Southpaw pitcher Bill Lee climbs back on a mound of memories created during the Montreal Expos’ brief run at greatness from 1979 to 1981, when the storied team fell just one inning short of a trip to the World Series
By Rod Mickleburgh
Suddenly, baseball is fun again, at least if you’re a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. Although the Montreal Expos remain closest to my heart, I still root for the Jays. Those World Series years of 1992-93 were wonderful. (Devon White!) Of course, it’s been mighty lean pickings, since then. Now, finally, as they tussle with the hated Yankees for first place, Canada is back on the Jays’ bandwagon.
With this renewed whiff of baseball in the air, I offer a special Mickle treat for Canadian ball fans, especially those who remember the Expos from 1979, when they first drove for the pennant, and 1981, when they fell an inning short of the World Series, done in by Rick Monday’s cruel home run off Steve Rogers, a starting pitcher inextricably brought in to pitch the ninth by manager Jim Fanning.
Our guide is the one and only Spaceman, the irrepressible Bill Lee. I talked to him last spring. We focused on one particular game the team won against the Pirates late in 1979, thanks to a pinch-hit double by unknown John Tamargo. We also weighed in on Rick Monday’s mortal blow. According to the Spaceman, Fanning should have let him pitch, not Rogers.
Just back from Cuba, Lee was up in Courtenay, where he’d overseen a weekend baseball school for oldtimers, organized by his good friend, former IWA activist Sy Pederson. That’s pretty well how the 68-year old, one-of-a-kind, endearingly-off beat southpaw makes his living these days. He barnstorms. When he talks, there’s never a dull moment. So sit back and enjoy his his style of candid banter that remains unique in the world of baseball.
Bill: It’s been a rough winter (back east). I lost my voice, but I’m getting over it. It’s because I talk too much.
Me: We’ve had crazy warm weather. You’re a lucky man to be here.
Bill: Yeah, I am. It’s unbelievable how beautiful it is. And we played ball. We had a good time. I’m heading back to Sechelt tomorrow.
Me: Why don’t you stay around?
Bill: Well, I’ve gotta thing…I think it’s called work.
Me: Oh, that.
Bill: Yeah, it’s a weird thing people have to do every Monday through Friday, which I tend to do Friday through Sunday. I work weekends.
Me: You call baseball work?
Bill: Well, I do. Like today, I threw, and I taught a lot of these guys a lesson, about why they don’t quit their day jobs. They found out they couldn’t hit a 70-year old. Then the mayor here, the mayor of Comox, threw to me, and I hit some bullets. He had an Expos uniform on. I said: “You realize, I’ve never hit off an Expos pitcher before.”
Me: Now you know how Mike Schmidt felt.
Bill: Yeah, the first ball I hit went over the right fielder’s head up against the wall, next to his house. I said: “You better move farther back, or I’ll wear your house out.”
Me: Actually, you were a pretty good hitter, weren’t you?
Bill: Yep, and I’m a pretty good hitter right now, because the pitching around me is getting old.
Me: So, let’s talk about the 1979 Expos. There had been all those doubleheaders, but you went into Pittsburgh on top.
Bill: It was the rainiest season, and it cost us because of (Dan) Schatzeder’s performance in Atlanta, when we had a five-run lead in the fifth, and he couldn’t get the third out. That’s the game that killed (manager) Dick Williams. He remembers that game as the coup de grace, not the Pirate games.
Me: I’m thinking of a specific game. You went into Pittsburgh for that series in late September, half a game in front. It started with a twi-night double-header. The Expos got thumped in the first game and were losing 6-3 late in game two. It looked bad.
Bill: Oh, that’s the game (John) Tamargo got the big hit in the eighth inning. That was a great game. (Stan) Bahnsen had to pitch in both games, and (Ross) Grimsley came in in relief…
Me: Your memory is amazing.
