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Spaceman Bill Lee Starts Comeback in Phoenix

March 28, 1985|JOE GERGEN | Newsday

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In his uniform jersey of orange with black trim, Bill Lee seemed once again to be offering baseball a choice. Trick or treat?

"Now I know my goal in life," he said, conspiratorially. "It's to go to San Francisco and blow up Candlestick Park. That way, everybody will be happy, Bob Lurie will be a hero and I'll be the scapegoat."

While such an achievement might rank as his greatest contribution to the sport, there are those who feel Lee has done enough already, thank you. Included in that group is the hierarchy of the San Francisco Giants, who have, somewhat reluctantly, supplied the uniform this spring. Lee is in the camp of the Giants' Triple-A Phoenix farm team at the invitation of Martin Stone, the eastern businessman who owns the Pacific Coast League club and became friendly with the left-hander while serving as a voluntary batting-practice pitcher for the Boston Red Sox a decade ago.

"I was on Cape Cod, playing basketball, when Stone got ahold of me," Lee said before a recent workout at Indian School Park in this affluent Phoenix suburb. "On the last day of January, I drove up to Lake Placid, where he lives. He gave me a 10-pound bag of decaffeinated coffee and a chance to pitch. He said, 'Would you like to pitch for Phoenix?' I said, 'No, I'd like to pitch for San Francisco.' "

Nevertheless, Lee is here because it is the best offer--read that only offer--he has received from organized baseball since his release by the Montreal Expos in May of 1982. The man is 38 and, while he has continued to pitch every summer, major league scouts are not in the habit of scouring the Canadian semipro circuit, where Lee has flourished. His last stop was at Moncton, New Brunswick, where, he reported, he had a 9-2 record and was selected the most valuable player on his team.

Now, however, he feels ready for a comeback, a return to the big leagues, where he gained greater attention for his outrageous statements than his athletic accomplishments. The Spaceman has landed, to the consternation of some and the amusement of others. To Jim Lefebvre, the Phoenix manager, Lee has been a model citizen although he doesn't pretend to understand everything Lee says.

"When he first came here," said Lefebvre, a former infielder for the Dodgers and Giants, "I thought, 'Uh oh.' But he's done everything we've asked him to do. He's in very good shape. It's just that sometimes I don't know what he's talking about.

"This one time, he said, 'Society's different on this planet.' And I said, 'Gee, I don't know. I've only been on one.' "

Lee always has prided himself on being open to new experiences. Remember, this is the man who ventured to China after the 1975 World Series to see "the real Big Red Machine." He said he was particularly impressed by the French-Canadian attitude toward baseball, as illustrated by an important game in Quebec in which the opposing pitcher left abruptly in the fourth inning in order to hear confession. "That was the first we knew that he was a priest," Lee said.

So serious is he about his comeback, however, that Lee said he was foregoing "my ambition to pitch for Canada in the 1988 Olympics." What he has missed most about the major leagues, he decided, was neither the creature comforts nor the competition.

"I miss the relationship with the fans," Lee said. "In Montreal, these little old ladies had a pulley system where they would lower bottles of tequila to me in the bullpen. In Boston, they'd give you bubblegum and peanuts. It's a hard thing to be wanted by the fans and not the owners.

"Mr. Yawkey liked me. Mrs. Yawkey couldn't stand me. When Caesar died, I was gone. In Montreal, Dick Williams liked me. But he got his head cut off by John McHale. Stone? He's the new Mr. Yawkey. I finally got a young one. You have to have a patron. In that way, it's like Michelangelo. He just wanted to work. He needed someone who allowed him to do it."

It has cost Stone approximately $2,000 to indulge Lee, according to the pitcher's estimate of travel and living expenses. "I want to get in the PCL," Lee said, "and draw enough fans in Edmonton, Vancouver and Phoenix to pay off the $2,000 investment. I'm working hard and getting in shape. Even if the Giants don't want me, I think other organizations will see that I can still throw."

To date, the Giants have been impressed with his attitude. But then, Lee said, that shouldn't surprise people. "My attitude has always been good," he said. "It's just that in the analogue part of my brain, things don't always compute and my mouth opens up."

And it makes wry statements to which baseball invariably takes offense. Certainly, it no longer is enough to talk a good game.

"A year ago," Lefebvre said, "we probably could have used him. No problem. We were looking for experienced guys. Now we've got some good, young arms. Basically, right now, he's fighting for his life. I want to keep him as long as I can. But I want to be honest with him. He's got to make our club."

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