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Mike Lieberthal deserved a better era of Phillies baseball

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The former Phillies catcher kept it together while his body was falling apart.

Lieberthal gets set to hit Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images

They called him a god.

Not just once, or in passing. They chanted it at him from the stands until he came out to address the followers of Westlake High School baseball.

On April 4, 1990, 18-year-old Mike Lieberthal waved to his people. He’d just hit his third home run of the day, a fifth inning grand slam, after a three-run blast in the first and a solo shot in the second. He had three hits and eight RBI and the game was barely half over.

So when they chanted, “god, god, god,” from the bleachers, nobody called it blasphemy.(1)

“I wasn’t sure what they wanted,” Lieberthal told the Los Angeles Times.

His teammates helped him figure it out: They wanted a curtain call. They wanted a wave. And then, like always, they wanted more.

And Lieberthal gave it to them.

He smashed a two-run bomb in the sixth, finishing a five-hit day with four home runs. He’d hit every kind of home run there is in a single game. He’d hit for the home run cycle.

Lieberthal was hitting .556 by the end of the game, and swinging at a baseball that “looked like a melon” to him. You didn’t pitch to Mike Lieberthal. You just threw the ball and prayed.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Lieberthal’s coach, a typical reaction for a witness of a religious experience. “And I doubt I ever will again.”

Everybody wanted to see more of Lieberthal. His future major league career, indicated by the legion of scouts that followed him from game to game, would give everybody the chance to do so.

We did see a lot of Lieberthal in Philadelphia over the course of his 14 seasons here; but we never quite got enough of Lieberthal. Due to situations outside of his control, his success turned into stunted promise, and it wasn’t fair. Why did the Phillies get to draft a nationally celebrated catching stud with the third overall pick, watch him find his footing in the big leagues, become an all-star hitter and a Gold Glove defender, only to see him suffer a devastating injury that shortened his time as the player he’d been born to be?

Some gods would call that a divine mystery. In baseball, we just call it a shame.

***

It’s repeated every time a ball slips under a glove or a runner misses the plate or a writer is reaching for a cliche: This is a game of inches.

For Mike Lieberthal, there were seven of them.

As a teenager, Lieberthal was a middle infielder playing a lot of shortstop, with the height (5’ 2”) to live up to the position. His coaches liked his arm, but he lacked the jackrabbit instincts they wanted to see. Upon the discovery that he had some catching experience and carried a mitt in his bag, they installed him behind the plate, and there he lived for the next few decades, despite his father’s initial worries that he was too small to be a catcher (his grandfather only grew to be 5’ 4”).(2)

But Lieberthal ate his vegetables and two years later he shot up seven inches, removing that particular critique from his scouting reports. Playing in Orange County, CA for an Astros scout team, Lieberthal strapped on his gear as a cold spell settled on the area. Scouts sat in their cars sipping coffee as he homered twice off pitchers who had come from Double-A leagues the previous season. He was still in high school.

Before he was the Phillies manager, Terry Francona had seen Lieberthal in the Arizona Fall League in 1994, when Lieberthal had the height of a big league backstop but apparently still had some room to grow.

“Skinny,” Francona recalled in 1999, “and I mean skinny!” (3)

Lieberthal had put some meat on his bones by the time his invitation to the big leagues came in the form of Darren Daulton fouling two pitches off his clavicle. Lieberthal told his mother, who had to use extreme measures to get in touch with his father, who was working as a scout for the Tigers at a game in Santa Maria when two police officers approached him and told him to call home (A reporter from the L.A. Times asked him if this experience had been “frightening.” “... yeah,” Dennis replied).(4)

With a broken clavicle and a rush of panic, Lieberthal’s big league career began. He’d play on three 86-win teams from 1994-2006, often characterized by underperforming, slow starts, and hating each other. The best, or least-worst, team Lieberthal played on was the 2005 Phillies, who succeeded in breaking the 86-win curse of his previous squads. Of course, thanks to a series of “dizzying” losses early in the season, the Phillies’ postseason fate wound up in the hands of a Cubs-Astros game on the last day of the season. Having won their 88th game against the Nationals, Lieberthal and the Phillies awaited the outcome, needing a Cubs win to live on.

They didn’t get it. Lieberthal repeated the emotions of every exasperated Phillies fan from the last decade: “We really picked it up in the last month and a half—I just wish we would have picked it up earlier in the season.”(5)

Hidden behind other top catchers and buried in the NL East, it was hard at times for the league to see Lieberthal’s value, but not because it wasn’t there. When in search of all-stars at this time, Jason Kendall looked pretty good. Javy Lopez was in his prime.

“You know Mike Piazza, rightfully so, is going to be voted in by the fans,” Lieberthal said in early June of 1999, when asked about his chances of making his first all-star team.

Lieberthal made that all-star team—“...in the final summer of the 20th century,” Kevin Costner sleepily reminded us in the game’s sap-drenched introduction that came complete with a clip from Field of Dreams—though of course Piazza got the start. During his first plate appearance in the sixth inning, Joe Buck referred to Lieberthal as, “A little-known catcher, but maybe one of the best all-around catchers in the National League.”

