January 13th, 2005

Calvinball

Don't Think, It Can Only Hurt the Ball Club.

Man that ball got outta here in a hurry. I mean anything travels that far oughta have a damn stewardess on it, don't you think? -- Crash Davis
You know, I wonder if Ron Shelton was thinking about Bill Lee when he devised the character of Nuke LaLoosh. The reason I bring it up is because I was watching a replay of the seventh game of the '75 World Series tonight. I hadn't seen actually seen the game, other than a highlight or two, since the original broadcast. All I really remembered of the game was the last inning, so it was interesting to watch it again so many years later. Bill Lee was the starter for the Sox in the game, and it dawned on me while watching that there was one other play in the game that was indelibly etched in my mind. Lee was a tall, gawky left-hander whose nickname was Spaceman. He was into oriental philosophy, ate health food, and read Kurt Vonnegut. In short, he was very different from most ball players. (I met and talked with him a few years back at a PawSox game. He has a unique perspective on things.)

He was a pretty good pitcher that year. His best pitch was a hard sinker that tailed away from right-handed hitters, which made him pretty successful despite being a lefty in Fenway. Lee was throwing a great game, mowing down the powerful Cincinnati lineup inning after inning. Martin mentioned during the game that the Reds' righthanded hitters kept trying to pull those sinkers over the Monster, but all they could do with them was hit weak grounders to second. He entered the top of the sixth inning with a 3-0 lead.

Lee got into a minor jam, and almost got out of it. Pete Rose was on first with one out when Johnny Bench hit a sharp grounder to short. Rose slid hard into second, causing Denny Doyle to throw the ball away. It was probably the key play of the game, because instead of ending the inning, Johnny Bench wound up on second with Tony Perez, the Reds' best RBI man, coming to the plate. Lee threw Perez a fastball for a strike, and then, in a Nuke-like moment, threw one of the dumbest pitches ever. Instead of throwing the sinker to try to induce a ground ball, he decided to get cute, and threw Perez his blooper pitch, a high, very slow curveball that just sort of drifted towards home. It had the arc of a slow pitch softball. Perez, disciplined hitter that he was, just waited until the thing was chest-high, right over the plate, and crushed it. It is probably still rolling around on the MassPike somewhere to this day. Two-run homer, and the Reds were on their way to their eventual win.

That at bat is the single thing I remember most about Lee as a player. The thing is, before tonight I'd completely spaced on what game it had happened in, even though I knew Perez had been the batter, and the only time Lee could've faced him with the Sox was in the Series. Even when I figured it out tonight, I was still doubtful, because I couldn't believe anyone would do something so stupid in a spot like that. And yet he did.

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There's an interesting note here about the tax status of signing bonuses which sheds some light on one reason signing bonuses have often been used so peculiarly in baseball contract negotiations. The gist of it is that up until this week, the Feds did not collect FICA and (more importantly) Medicare taxes on signing bonuses, which resulted in significant tax savings for players who took a lower salary and larger bonus. Agents. Is there any dodge they won't think of?