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God, it's dark. I am sitting in the lotus position on the floor of the office of Montreal Expo president and general manager John McHale. There is not another soul around. It is early morning, the lights are out, and the room is as quiet as a crypt. That may seem spooky to some, but I find it rather relaxing.
I had been summoned to these executive chambers for an audience with McHale. I was presuming he was upset with me. Less than twenty-four hours earlier I had walked off the Expos in protest over the release of our second baseman, Rodney Scott. The walkout lasted four hours; I had gone back to the clubhouse before that afternoon's game was over. Upon returning, I was informed by manager Jim Fanning that I had been indefinitely suspended, was about to be fined, and had to see McHale the next day. I assumed that it would be then that the shit would really hit the fan.
I had stopped off in the clubhouse before going up to McHale's inner sanctum. The only player there was John Milner. Milner was a psychic. Had to be. He had spent most of his career with the Mets, Pirates, and Expos as a lefthand hitting outfielder--first baseman, playing against right-handers or sitting on the bench in a state of advanced readiness. Life as a platooned player breeds an ability to perceive events long before they actually happen. So, on the morning of May 9, 1982, as we both sat in that clubhouse, and he handed me a fried egg sandwich, I'm sure we both knew that he was giving me something more than just an early snack. He was giving the condemned man his final meal. I thanked him, ate it, and made my way to the door, pausing only to grab a bagel. Slobbering it with peanut butter and cream cheese, I thought to myself, What a time for us to run out of spareribs.
I went directly to McHale's office and, seeing no secretary around, decided to let myself in. I made myself comfortable on his floor and quickly reached a meditative state that was beyond transcendental. This wasn't the first time I had crossed swords with management; I was always matching wits with authority. Pondering over my past and present hassles, I began to wonder why my life had taken the direction it had. What cosmic forces had led me to this precise moment that saw me, once again, dancing on the rim of the volcano? The answers started to come to me as my life flashed before my eyes. I think it all started when I was arrested as a pyromaniac.
I was five years old.
It was a tree that got me into trouble. My grandfather owned a walnut ranch, and he had hundreds of beautiful walnut groves. I loved to sit and look at them. There were similar ranches all around his spread. One of them was cursed with this horrible-looking tree. It was gnarled, twisted, and diseased. I was only five, but even then I had an appreciation for the beauty of nature. I decided the best thing anybody could do for this poor wreck was to put it out of its misery. I grabbed a book of matches and held services for it. I always liked the idea of cremations. Very neat and clean. I had whipped up a pretty good pyre when suddenly the air was filled with the sound of sirens. Somebody had seen the smoke and sent in an alarm. When the fire engines arrived they were able to put out the flames in a couple of minutes. There really wasn't much damage: The tree was hardly marked. I didn't fare as well. A fire marshal collared me and hauled me off to the firehouse. My parents had to come and get me. I really caught it for that one. The tree enjoyed a perfect revenge because for the next two weeks my butt developed a severe inability to come in contact with wood. Or any other hard surfaces.
I really didn't get into much trouble when I was a kid. I spent my formative years in California, living first in the San Fernando Valley and then moving to Marin County when my father received a transfer from the telephone company. We had a real Leave It to Beaver sort of family. I was Wally and my younger brother, Paul, was the Beave. There was some sibling rivalry there. As a child he was much prettier than I was, so I took a scissors and cut off all his curly locks. Transformed him into a normal mortal and robbed him of his strange powers. I used to jump in whenever he was involved in a fight. Everyone would turn on me and start swinging. Paul would back off and start rooting for the other kids. I guess he really liked those curls.
Looking back, I suppose there were some omens that my destiny had already been laid out. When I was seven years old I had to go to First Holy Communion practice, and it really made me nuts. It was so boring! I mean, all you really had to be able to do was kneel down and open your mouth. How much practice does that take? We would do it every day for hours. I just couldn't take it. It had become the Catholic version of the Chinese water torture. One day I took my Roy Rogers handcuffs and locked myself to my bedpost. Those were really good cuffs--this was 1955, in the pre-Taiwan era of toys--and they had a key, which I had carefully hidden. It took my mother hours to get me unshackled. I spent the whole time watching television and missing out on Sister Merry Christmas's inspirational chidings. This was an immediate tip-off on how resourceful I could be. I was too small to overpower anybody, so I outsmarted them. It was the sort of thing that would later help me compensate for the lack of a good fastball.
The Lees were an athletic family. I grew to six feet three inches, getting my size from my mom. Dad was an average height but had amazing reflexes. He had played a lot of sandlot ball and fast-pitch softball. He was a teammate of Don Drysdale's father, Scotty. Don was their bat boy. They used to play their games in Canoga Park, which is situated right near the orange groves where Jack Nicholson almost got his ass blown off in Chinatown. I used to jog through there with my friends, and the farmers would fire rock salt at us. I never got hit. Even as a kid I had good lateral movement.
My grandfather William F. Lee, Sr., was one of the top infielders in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. He used to get fifty dollars a game to play. That was a lot of money back then, and he didn't have an agent. The Lees always did their own negotiating. Still do. He probably could have been in the majors, but he had a family to support and he knew that there was neither money nor security in playing baseball, so he pursued it only on weekends.
He must have been a real scrapper. Grandfather used to cut the leather out of the center of his glove and just leave his bare palm, in order to make the double play quicker. He said modern ballplayers were pussies because they wore those big gloves; he claimed it robbed them of their manual dexterity. The Japanese have gone back to the small glove, knowing my grandfather was right. They're not afraid to combine modern technology with age-old traditions. That's why we're all driving Toyotas.
