Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Spaceman Opens Cuba

BOULDER, Colorado -- I recently watched the film Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey, about the life and career of Bill "Spaceman" Lee, one the greatest left-handers ever to pitch for the Red Sox. The film is mostly about Lee long after he was blackballed and driven out of baseball for his outspoken opinions in 1983. Lee never stopped playing, and at the age of 62, he still travels the world looking for places to pitch. The film follows Lee on a barnstorming trip to one of his favorite places, Cuba.

"Goddammit, I love Cuba," Lee says. "They play baseball for all the right reasons. They play it because they love it." One of the most long-overdue changes in American policy that Barack Obama has promised is the lifting the punitive and useless embargo on Cuba. If it ever does happen, we should thank people like Bill Lee for maintaining strong relationships with the people of the island and showing them that we both share a deep and important love, that of baseball.

Being a graduate student, I have the luxury of being able to drive around the country for several weeks every summer. I visit friends, see various roadside attractions, fish, eat lots of catfish and ribs, but mostly I go to baseball games and listen to them on the radio. Between May and September, wherever you are in America, at nearly any time of day, you can find a ballgame on the radio. Major League, Single-A, rookie ball, college ball, American Legion, high school - I listen to all of it, and I love visiting ballparks big and small.

Lee is one of the last barnstormers, and in the film he talks about his hero, Satchel Paige, who pitched more than 2,000 games in his career. "I won't win as many games as him, but I will have pitches as many games as him." It's a damn shame that the dedicated fans in these small towns don't get a chance to see the big league stars in their backyards anymore. Lee plays the game because he loves it. He loved pitching for the Red Sox, and fans will always remember him for his abject and unbridled hatred of the Yankees. Players feel little allegiance to city or team these days, but Lee never, ever would have done what Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs or Johnny Damon did and foresake the Sox for a few extra bucks in the Bronx. Even if he hated Sox management and he hated his coaches, he loved his team and his adopted city, and we loved him back.

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