Savannah Bananas pitcher Bill Lee, the 75-year-old former major league All-Star, collapsed in the bullpen while warming up during a game Friday after suffering what a first responder on the scene called a “cardiac episode.”
Lee received medical attention, including from some fast-acting Thunderbolt firefighters, police officers and a paramedic in attendance near the right-field bullpen, and after several minutes on the ground was able to walk off the field with assistance. Lee was taken by ambulance to Memorial Health University Medical Center, where he was being treated late Friday night.
“I would say without immediate intervention, that person would not be alive right now,” said Town of Thunderbolt Administrator Bob Millie, also a firefighter who was in the right-field stands during the Banana Ball game against the Party Animals at Grayson Stadium.
“He had a cardiac episode that stopped his breathing. That only ends one way normally, but their direct involvement saved his life.”
Among the group at the ballpark for the Town of Thunderbolt’s employee appreciation night were Kris Fain, a Thunderbolt firefighter and EMT, and his wife Heather, a paramedic not affiliated with the town. They saw a player lying on the ground and people running towards him, but that kind of commotion in the context of a Bananas game could be misconstrued as entertainment.
“Originally we thought it was part of the show,” Heather Fain said. “Once we realized it wasn’t, we went down there to help.”
A sizeable contingent of first responders as well as Bananas officials, coaches and players soon surrounded Lee. Millie said Lee was given CPR and an AED (automated external defibrillator) was used.
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Closest to the incident was an Oklahoma City firefighter who happens to be one of Lee’s teammates in Savannah. Pitcher Mat Wolf went to the bullpen at the start of the fourth inning to catch for Lee, who was due to start pitching in the fifth.
“(Lee) threw a perfect changeup for a strike. I threw the ball back to him,” Wolf recalled after the game Friday. “He literally went down, just out of nowhere; right when he caught it, he went straight backwards.”
Wolf, also an EMT, said Lee wasn’t breathing at first and was non-responsive. He started waving at the dugout and calling for help.
“I was all shaken up. I’m not going to lie,” Wolf said. “That’s an experience I’ve never had. I’ve been in situations but I haven’t had Bill Lee right here, a good friend of mine. Very terrifying. I tried to remain as calm as I could. I knew I had to get someone over there as quickly as possible.”
Red Sox Hall of Fame pitcher
Lee had joined the Savannah Bananas Premier Team — a professional travel squad spun off the collegiate summer league franchise — for a series of home and road games last spring. He was back in town for two home games this weekend as the Banana Ball exhibition contests returned to the schedule.
Lee has considered himself a baseball player since his birth in Southern California. The left-hander played in the majors from 1969-1982, making a name for his steller play (including an All-Star nod with the Red Sox in 1973) and a nickname, “Spaceman,” for his unique spin on the world at large.
A member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame (94-68 record, 3.64 ERA with three consecutive 17-win seasons), Lee finished his career with the Montreal Expos. He exited in a dispute with the team after seven appearances in 1982.
He never pitched in the big leagues again, but he never stopped pitching, either, other than because of injury. For another 40 years, he has been the eternal pitcher.
“That guy loves the game more than anyone I’ve ever known,” Wolf said.
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“When he left Major League Baseball, he said, ‘If anyone calls me to pitch, I’m going to pitch. I’m going to keep playing the rest of my life,’ said Bananas owner Jesse Cole, a Massachusetts native and lifelong follower of the Red Sox.
“That’s what he said, and when he saw this (Bananas franchise), he saw the amount of fun we’re having, he said he wants to be a part of it. He’s going to find every way to be here.”
Bananas Premier Team head coach Eric Byrnes understands if there are “naysayers” questioning if Lee should be here, pitching at age 75. He described Lee’s collapse as “very scary” and was moved when his friend got back to his feet.
Indeed, the hushed crowd exploded in applause as Lee got up, as did the Premier Team and Party Animals players, who had huddled together in a prayer circle in the outfield.
But the naysayers don’t know Lee, said Byrnes, who spent 11 seasons in the big leagues.
“This is what Bill does,” Byrnes said Friday night. “Bill’s been doing this a really long time. He loves pitching. He’s addicted to baseball. He doesn’t just come here and show up. He’s constantly playing.”
Have baseball, will travel for Lee, based in the Burlington, Vermont area and a regular in adult leagues there. Byrnes said Lee recently pitched a whole game against high school players and got 45 outs in 51 minutes.
“He’s probably the biggest competitor on our team at the age of 75,” said Bananas pitcher Kyle Luigs, 24. “He doesn’t think that anybody should get on base when he’s pitching. It’s not like he’s just rolling out of bed and going out there to pitch. He’s prepared for it.”
Luigs could not have been prepared for the stoppage of play in the fourth inning of the game, shown on ESPN2 and streamed on ESPN+. He had started the game and was on the mound when Lee collapsed. Luigs called it “very, very emotional” and very tough to get back into the frame of mind to pitch when play resumed.
Luigs said he’s learned so much from Lee, as have his teammates, in the physical and mental aspects of the game.
“He’s probably the toughest person I’ve met in my life, even in his old age,” Luigs said. “I think it just puts things in perspective, that every day is not guaranteed. I feel like we get into this rhythm where everybody takes stuff for granted, especially the stuff we get to do out here.
“You don’t play the game for that long, as he has, and don’t have a burning passion and a desire for the game. I think he believes what we’re doing is good for the game. It’s very cool to think about it that way.”
They’re there when needed
The emergency on the field occurred about the same time as a female spectator in the grandstand needed attention for a health issue related to the heat, according to team officials and first responders.
“With everything going on, two instances, it’s kind of hard to get to everything,” said Andrew Bateman, chief of the Thunderbolt Fire Department. “I’m just glad we were here to be able to assist with both emergencies.”
Bateman and Millie named several of the first responders who assisted while off-duty: the Fains, firefighters Frank Koualczuk and Drew Davies, police chief Sean Clayton and Lt. Brandon Runyon.
“Every single one of the men and women here, off duy from Thunderbolt, did an excellent job,” said Millie, announcing that during the Thunderbolt town council meeting Sept. 14, those involved will be recognized with a life-saving award.
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at email@example.com. Twitter: @NathanDominitz