As was typical, Lieberthal could not be praised without Piazza’s name being mentioned as well. Tim McCarver agreed with Buck before seamlessly drifting into the comment that Piazza was probably the best hitting catcher ever while Lieberthal was still in the middle of his at-bat (He grounded into an inning-ending double play).

Piazza would learn firsthand of Lieberthal’s value after the 2005 season, when as a 36-year-old free agent he was in touch with both the Padres and the Phillies about continuing his career. Charlie Manuel and Pat Gillick got lunch with him, saying they had interest, but they were clear about something: Lieberthal was their starting catcher, making $7.5 million.

“I didn’t understand every last thing about the machinations of baseball,” Piazza wrote in his autobiography, “but I understood that $7.5 million players don’t sit on the bench.”

Not long after, Piazza was a Padre.

The 1999 All-Star Game was the first of two consecutive appearances for Lieberthal among the league’s best. He deserved and received a Gold Glove in 2000 as well, but just as the league was getting used to him, baseball’s needless cruelty made itself known.

Around Mother’s Day in 2001, Lieberthal led off the top of the second inning with a single. Diamondbacks pitcher Brian Anderson whipped around and watched as Liberthal tried to move in two directions at once on his way back to first base and went down. The human body wasn’t meant for such actions, especially 29-year-old bodies that have spent the last 15 years in a squatting position. Lieberthal said he heard something pop and compared the feeling it to a meniscus he’d torn in 1996.

“But this felt worse,” he told the press. “It felt — loud.” (4) (AP, May 14, 2001)

That is not the descriptor you want for your MCL and ACL, so that was a season wrap on the Phillies catcher, a damaging event that manager Larry Bowa said would have been “twice as bad” if the team didn’t have that sexy prospect Johnny Estrada waiting to inherit the Phillies’ catching gig in the minors. The 25-year-old Estrada was hitting .290 at Triple-A and already had some hype around him. His ineffectiveness in the role for the Phillies is yet another indicator at the rarity of Lieberthal’s production.

In the years that followed, talent trickled in from the minors as high profile prospects like Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell entered the lineup, and one of the most pivotal acquisitions in Phillies history occurred in the signing of free agent Jim Thome. Lieberthal returned from his shortened 2001 season with three straight years of playing in at least 130 games, which for a catcher in his thirties was worthy of a trophy itself. He put up good numbers, but never made another all-star team, and the Phillies didn’t sniff the playoffs until he was gone for good.

***

It was October, and once again, the Phillies were gone. The team received its standard finger-wagging from the press, the players got their grades, the future was questioned, the apocalypse was foretold—all the standard pillars of Philadelphia sportswriting. But with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino at the top of the lineup, the next era was beginning to take shape.

With so much to discuss, Mike Lieberthal’s groin wasn’t deemed front page material.

“I definitely tore it,” he told reporters.

Marlins pitcher Scott Olsen had laid down a bunt in the fourth inning of the regular season finale, and Lieberthal had lurched in a way his groin hadn’t liked. When he tried to pop a squat, the 34-year-old catcher realized he couldn’t even spread his legs.

Charlie Manuel swapped in Chris Coste, and in the darkness of the stadium tunnel, his crotch in tatters, Mike Lieberthal’s Phillies career came to an end.

He gave the Dodgers a season in 2007 before he called it a career, and in 2008, the god of Westlake High School baseball joined the rest of the mortals on earth. The Phillies called him home, both parties agreed on a four-dollar price tag, and Lieberthal signed a one-day contract to finish his playing days with the team that had drafted him. On June 1, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch to thunderous applause.

You might think somebody like Lieberthal, who was considered too small to be a catcher, and proceeded to get plunked, sprained, kicked, and collided with all throughout his career in exchange for exactly no playoff appearances, would harbor resentment, especially since the team famously managed to break through to the postseason in the years just before (1993) and just after (2007) he’d been on the roster.

But he didn’t have to be. He may have been a merciless god on the field, but Lieberthal was a kind and rational deity. When the Phillies went to the World Series in 2008, Lieberthal wasn’t on the roster, but he was finally going to the postseason.

Are you going to the World Series?” Lieberthal asked his former teammate, Doug Glanville, in a text. “I am going to all the games!

Notes:

  1. “Lieberthal pounds four home runs in Westlake win,” Jeff Riley, The Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1990
  2. A Scout’s Report: My 70 Years in Baseball,by George Genovese, Dan Taylor
  3. “Why Mike Lieberthal should be on your all-star list,“ Don Bostrom, The Morning Call; June 6, 1999
  4. “Rookie catcher Lieberthal goes from box seats to Phillies box score,” Jeff Fletcher, The Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1994
  5. “Phillies finish strong, fall short of postseason,” Ryan Lawrence, The Daily Journal, October 3, 2005