Bill: I remember every time we battled back against Pittsburgh. But the game you should look up is that game where Schatzeder only went four and two-thirds. He complained his spikes were muddy, asked for a tongue depressor, couldn’t throw, walked the next guy, and the umpires got mad and called it a wash-out. We had to fly back to Atlanta to replay that game. If we get that out and win that game, then we’re tied with Pittsburgh, and don’t have to go back to Atlanta and play a doubleheader. Look it up. That game broke Dick Williams’ heart. I was sitting next to Dick. I was going to run out and grab the ball from Schatzeder and just say, “Lets go.” I wasn’t even going to warm up. “Give me the goddamned ball, and I’ll get the last out.” I was a great mudder. Schatzeder was a great athlete and a good hitter, but he was stupid that night.
Me: All those doubleheaders in a row were crazy.
Bill: The rain was really nasty. I remember I’d thrown the first three innings in a game, and there was a rain delay. I fell asleep under a table in the family area. Kids were dancing on top of me, jumping up and down. I was sleeping under the table, with my shoes sticking out, like the Wicked Witch of the West when the house fell on her. They wake me up, I go out there, do my running, 50,000 fans are cheering. I start doing long toss to (Gary) Carter. Every pitch, I get a cheer. I go out to the mound and they cheer me on. I pitch into the ninth inning. We win the ball game and they carry me off the field.
Me: Going back to that other game, who’d even heard of Tamargo?
Bill: I’ll tell you, Dick Williams was a genius. He had Tamargo. He had Jerry White, (Tom) Hutton. He always had three or four left-handed hitters. He had switch-hitters, too. Tamargo was a switch-hitter. White switch-hit. Hutton hit left-handed. Then he had (Dave) Cash who could hit right-handed. And he had Rodney Scott, also a switch-hitter. Then he had a complement of left-handed and right-handed relievers, so he could make moves other teams couldn’t. That’s what set Dick Williams apart.
Me: Yet you guys didn’t like him very much.
Bill: Oh, we hated him, but we respected him. Everybody liked (manager Jim) Fanning, but didn’t respect him. Well, a lot of us didn’t even like him….In ‘81, when (Rick) Monday hit the home run, it just broke my heart, because I had warmed up on my own and tapped my cap. Fanning went to the mound. He could have taken Rogers out. Instead he walked back with his hands in his pants, grabbing his nuts. He could have brought me into the game to face Rick Monday. Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Me: I said at the time it was a mistake to bring Rogers in.
Bill: We all knew that. He didn’t call out to the bullpen to get a lefthander to warm up. I warmed up on my own. People don’t remember this, but Ron Cey hit the first pitch from Rogers 400 feet down the left field line. It was foul by three inches. They had already lit him up. We knew it. I knew it. I was in the bullpen. I saw him warm up. I saw him labour. He couldn’t get loose.
Me: Well, he wasn’t a relief pitcher.
Bill: It took him forever to warm up, and he wasn’t ready.
Me: Let’s go back to 1979.
Bill: We were a team of comebacks, a team of long-haired, hippy freaks that no one wanted. I came to spring training with long hair and a beard. I was arrested. Did you know that? I was brought by police to the park and they wouldn’t let me in. It wasn’t until (Warren) Cromartie said: “No, no, that’s Bill Lee, the new pitcher we signed.” I had a back pack, army fatigues, cut-off shorts, coming to spring training, with long hair and a beard. I was going through a rough time. I was looking the way I felt. And Dick Williams gave me a shot.
Me: You had a great year.
Bill: I had a tremendous year. For a guy who had a bad arm, I went out and I dealt. That’s what I call it. Dealing. Dick Williams stuck with me. Here’s a great story you don’t know. The year before, I am 10 and 6. I lose four tough games and (Red Sox manager Don) Zimmer, The Gerbil, benches me for the rest of the season. I was 10 and 10. I go to Montreal, I’m 10 and 6. I lose four tough games. Williams comes to me and says, “Bill, I’m still committed to you. You’re going to be my starter for the second half of the season. Don’t get depressed.” This was at the all-star break. I went out and I won my last six games. That’s the difference between Don Zimmer and Dick Williams.
