A few hours before his game Thursday night in San Rafael, as groundskeepers readied the field, Bill "Spaceman" Lee eyed a shovel suspiciously.

"What's that for?" he asked. "To bury me?"

Hardly. Even at 65, one of baseball's all-time most colorful characters remains in full orbit. Spaceman, who delighted Boston Red Sox fans and irritated baseball's stuffed shirts for large parts of the 1970s, is still throwing change-ups — on the mound and off.

Lee signed a one-game contract with the San Rafael Pacifics of the independent North American League in what the team billed as his chance for him to break his record as the oldest pitcher to win a professional game. (Lee was 63 when he won a Can-Am League game in 2010).

Lee's night was a success, as he threw a complete game in a 9-4 Pacifics win against a team from Maui. He scattered eight hits and had no walks or strikeouts. He didn't allow a run until the fifth inning.

Lee did not take the Albert Field mound wearing a gas mask, a Daniel Boone cap or a beanie with a propeller — things he did at different times during a major league career that lasted from 1969-82.

The publicity stunt worked: The Pacifics sold out — about 1,200 seats. This is essentially a high school ballpark, as Lee knew first-hand. "I threw a no-hitter here in 1962, against Drake," the Terra Linda High grad said. "This is like a home game for me."


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It's had already been nostalgic week for Lee, who traveled to Boston on Monday to attend the funeral of former second baseman Johnny Pesky, a beloved member of the Red Sox family. Lee said that when his cab from Fenway Park pulled up curbside for services, he noticed a New York Yankees fan in the car behind him.

"So I flipped him off," Lee said.

Wait. At a funeral?

"Johnny would have wanted it that way," Lee explained.

Lee's burning loyalty to Boston shows that time can heal all wounds — or at least heal petty grievances. An All-Star in '73, the irascible left-hander clashed often with Red Sox power figures during his playing days — including a running feud with manager Don Zimmer, whom he once referred to as a "gerbil."

Always eager to tweak management, Lee was a counter-culture eccentric even by '70s standards. Once, as Sports Illustrated recounted, he called a conference on the mound — catcher, coach, third baseman, the whole cast—and informed them that his lips were chapped.

Oh, and he could pitch. Lee won 17 games each year from '73-75. His catcher, Carlton Fisk, later said that Lee was "was the best lefthander in the league" during that three-year stretch.

In those days, as now, Lee threw a baffling assortment of junkballs — an appropriate repertoire, given his personality type. Lee said a high school knee injury, combined with an already weird body type — "sway back, big ass," is how he put it — allowed him to put a natural sink on the ball.

Lee's only handicap Thursday was that both his sway back and ample backside were sore. He never stopped trying to stretch out, bending and twisting as he spoke. As the Pacifics gathered 'round to listen to Lee in the bullpen before the game, he offered this bit of gray-haired wisdom: "For you guys out looking for dates tonight, find a massage therapist."

Most of the time, Lee feels spry. He's been a fixture in the Vermont Senior Baseball League since 1988 and is eager to hurl junk for anybody who calls.

"I'm able to do this," Lee explained, "because I've never quit."

Mike Shapiro, the CEO and general manager of the fledgling Pacifics, said his original plan was to name his team the Spacemen, partly to honor Lee, partly because of nearby Lucasfilm Ltd. and partly, he said, "because Marin County is kind of spacey."

Though he settled on the more stately "Pacifics," Shapiro still wanted to honor Lee and recently decided the time was right to an extend an invite.

"I called him up and asked him and he said, 'Sure, how about Aug. 22 or 23?'" Shapiro said. "It was one of the easiest negotiations I've ever had."

Lee will be back again soon. He still owns a home in the area. He also partners with a Napa winemaker for a blend of California syrah, cabernet and petite sirah. It's called Spaceman Red.

"It's fantastic, a good blend," Lee said. "It's really drinkable and the price is right. So I hope it does well."

Here's guessing it ages well.