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All the pretty pitches: reflections on an ace named Cliff Lee

A look back at a pitching giant turned recluse

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Perhaps it’s memberberries chirping, or nostalgia for days when the Phillies’ starting rotation sported enough aces to be accused of cheating in a hand of poker, but as summer approaches, my thoughts are drawn to a wondrous June twelve years ago and a pitcher who will likely never receive a gold plaque on a wall in Cooperstown no matter how much I feel he deserves to.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to plead my case why Cliff Lee has earned a place alongside Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, and Roy ‘Doc’ Halladay on the Phillies Wall of Fame.

In June of 2011, Cliff Lee started five games. His first game came on June 6th against the Dodgers. Lee went seven innings, struck out ten, and allowed seven hits but not a single run. Next he faced the Cubs, a game in which he gave up a single run over eight complete innings. It would be the only run he surrendered in the entire month of June. He went on to take the mound against the Marlins, the Cardinals, and the Red Sox, and in each game he threw a complete nine innings and shutout each of opponent. By the time June came to an end, his ERA was 0.21

Three starts in a row. Nine innings. Complete games. Zero runs. And that was just June. That year Lee pitched three other complete games in which the opposing team didn’t score a single run.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Miles Kennedy/Philadelphia Phillies/Getty Images

In August, he posted a 0.45 ERA. September, 1.42. He wrapped up the 2011 season with an ERA of 2.40, with 238 strikeouts over 232.2 innings.

Lee’s accomplishments were more than a single remarkable month or spectacular season.

When looking at Phillies with the most strikeouts between walks, Cliff Lee appears in the top 8 five times. In 2008, he won the AL Cy Young (Roy Halladay came in second in voting), and finished in the top ten in Cy Young votes four more times throughout his career. Twice with the Phillies - in 2011 and 2013 - hit strikeout rate exceeded 25 percent while his walk rate remained below five percent (4.6% and 3.7% respectively). He was a four-time All-Star.

Courtesy @tpgschmenk

Beyond the numbers and awards was his ability to entertain. You need to go no further than to re-watch Game 1 of the 2009 World Series. (If you want to revel in Philly greatness and avoid heartache, I recommend that watch only Game 1 and never look any further into that year’s final contest).

That night a feeling of childlike giddiness mixed with anxiety in the cool evening air of October. The Yankees played the role of evil foil - a role they play so well - and trotted out their best, left hander CC Sabathia, to go head to head against Lee.

The night started with a bit of additional stress for our beloved Broad Street bombers. While the team took to the locker room and got dressed and headed to the field to warm up ahead of the game, Cliff Lee was no where to be found. The players kept eyeing the dugout, chatting nervously amongst themselves. Worry creased Charlie Manuel’s face. Game 1 of the World Series and their starting pitcher was nowhere to be found.

Earlier in the day, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, and the rest of the team boarded the bus from the hotel to the stadium in the Bronx. One player was missing.

Cliff Lee closed his hotel door behind him and took the elevator down to the lobby to find that the bus left without him. No worries, he thought. New York City is littered with taxi cabs and is home to one of the most robust public transportation systems in the country.

He hopped in a cab. It didn’t take long for the cab to become stuck in traffic. The driver turned to Lee and informed him that it would be at least a couple of hours before they reached the Bronx. Game time was fast approaching. Game 1 of the World Series, and he was stranded in traffic. He told the driver to drop him off at the nearest subway station.

Jumping out of the cab, Lee followed a group of Yankees fans onto a train. Eventually he reached Yankee Stadium, but the layout had changed. He didn’t know where the visiting players’ entrance was located.

With a little help from the director of team team travel, Lee found his way inside and to the locker room.

Was he rattled? Annoyed at the BS he just went through? Not a bit. According to his teammates, Cliff was as relaxed and as easy-going as always.

In the locker room, one of the guys asked him if he was nervous about pitching in the World Series. Lee shrugged and said something along the lines of, “Why would I be nervous? I do this every day.”

He took the mound and what followed was one of the greatest pitching performances of a complete game in World Series history. Cliff Lee was Cool Hand Luke.

In the bottom of the sixth, Johnny Damon hit a high pop up back to the mound. Lee took a step to his right, watched the ball most of the way down, and casually glanced away as the ball fell into his glove. You ever seen the guys who operate the rides down the Shore or at a local carnival, who always wear the same bored face as they go through the motions of throwing levers and checking harnesses? That was Lee. He made it look like another day at work.

The show was far from over. In the bottom of the eighth, Robinson Cano drove the ball into the ground between home and the mound. It bounced hard towards Lee, who reached behind his back to snag the ball and toss it to Ryan Howard for the out. Lee’s ho-hum demeanor cracked as a laugh broke through. He was openly enjoying himself, and he brought us all along for the ride.

Yankee batter after Yankee batter went down chasing his fastball, his changeup, his cutter, and that deadly curveball as he pitched a complete game. A-Rod never managed a hit. By the end, he had sat down 10 and walked none. As he sauntered to the dugout after the last out, his postseason record stood at 3-0 with a 0.54 ERA.

The Phillies went on to lose the 2009 World Series, and Cliff Lee was traded away in the off season. His absence would last only a year before he and Phillies management brokered a deal in secret to bring him back to Philly and join Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt to become part of one of the greatest starting rotations in all of baseball.

While writing this, I went back and watched parts of Game 1 from that 2009 World Series. All these years later, and even knowing how the game and series ultimately played out, I couldn’t help but smile. How could you not while watching one of the best pitchers in baseball be one of the best pitchers in baseball, especially when he wore a Phillies uniform?

Lee suffered an elbow injury during the 2014 season which caused him to sit out the entirety of the 2015 season. With his 2016 option declined by the Phillies and no other teams proposing offers that Lee would seriously consider, he retired from baseball. He returned to his home in Arkansas to enjoy time with his family and fade into self-imposed obscurity.

A few years ago, the Phillies honored the ten year anniversary of the ‘09 team. A lot of alumni showed up. But nowhere was Cliff Lee to be found. Prior commitments, he explained. I imagine that it was dinner at home with his wife, afterwards sitting on the porch with a beer. And good for him. He gave us what we needed back then - a distraction from the recession, from work, and all the everyday BS that grinds us down, by entertaining us with his immense talent. He deserves to live in the obscurity that he desires.

Still, when one day he opens the mailbox to find an invitation for an induction to the Phillies Wall of Fame, I hope he shows up. Because the guy also deserves a gold plaque on the wall besides Halladay and Schmidt and Ashburn.

If it was up to me, one day he’d find an invitation in his mailbox with a postmark from Cooperstown.