Me: It was amazing to put Tamargo, a .230 hitter, into that clutch situation.
Bill: He was a good pinch hitter. Williams knew talent. He knew guys with guts, guys who wanted to go to the plate, guys who didn’t want to go to the plate, guys who didn’t want the baseball. We had to win that game. We were battlin’. But all that energy and stuff didn’t help us the next two games. We just couldn’t beat the Pirates. The following year, Bahnsen gives up the home run to Schmidt, and we lose to the Phillies. And then Monday hits the home run, and we lose to the Dodgers.
Me: I’m laughing, but I’m really crying.
Bill: Well, you’re right. Those are the three things that stick in my craw.
Me: All those great young players. 1979 was the first year the Expos really gelled.
Bill: They had attitude. Dick Williams brought me in specifically, because he knew that I was a winner. A competitor. We were a contender for three years, and I believe I was responsible for some of that.
Me: The team won 17 out of 18 games down the stretch in 1979. Close again in 1980, and one bad pitch away in 1981.
Bill: Rogers was a great starter, a great competitor. He just didn’t like Dick Williams, which was too bad, because I think that was instrumental in Fanning coming in. The wrong person. After Fanning arrived, we’d lost three in a row, and Cromartie calls a team meeting, just players. He goes: “Anyone know where Dick Williams lives?” And I stand up, and I chew the whole team out. “You guys hated Dick Williams. You don’t know how good you had it. He was a pain in the ass, but at least he knew how to manage. Fanning can’t manage his way out of a paper bag. If you guys want to win this, you’ve got to do it yourself, and don’t put Fanning in a position to beat you.” Managers don’t win games, they lose games. Players win games. So I yelled at the team, and I told Cromartie to go sit down. I was the rebel guy who stood up and put everybody in their place.
Me: Did you like the guys on the team?
Bill: Oh yeah, I liked ‘em. As (John) Milner said, I was the only white guy allowed in the back of the bus.
Me: 1979 was so much fun. It was beyond expectations. They just got on a roll.
Bill: It was their first great year, and I feel very proud to be instrumental in that. My locker was over on the black side, between Rodney Scott, Andre Dawson, Cromartie and all the guys. All the rednecks, the white guys, were over there. We had an apartheid dressing room. Except for me. I insisted on taking my locker and sticking it right in the middle of the black guys.
Me: But didn’t the players get along, generally?
Bill: No, they didn’t. You had red necks. You had Andre, a nice guy, but he was so quiet he wouldn’t say shit if his mouth was full of it. Cromartie was the loudmouth. He was like a court jester. He would say stuff that nobody understood. Then I would get up and try and interpret what he said.
Me: What about Carter?
Bill: Carter was over there. Me, me, me, I. He was “the Kid”, just an excitable boy. He would sell a load of horseshit, if it fell off on the 401.
Me: And Tony Perez…
Bill: Great guy. Great clutch hitter. You had Rudy May, you had me. You had four lefthanders, four righthanders. Dick Williams knew how to manage. He finally had a team, and he had young guys. (Tim) Raines wasn’t on that team.
Me: Well, he came up at the end of the year, but he couldn’t hit. He was petrified.
Bill: You’re exactly right. He was over-awed. It happened to Mickey Mantle, too, when he first came up.
Me: How was Cuba, by the way?
Bill : I just got back. I was there when (Yoan) Moncada got signed by the Red Sox. I gave him my bats. I was there for the tryout. I’ve got four teams from Cuba in Halifax for the summer to play ball. I’ll be coaching up there. We want friendship first, competition second, between Cuba and Canada. Both great countries.
Me: And you tolerate Sy (Pederson)….
Bill: Sy and I are just a couple of union rabble-rousers. Workers of the world, unite! (Laughs heartily.)
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