When my grandfather played gloves were scarce. When you came off the field you usually left your mitt at your position, allowing a member of the opposing team to use it. The other side's shortstop would come out and have to wear this little glove with the middle cut out of it. He could not handle it. He would end up making a lot of errors with the same glove my grandfather was using to turn all those double plays. Bill, Sr., wasn't unaware of the advantage this gave him. In telling me about it, he always made sure that I understood the very valuable baseball lesson he was trying to teach me: Always look for an edge.
My brother, Paul, was a better athlete than I, very quick, but he severed his Achilles tendon while playing football against West Texas State and separated his shoulder in another ball game. Paul got carried off the football field so often that by the time the baseball season started, he looked like a pile of raw hamburger. These and other injuries he received on the playing field forced him to look away from sports as an occupational avenue.
The best athlete in the family--and I mean the best baseball player in the family, including me--was my Aunt Annabelle Lee. She was called Lefty and was one of the biggest influences on my life. She threw harder than I did, even when I was in high school, and could really bring it. My aunt pitched the first perfect game in the history of the Women's Semi-Pro Hardball League in Chicago and had a lifetime ERA of 1.17. That was her idea of the Equal Rights Amendment. Any man who did not consider her an equal could try hitting against her. Annabelle was a Pete Rose--type player, sliding head first and playing with a burning intensity. She wouldn't give an inch on the field to anyone, man or woman. I like to think I got my competitive nature from her.
When I was eight years old, my brother and I were playing near the highway close to home when a bum came over and tried to grab him. He wrestled free, and we jumped over a fence into some orange groves and started pelting the bum with oranges. I nailed him in a vulnerable spot. Right in the flask, breaking it into a hundred pieces. That's when I knew I was born to be a pitcher.
I got my first taste of organized ball in Little League. My father was the coach. He really hadn't encouraged me to become a ballplayer. He felt that a person had the right to develop his own interests without the bias of parental supervision influencing his choice. This somewhat modern approach to parenting caused him to wait until my mother was three months' pregnant with me before he bought me my first fielder's glove.
Actually, both of my parents encouraged my brother and me to pursue whatever interests we had. They were great. My father was an excellent coach, very good at imparting baseball fundamentals. He used to crowd the entire team into a '50 Chevy and drive us out to the park for practice. That's a great way of learning the team concept. You really get to know your teammates when you're crammed into a car with about a dozen of them.
My father taught us all to hustle, and he made his pitchers throw strikes. He hated walks. We lost two games in four years and went one two-year stretch without a loss. There was a lot of talent in that league. Tim Foli was on one of the teams. He was feisty and temperamental, and always seemed ready to mix it up with someone. He was a good player, but his father would at times chastise him in front of the other kids when he did poorly. I thought those chewing-out sessions would turn him into a wreck. When he finally made it to the majors he had earned the nickname Crazy Horse. He hadn't changed. Later on he got religion and mellowed out, trading his boxing gloves for a Bible.
Al Gallagher was another guy who played in that league and made it to the majors. Even back then he was known as Dirty Al. He reminded me of the character Pigpen from the Peanuts comic strip. You could be at a black-tie banquet, and Al would show up looking like he just stepped down from a tree. He was a real challenge to interview. I saw him give a live radio interview during halftime of a Santa Clara basketball game. The announcer gave him a tremendous introduction and commended him for having a good season. Al thanked him, saying, "Yes, I did have a good year. I really hit the shit out of the ball." The radio guy nearly swallowed his microphone.
My father was an extreme conservative. Still is. He believes FDR gave everything away and caused all the economic problems we are having now. He's a Republican and a devout Catholic. I view that as a contradiction in terms. It was my religious beliefs that caused me to take a liberal stance on issues. I believe in the corporal acts of mercy, in giving to people who don't have anything. If you take care of those around you, you end up taking care of yourself, because you establish a good pattern of karma.
It was my maternal grandfather's love for the environment that helped shape my concern for the earth's well-being. Grandfather was an ecologist of sorts and was very intense about it. He used to run litterers off the road with his car. He also felt motorboats were polluting the lake near his home, so he used to sit on the shore and root for the water skiers to crash into each other. I had a lot of conversations with him, and he taught me a great deal about life, passing down the things he had learned from my great-grandfather Rockwell Dennis Hunt. Great-grandfather was a historian and dean of the USC graduate school for thirty-five years. His intelligence was awesome, but he did, to some degree, inhibit my learning experiences as a child. He used to sit me on his knee and tell me how he would hunt swans on the Sacramento River in the 1880s. That was his favorite story, and after the tenth retelling, it started to get to me. Pretty soon, every time someone picked me up and put me on his knee, I automatically figured, uh-oh, here comes the swan story, so I would wink out and not hear a word they said. This probably closed off a whole avenue of education for me.
My father always told me, "Ask a lot of questions or you'll never learn anything." But I was unusually quiet in grammar school and throughout most of high school. I never had any girl friends back then. Two missing front teeth were part of the reason. They made me shy and embarrassed; I developed the habit of talking with my hand in front of my face. I was honestly afraid of girls and couldn't play any of their games. They wanted to go to movies and dances. I just wanted to run around trees. Making out just didn't seem to be a very productive way to spend time. I made up for that later. Actually, that shyness was probably a good thing. If I had gotten my sexual aggression out earlier, I never would have made it as a ballplayer. I would have fallen by the wayside and had three kids of my own by the age of seventeen.
From the Trade Paperback edition.