recreationally, outlasted the Southern California Running Birds' starter (3 1/3 innings), working out of the sixth with the help of two nifty plays by his third baseman before being pulled one batter into the seventh with a 5-4 lead.

It didn't matter, though.

Every member of the Goldpanners, from the manager to the players to the bat boy, lined up across the third base line as Lee proudly walked toward the dugout, making certain to shake each hand along the way.

A deserved standing ovation, a tip of the cap and a sparked stogie culminated an extraordinarly gutty effort from a man who last pitched a Midnight Sun Game in 1967, when he lost to the Japanese national team.

"Put the old man back in," a voice from the crowd bellowed during a late SoCal rally.

They didn't need to.

Because this time around, 41 years later, the Goldpanners tacked on three more runs in the seventh and held on to win, 10-6.

Nearly 26 years after his professional career came to a questionable end when he was released by the Montreal Expos after organizing a one-game walkout in protest over the Expos' decision to release his friend, Spaceman was a winner once again.

And so was everyone who witnessed it.

"I might," Lee said with a devilish grin while mingling with fans at 2:30 a.m. when asked if he'd be returning to pitch at next year's Midnight Sun extravaganza. "I'll tell ya something, I just love to play. And, you know, if it's seven or eight (innings), I'll keep going."

And we'll go with you.

Thanks for the ride, Spaceman.

Matthew Carroll is a sports reporter for the Clarion and can be reached at matthew.carroll@peninsulaclarion.com.

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