On Friday, I woke up in Atlantic City with Philadelphia’s favorite rental pitcher still firmly entrenched in Seattle stuck on the underachieving Mariners. When I walked in my front door in Philadelphia a few hours later, Buster Olney was on ESPN telling all the world that Clifton Phifer Lee was about to become a New York Yankee.
I pondered the thought, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia reunited again, the Yankees sure to sew up another World Series with those two Cy Young winners manning the front of a rotation that includes Andy Pettitte pitching perhaps the best he has in a decade, not to mention the likes of A.J. Burnett and Philip Hughes. It made me sick to my stomach, Lee going to the team he dominated in the World Series, even though his team could not prevail. It just didn’t seem right, but it was still better than seeing him go to that other New York team. I’d have to gouge my eyes out seeing the greatest man who ever lived in a Mets uniform.
I decided after relaxing a little bit to take a run and clear my head. When I returned, Cliff Lee wasn’t Yankee … or a Mariner. No, he was a Texas Ranger. Minutes later, this site’s very own Kenny, aka SoulOnIce, sent me a text:
I’m thrilled we got Clifford Lee.
He asked me what he should know about the man besides the simple fact that he’s been incredible this year, and the last three years for that matter: 2008 AL Cy Young, 2009 utter dominance for the Phillies, the best ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio in the AL so far in 2010. Well, to be honest, the biggest honor I can give the guy is this: Cliff Lee is my favorite Philadelphia Phillie of my lifetime. That’s ever, and he was only a Phillie for three months. He’s ahead of any of my five favorite Phillies before him, ahead of Dykstra and Schilling and Victorino and Morandini. Ahead of everyone. In just three short months, Cliff Lee won me over, a notoriously tough guy to please from Philadelphia.
From day one, the man with two first names had me proclaiming him the greatest man who ever lived and my favorite player on the team. It took exactly one start for that to happen. By his second start, I was begging him to never LEEve, and I don’t know who was more pissed when Ruben Amaro stupidly shipped him off to Seattle, him or me. Once we hit September, I couldn’t stop saying his name.
He had me, the city, hell, even his teammates mesmerized, left watching in awe. The way he went out there and threw strike after strike after strike. The pinpoint control. The rapid pace at which he worked. The incredible rhythm. Shit, he was even hitting the baseball despite spending his entire career in the American League. There was nothing not to like about Cliff Lee, unless of course you were a batter with the unfortunate task of having to face him. He could do no wrong. Cliff Lee was the best pitcher baseball for those three months. Better than CC. Better than Lincecum. Hell, even better than current Phillies ace Roy Halladay.
And that was all before the playoffs. It would be reasonable and probably smart to expect Lee to fall off a little bit come playoff time. He would no longer be facing bad teams like the Nationals, and his teammates would be facing the opposition’s best pitcher each time he took the mound. Considering Cliff Lee had never pitched a single inning of playoff baseball prior to becoming a Phillie, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him struggle a bit, have the nerves get to him. But instead of choking or freezing or struggling, Cliff Lee went out to the mound, took the ball and somehow pitched even better than he had during the regular season.
In his first career playoff start, Lee went the distance, surrendering just one run on six hits while striking out five in a 5-1 win against the Rockies. Oh yeah, he also went 1-for-2 at the plate with a steal and a sacrifice bunt. I’d say he was ready for playoff baseball. And who knows, maybe he taught Ubaldo Jimenez a thing or two in the process. Just to drive the point home, he beat Jimenez a second time to send the Phils back to the NLCS for a rematch with the Dodgers.
Once there, all he did was shut down the Dodgers and big, bad Manny, with me in attendance no less, going eight innings, surrendering just three hits, no walks and striking out ten, also getting a hit himself and scoring a run as the Phils cruised. As my buddy The Charles put it, Lee was a surgeon out there, carving the corners and painting pitches that no batter alive can do much with.
With that, the Phillies went on to close out the Dodgers, including one hell of a finish in Game Four, getting ready for the big, bad Yankees. Sure, Lee was dominate against the National League, but how was he supposed to fare against the best team money could buy in their own stadium, a stadium that had proven itself incredibly hitter-friendly in its inaugural season?
Well, Lee answered that questions emphatically, utterly embarrassing the Yankees, nonchalantly catching a pop-up at his waist without moving or looking, stabbing a come-backer behind his back, and stifling the most potent lineup in the sport. He went the distance yet again, gave up just one unearned run, struck out 10 while surrendering just six hits. And afterward, when asked about his nonchalant catch and remarkable behind-the-back, backhanded stab, and asked if he was nervous, Lee simply said, “No. Why would I be nervous? I’ve been preparing for this my entire life.”
Ladies and gentlemen, this is why he’s the greatest man who ever lived. This is why Cliff Lee is beloved here in Philadelphia even after spending just three entirely too short months in a Phillies uniform, why we just can’t let go, why Phils fans still ask why he had to be dealt, why he is revered in Cleveland, why Seattle gave up so much for him, and why Texas now was eager to add him.
He shut down the Yankees. And everyone else. And he did it all in an effortless, quiet-assassin-like way. He doesn’t call attention to himself, doesn’t act flashy or cocky or arrogant. He just goes out every fifth day, confident in his ability, and embarrasses major league hitter after major league hitter, gives his teammates all the credit, thanks the fans, does his job and goes home. And he does it as good as anyone.
Kenny asked me what else he should know about Cliff Lee, and really it’s quite simple. The Texas Rangers just got themselves one of the best pitchers in baseball, one of the best teammates in sports and a player that at least one city will never get over seeing get shipped off. Enjoy him while you can, Texas, because watching Cliff Lee every five days is more than honor – it’s art, it’s beauty, and it’s something you’ll always remember for the rest of your lives.
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