Part of the problem with Major League Baseball today, aside from steroids, lack of competition, payroll disparities and the Yankees is that because of the high salaries players are no longer players, they are tiny corporations. Alex Rodriguez is a prime example of this. He’s so vanilla because he won’t ever jeopardize his fiefdom of marketability. Gone are the good ole days of Dock Ellis pitching a no-hitter on LSD, Ty Cobb sliding high into second base, the personalities, anecdotes and legends which outlived the game itself.
Bill “Spaceman” Lee, a southpaw for the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos was one of those personalities. Statistically, he was a better than average pitcher. As baseball writer, okay let’s be honest, incomparable baseball deity Peter Gammons said in the film, “you don’t win 17 games in three straight seasons by accident.”
But it wasn’t his skill on the diamond that makes him a compelling subject for a documentary, it’s his out sized comedic personality, being black-balled from baseball, his non-sequitors, it’s his showmanship. High and Outside (2006 EEphusfilms), directed by Peter J. Vogt explores this. Though this is being hailed as a documentary, it’s more like a sun-kissed portrait (or a puff piece for you negative folks) to the baseball oddball.
High and Outside does do a nice job of tracing Lee’s career from USC to Boston to Montreal and after being blackballed by MLB (he was a union player rep at a time before free agency and those players were traded more often by clubs. Lee’s outspoken-ness, marijuane use and rebellious spirit are reasons given for being blackballed) he continues to play baseball in senior men’s leagues.
With that said, much of the negative is curiosly glanced over. There are no interviews with Don Zimmer, the Red Sox manager he fueded with, the dissolution of his first marriage is merely mentioned, etc. etc. Clearly, the filmmakers had something else on their mind than a fair and balanced documentary.
When the movie soars, it did so by broadening its scope using Lee as a lens to look at social issues in both baseball and the country in a period of great uncertainty. In this sense Bill Lee is a perfect conduit to examine these issues, since baseball was not the primary concern in his life. He loved reading and thinking about ideas, once can imagine in another universe Bill Lee as a college professor. It just so happened that he was really good at throwing a baseball.
In a Q&A after the film, director Peter J. Vogt was asked if he ever saw another side to Bill Lee, specifically the painfully shy child hinted at. Vogt said, “We kept trying to dig and poke to find another character, but we couldn’t. I think it’s a defense mechanism that has become his art. He has so much energy, it’s complicated.”
In most documentaries this would be a major hindrance, but here Lee’s gregarious personae makes the movie. His numerous one liners alone are worth the admission ticket. Even with the best Hollywood screenwriter you couldn’t replicate them. Bill Lee drops non-sequitor one liners like he dropped his famous eephous pitch.
By the film’s conclusion it matters little that we get to understand who Bill Lee is as a person, the motivations behind the exterior character, because you feel so much happier having spent two hours with him. Plus, you learn a little bit about Red Sox history, the counterculture and baseball as well.
Because of this, I think Red Sox fans may find this movie more enjoyable than most, however the audience I screened the film with seemed to laugh and enjoy everything Bill Lee said. He’s a natural storyteller and the director was wise to stay out of the way and let Bill Lee do his thing. In this sense, High and Outside is one of the more enjoyable movies I’ve seen all year. There’s no doubt that has to do to with Bill Lee’s personality, a goofy child housed in a 61-year-old body.