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Still Orbiting After All These Years
Film Review by Ted Leavengood

Brett Rapkin and Josh Dixon. Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey. New York: Rapdaddy Productions, 2006, 70 min., $19.98, DVD.


Bill Lee, the Spaceman, is in the first row of the state-of-the-art theatre with his "paramour" and his daughter. The women face politely forward, but Lee himself is perched with his knees on the seat and his long and still muscular arms atop the seat back as he jokes with the people in the second row like a school boy at a Saturday morning matinee. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt that says "California" across the front, he looks as tanned and healthy as a veteran surfer. Lee is still all smiles as he banters with the film's producers and fans. But as the lights dim and the projector rolls, it becomes richly apparent that he has been, is, and will always be about baseball—"that ball of string and cowhide" as Lee describes it, and what he grips in his large left hand throughout the movie.

The documentary film, Spaceman, A Baseball Odyssey, is a tribute to Bill Lee, the ballplayer and iconoclast. As he stands in the lobby before the film, Lee is warming up that old left arm by tossing an imaginary pitch and suddenly clutching his shoulder, as if Graig Nettles has just thrown him to the ground. He is nothing if not the same youthful and exuberant kid that he's always been, but he cannot keep from quoting Buckminster Fuller and Jim Bouton like a grad student caught in some late-night coffeehouse rant. He cannot quit slamming the powers that be and the conventional wisdom, but that is why he is here, why the crowd of 250 movie goers pay the price of admission to see the "old lefthander" at the American Film Institute's documentary film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The film contains great archival footage from Lee's career, including the infamous brawl between the Yankees and Red Sox that set Carlton Fisk and Lee in a tag team match against the Yankees bench. Lee can be seen in the movie doing a post-game interview while displaying the shiner that Nettles had given him. Lee is still smiling at the camera even though his shoulder has been badly separated in the brawl, and the older Lee admits in the film that he was never again the same pitcher. But he opines that getting up, dusting oneself off, and carrying on is as important a part of life as is anything else. Lee has certainly done his share of this in life, much of which is captured in the film.

Lee divided his career between the Red Sox and Expos, winning 119 games in fourteen seasons. He was a valuable member of Boston's 1975 American League pennant-winning club, and the film includes priceless interviews with teammates from the '75 Sox, as well as remembrances from the Red Sox faithful and longtime Boston sportswriters. The film does not pull any punches, however, so Lee must sit through footage of the home run he gave up to Tony Perez in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series when championship glory was just a whisker away. There are also other painful moments on display from a career that ended in 1982 after he walked out of the Montreal clubhouse in protest of Rodney Scott being gracelessly demoted to the minors.

The film is the work of Brett Rapkin and Josh Dixon, both of whom, like Lee, hail from Southern California. (Lee was an L.A. wunderkind, coming out of USC in 1968 as a twenty-second round draft choice who miraculously was pitching in the big leagues for Boston the very next year.) Dixon is more the baseball fan than Rapkin—the film's origins can be traced to Dixon's infatuation with Lee's appearance in the Ken Burns documentary, Baseball. Dixon contacted Lee shortly after seeing that film in 2002 and found him preparing for a barnstorming tour of Cuba. The idea for the film blossomed from that first discussion.

Spaceman, A Baseball Odyssey is about much more than just Bill Lee's professional baseball career. Though blackballed by the baseball establishment—an allegation substantiated by Dick Williams during the film—the movie documents Lee's relentless pursuit of another chance to play somewhere, anywhere. After 1983, he continued to play in senior leagues and as part of barnstorming tours in places as varied as Russia and China. The tour of Cuba is just another day in the life of the man that Lee, the ballplayer, became after leaving the majors.

The film shows Lee lost in the wilds of Cuba—walking with his paramour through cow pastures on his way to the playing fields in the town of Linares. It is the filmmaker's metaphor for how far Lee will go for a game, how much love he has for the playing of it. Lee opines repeatedly about the people of Cuba and their love of both the game and a lifestyle devoid of the trappings of modern materialism. It is the recurring theme of the film—playing the game for the love of it, not for the money. Lee stretches the point into a broader indictment of American culture in general. In Cuba, baseball is clearly an art form, a cultural icon of importance hard to imagine in a United States where the national pastime has fallen in the esteem of high testosterone sports fans that need more visceral stimulation.

There are those who would no doubt point to the many Cubans who have fled the island for the lure of American wealth as evidence to the contrary, but the World Baseball Classic this past spring offers a glimpse into Cuba's love affair with the game. Lee's film—with Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club playing in the background—gives depth to those emotions. There are rare glimpses of the zest with which Cubans play the game on shabby fields as well as the zeal of the fans in bandbox stadiums that come out to watch the Americans. Taken together, the Cuban footage provides some insight into why the Cuban team walked away with the World Cup and left the USA team of millionaire businessmen watching in the shadows. The Cubans begin the game as children in the streets and never let it go. Even as old men they play it until they die.

Like all good movies involving tragedy, Spaceman succeeds because it brings to the surface the undertow of human frailty, foolishness, and lumps and bruises that have been a part of Bill Lee's life—notwithstanding his grinning face that so often fills the screen. One cannot watch the final frames of a modern day Lee swimming in the tidal pools off the coast of Cuba without a tug of regret. There is a sense of loss not just for those years of his career but of what has been lost when we measure where we are as a nation against the ideals that once infected our generation—a generation of which Bill Lee is so much a part.

Stripping away the existential and Eastern philosophy, Lee is yet another person stuck outside looking in and not exactly liking what he sees. To some degree he seems lost in time, paying homage to ideas that most of us have abandoned. Lee hews not just to the same social ideals of the sixties but to a way of playing baseball that he believes is missing except in out of the way places like Cuba. It is baseball not so much of the sixties and seventies as it is baseball as a timeless ideal. Baseball as life lived for a set of existential values immutable in the face of one's personal travails.

In the end, Bill Lee's story always comes back to the humor and erudition he lent to his era. He was always a thorn in the side of a baseball establishment that had no patience for the irreverent way he approached life, and his current criticism of American culture and baseball is effective because he sprinkles it with that same sense of humor. Lee never takes himself too seriously except as a baseball player, something he has never stopped being. His greatest value, his greatest talent, is the competitive spirit so often on display in the movie. That he is still playing the game as he approaches sixty is amazing enough, but so is the energy and spirit he continues to display on the diamond.

Spaceman, a Baseball Odyssey is an unapologetic tribute to Bill Lee's baseball life. Understandably, some may criticize the film for not taking a deeper look into the shortcomings of his personal life, including a divorce and allegations that he was a poor father and husband. But what the filmmakers chose as their focus was Lee the public figure, Lee the zany and irreverent ballplayer who has made a good place for himself in this life, whether in Vermont, Cuba, or anywhere else around the globe. Like Bill Lee, the film may not be perfect, but it offers a window into the life of one of baseball's most unique cultural icons, a view that we might not otherwise have. Go see it.


Editor's note: Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey may be ordered online at www.spacemanincuba.com

TED LEAVENGOOD is an urban planner employed by the federal government in Washington, D.C. He grew up in Savannah, Georgia, but now lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife Donna and their daughters, Julia and Claire. His book on baseball's return to the nation's capital, The 2005 Washington Nationals, will be published by McFarland later this year.

© 2006 Ted Leavengood


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