The Adventures of A Baseball Vagabond
by Bill Lee and Richard Lally
Have Glove Will Travel
Advantures of a Baseball Vagabond
I reached the ballpark just before the bottom of the seventh inning. Fanning refused to put me in the game, and we tangled in his office afterward. He accused me of deserting the team; I accused him of lying to Rodney. He sputtered. He fumed. His face swelled red. But his boxing gloves stayed locked away. He pointed me back into the clubhouse and said, “[Montreal general manager] John McHale wants to see you in his office tomorrow. Bright and early. This is between you and him now.”
“What’s wrong with right now?”
“John does not want to see you in the state you’re in. The morning will be fine.”
I had walked off a ball club once before to protest management’s mistreatment of a teammate. In 1978, the Boston Red Sox traded Bernie Carbo—for my money, the most dangerous left-handed hitter on our roster—to the Cleveland Indians simply because they did not appreciate Carbo’s colorful latenight lifestyle. I left the team for twenty-four hours right after the front office announced the deal. Boston fined me one day’s salary over that incident. I expected a similar punishment from McHale.
What else could he do? The edge belonged to me. McHale would never jettison his best left-handed reliever. During the previous season I had topped the Expos in earned run average while finishing second on the team in games pitched and holds. I even hit .348. And I still ranked among the most popular players on the team. People chanted my name the moment I appeared on the field not just in Montreal but in ballparks around the league. I led the club in speaking engagements. My fans were so passionate, they lowered bottles of tequila to me in the bullpen before the start of every game. At one point I collected sixty-seven bottles in less than two months, an all-time record in the annals of sport that will undoubtedly remain unbroken for years to come. Most teams considered my sort of player invaluable.
Wouldn’t you think?
“We just released you from your contract,” McHale announced not ten minutes into our meeting. Just seven words, but they instantly altered my identity. I could no longer call myself a professional ballplayer. I had become a line of agate type on the AP transactions wire. A black hole on the rosters of rotisserie league managers across North America. A blurb on tonight’s evening news that began, “And now a sad note from the world of baseball . . .” In calculating my worth to the Expos, I had let ego throw off the math. Not exactly a first for me. In essence, the Expos had decided they would rather pay me $225,000 not to play than keep me on the team. It rankled to discover how expendable they considered me. The Lee Irish temper flared. I shook my fist at McHale and shouted, “You want to cut me, fine. There are plenty of clubs in this league desperate for lefthanded pitching. One of them will sign me. You just watch.”
McHale’s cold eyes brightened. A smug look crossed his face as he leaned over his desk to whisper, “Don’t bet on it.” A blackball had just thudded onto the floor, but the sound took its time reaching my ears. The next day, my wife and I sent letters offering my services to the other eleven National League clubs. We did not contact anyone in the American League. I liked hitting too much, and the designated hitter rule would prevent me from taking my cuts at the plate. We expected teams to overwhelm us with offers. My contract stipulated that the Expos had to pay the rest of my salary. Any club could have signed me for the major-league minimum. If I did not perform well, the team could release me without losing any more money than they might have paid to the greenest rookie. What a bargain! So how many replies did we receive? How about one, and that from Hank Peters, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who took the time to write, “Our club has enough problems without adding you to the list.”
Not everyone considered me a headache. The Montreal chapter of the YMCA circulated a petition demanding that the Expos immediately reinstate me. Over ten thousand people signed, including Charles Bronfman, the team owner. Pure window dressing, that—a billionaire playing to the masses, spreading a bit of the old Magoo. In the organizational hierarchy, Fanning was the manager. He managed the team in the clubhouse and on the field. McHale was the general manager. He managed the team’s business affairs. Bronfman was the owner. He owned everything—Fanning, McHale, the players, the uniforms, the balls, the bats, me until the day of my release. Had Bronfman told McHale to kiss my ass in the middle of Olympic Stadium, I would still be wiping lipstick from my cheeks, so don’t believe Charlie wanted me back on the club.
Anyway, McHale had no intention of letting any petitions alter his stance. Word went around he preferred giving Lefty Grove the opportunity to pitch before handing me the ball. Mr. Grove was a Hall of Famer, but he had died seven years earlier. Even after Woodie Fryman, Montreal’s only other reliable southpaw reliever, injured his arm, McHale and Fanning still refused to call me.
In early July, my friend Bill Brownstein asked if he could contact the American League teams. Desperation made me agree. Each club replied with a verbal form letter: “Thank you for thinking of us. We have our roster set. Yes, it is true we are in last place; yes, it’s true we are twenty games out and it’s only June; and yes, our starting rotation is so tattered we can barely flesh out a complete pitching staff. We do not need Mr. Lee at this time.” At this time. Another way of saying at any time. Ever.
We did not give up. Richard Lally, my coauthor for this book as well as my first autobiography, The Wrong Stuff, called Atlanta Braves assistant general manager Pat Nugent in early August. Atlanta had opened the 1982 season with thirteen consecutive wins and entered the All-Star break with a hefty lead in the National League West. In late July, however, the Braves fell into a protracted slump when most of the club’s starting pitchers lost their effectiveness. The losing streak allowed the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and San Diego Padres to pull nearly even in the division title race.
Richard buried Nugent under a landslide of statistics that revealed how well I had pitched in Atlanta’s home park. My friend also pointed out that I had compiled a career ERA of 2.54 against the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres, the very three teams that were threatening to overtake the Braves. Even I didn’t know that. Nugent expressed surprise over the numbers and promised to give us an answer within a few days. A week passed. No call.
So Richard phoned Braves vice president John Mullen and repeated his pitch. Read the tail end of their conversation: Mullen: “Those stats are excellent, but I’m not sure we have a spot for Bill. We already have our twenty-five-man roster set.”
Lally: “Yes, John, I understand that, but at the moment they are sinking faster than the Andrea Doria, so let’s talk business. You do not have a single proven left-handed pitcher on your staff. You do not have any left-handers in the minors ready to come up. Bill can start for your team or pitch out of the bullpen as a setup man or long reliever. You can even use him as a left-handed specialist. He is willing to fly to Atlanta or anywhere else you choose at his own expense to show what he can do. The tryout has no obligations attached to it. Bill would even sign a minor-league deal if you like what you see but can’t find a place for him yet. And if he fails in the tryout, you’ve lost nothing but time.”
Mullen’s response offered us some hope. He asked several questions about my contract with Montreal and wondered how quickly I could get into playing shape. Richard assured him that I had been pitching regularly with a semipro team since my release. I could pitch that night if the Braves needed me.
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Lee and Richard Lally