Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Stoned & Blackballed (Jere Reviews the new Bill Lee Movie)

I love how Bill Lee just happens to be in the news as I'm reviewing the new documentary about him, "High & Outside." (Judging by the links Joy of Sox posted Tuesday, I guess the national sites finally discovered what I wrote about here four days ago. I love it when I beat those guys to the punch!) Here we go:

"It wasn't the catch, it was the pitch," quips Bill Lee in "High & Outside." This after telling an audience about a behind-the-back play he made on the mound, which an opponent had called the greatest play he'd ever seen--especially considering Bill had called it ahead of time. Like everything that comes out of Bill's mouth, it was the perfect line, and a left-handed metaphor for life: It's not the destination, it's the journey...even if you juggle knives at the end. The Spaceman had already gotten his man by the time the crowd was marveling at his theatrics.

High & Outside is a thorough and entertaining look at the baseball life of Bill Lee. It's packed with great old photos, clippings, and footage. Bill talks to you from various settings--the woods, a bar, a boat, his car--and they even let him into Fenway to tell a few stories from there.

Lee is also there for many of the interviews with others, giving the project a "This is Your Life" feel. His late aunt, Annabelle Lee, whose uniform hangs in Cooperstown, and his late college coach, Rod Dedeaux, come back to life for this one. We also hear from Bill's old mates and various reporters and fans. I especially liked hearing both Dewey Evans and Yaz (and Bill himself) note how Lee was the ultimate competitor, a fact that I'm sure is lost on people who are only mildly familiar with the Spaceman. One only needs to see him traveling the world on gimpy knees today to know he loves the game.

But before the film takes us to his 21st-century barnstorming, we're taken through the Red Sox and Expos days. They've got television footage from his first game in '69. Ned Martin's call with a mention of his color man, "John" (Johnny Pesky), is heard, and then Bill takes us through his amazing first inning in the bigs while we watch it unfold.

The '75 World Series portion focuses on Bill's parts, and really gets into the heartbreak of that seventh game. The sixth game is always talked about the most, as it should be, but it's usually followed by, "then we lost game seven." This movie takes you inside game seven--complete with the classic narration of Joe Garagiola from the old "Super Series" highlight reel I remember seeing at 2 AM on ESPN as a kid. Bill says if he'd won that game, we'd currently have world peace.

Then we go through the famous fight with the Yanks, the Buffalo Heads, the '78 season, and getting traded for Stan Papi. In Montreal, it was the pot pancakes, the big beard, and protesting the trade of Rodney "Cool Breeze" Scott, leading to the blackballing of Bill. All this is interspersed with some of my favorite Bill Lee stories. The casual Lee observer will be given a history lesson, while Bill buffs like myself will be all too happy to hear these versions of classic tales.

The issue of free agency is touched on, with Marvin Miller providing some commentary. We see Bill come full circle, going from player rep to thinking free agents are too free.

One person I'd never heard speak publicly on Bill Lee was his ex-wife, Mary Lou McCoy. She gives her side--almost in a "okay, I'll talk about my past, but just this once" kind of way." She doesn't seem to happy with the later days of their marriage, but does seem to have fond memories of the early days. We also hear briefly from Bill's two sons.

While the great "Space Odyssey" documentary spends most of its time on Bill's trip to Cuba, "High & Outside" is a more complete timeline of Lee's journey. By the end we're seeing Bill in Canada playing with a bunch of older guys, still wowing the crowd and playing with the passion he'll never lose. His fiance, Diana Donahoe, points out that she's never seen anyone so obsessed--with anything. "He's like a little boy trapped in a man," she adds, "and he always will be, and why would you want to disturb that? It's perfect."

Producer Jim Brown and director Pete Vogt do a great job telling the Bill Lee story, one of the most interesting in both baseball and pop culture history. (Vogt is no lamestain, having co-produced the Seattle music scene documentary "hype!" As a Nirvana-type music fan in the 90s--I've been using Kurt Cobain's birthday as my e-mail address ever since...I've had e-mail--I was psyched to see someone involved with that film directing this one.)

I mentioned Bill was in the news--he was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame this past weekend. In a scene in "High & Outside" filmed before the current Red Sox ownership made the correct call to Embrace the Space, Lee says the only way he'd get into the team's Hall of Fame would be posthumously: "When I go in I wanna be face down so they can kiss my ass." I'm glad he was wrong. Though some people still owe him a smooch.


"High & Outside" may be coming to a town near you. Watch these sites for updates on the schedule and for the eventual DVD release news. Photo courtesy Baseball Reliquary.

In trying to get everything in, I somehow left out the scenes of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest shown throughout. Nice touch.

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