Cliff Lee took a unique path to Game 1 starter.
By: Braden Gall | 11/1/10, 12:18 PM EDT
Lee started '09 as a key member of the Tribe.
Circuitous (adj.): having a circular or winding course.
The word is also defined as not being forthright or direct in language or action.
Clifton “Cliff” Phifer Lee’s career path to World Series Game 1 ace could fall into both categories. In fact, it’s a tale that involves one of the worst trades in baseball history, seven different organizations, a cancer scare and two trips to the Fall Classic.
Over the last three seasons, Lee has endeared himself to not one, two or three major league fan bases, but four. And has done so in remarkable fashion on the field. Try a 2.98 ERA, 17 complete games and one Cy Young award in 93 starts since the open of the 2008 season.
A far cry from clubhouse in-fighting, being booed off the field and a demotion to the minors. All of which he would endure before getting his first taste of October baseball.
Lee, a Benton, Ark., native, was originally selected in the eighth round of the 1997 MLB draft by the Florida Marlins. He did not sign with the Fish, opting instead to enroll at Meridian Community College in Mississippi where he pitched for one season, after which he was drafted again — in the 20th round by the Baltimore Orioles. The year at a C.C. had cost him 12 rounds.
However, Lee bounced back. Instead of signing with the Orioles, he chose to attend the University of Arkansas. Two years later he signed with the Montreal Expos as a fourth-round pick in the 2000 draft.
In his first two years in the minors, Lee showed improvement and was promoted from A-Cape Fear to high-A-Jupiter, and then to AA-Harrisburg for the start of the ’02 campaign. That year he started 15 games for Harrisburg before the first of his many transactions — a trade that will go down in history as one of baseball’s worst.
On June 27, 2002, Lee was shipped to the Cleveland Indians with Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew. Colon was a solid 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA in 17 starts for Montreal, yet the Expos finished 19 games back of the Braves in the East, and 12.5 games behind the eventual NL Champion Giants in the Wild Card. Needless to say, the Expos gambled and lost the entire savings account.
En route to the majors, however, Lee had one more very serious hurdle to overcome that most minor leaguers know nothing about. Lee’s four-month old son Jaxon was diagnosed with leukemia and given a 30% chance to live. However, after chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and a stem cell transplant, Jaxon, now a healthy nine year-old, is in remission. (He could be seen in his father’s arms after the Rangers clinched the AL pennant.)
After three drafts, his son’s bout with cancer and one very lopsided trade, Lee made his major league debut on September 15th of 2002 in an Indians uniform.
He made 11 starts in his first two seasons for the Indians with a respectable 3-4 record and 3.30 ERA. In 2004, Lee finally became a regular in the Indians rotation and posted an above average 14-8 record with a severely below average 5.43 ERA. His 81 walks that year are still a career high by a wide margin.
He showed dramatic improvement in his second full season. Lee led the team with 18 wins, finished second in innings pitched with 202 and third in strikeouts. Along with his 3.79 ERA, Lee finished fourth in the 2005 Cy Young voting. Lee helped the Tribe to 93 wins in 2005.
Yet, as the Indians regressed in 2006 — from 93 wins to 78 wins — so, too, did Lee. Despite his dip in production, Lee earned his first big contract when the Indians signed him to a $14 million deal in midseason. Motivated, driven, and ambitious should have been words used to describe Lee’s 2007 season, right?
The ‘07 season did not start as planned, however, when Lee suffered a groin injury in spring training and was forced to start the season on the disabled list. He struggled mightily in his return to the rotation, going 4-9 with a 5.38 ERA in his first 16 starts of the season.
On July 21st, things began to unravel for the newly minted millionaire — at the Ballpark in Arlington, of all places.
The Rangers' ace has led them to the promised land.
On the night the Rangers were celebrating Sammy Sosa’s 600th home run, Lee drilled the slugging outfielder in the head, igniting an altercation between himself and his All-Star catcher Victor Martinez. The Indian players held a closed-door meeting immediately following the game.
In his next start, Lee gave up seven runs in four innings of work and was booed off the field. The Arkansas native made sure to sarcastically tip his cap to the angered Cleveland fans as he left the game. The next day, Lee was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo.
Unfortunately for major league hitters, that was the wake-up call Lee needed.
The 6’3” lefty came back with a vengeance in 2008, winning 22 of his 25 decisions and posting a league-leading 2.54 ERA — doing it for a team that finished at .500 nonetheless. He beat out Roy Halladay, and the record-setting Frankie Rodriguez, for the American League Cy Young award. He was the most dominant pitcher in the league not even one year after being sent to the minors.
As Lee worked his way through a not-as-dominant 2009 season, it was clear the Indians would not be competing for a playoff spot. With a year and a half left on his contract, the Indians dealt him to the Phillies with outfielder Ben Francisco for Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson.
Lee was solid for the remainder of the regular season as the Phils clinched another NL East crown. Then came the 2009 playoffs. Lee was masterful. In five postseason starts, Lee went 4-0 in 40.1 innings. He gave up a total of 7 earned runs, struck out 33 hitters and walked six. He was the only thing that could quiet the mighty Bronx Bombers last fall.
Even with his strong postseason, however, Lee wasn’t done changing area codes. In December, with one full season still left on his rather cheap $9 million contract, the Phillies swapped the postseason ace for someone who had yet to make a single postseason start in his career. In a three-team deal, the Phillies acquired Toronto Cy Young winner Roy Halladay while shipping Lee out west to Seattle.
The Mariners got the “2” of their newly formed 1-2 punch atop their rotation (with Felix Hernandez). The Phillies supposedly upgraded their No. 1 starter and acquired the highly touted Phillipe Aumont. And the Blue Jays got elite prospects Michael Taylor and Kyle Drabek from Philadelphia.
With all the pieces finally in place, both Seattle and Philly were thinking World Series.
But after throwing at Chris Synder’s head in spring training, Lee began his Mariners career on a five-game suspension (later reversed on appeal). There was one big problem, however. The Mariners' maneuvers, capped by poor off-season spending, did not pay off, and Seattle found itself far from contention. So with less than a year left on Lee’s deal, Seattle looked to move their prized trade chip.
The Texas Rangers won the bidding war against the Yankees by sending first baseman Justin Smoak and prospects Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Matt Lawson to Seattle.
After seven organizations and four trades, Lee has helped push a dormant franchise to its first World Series berth in team history.
Taken individually, some of the juvenile incidents surrounding Lee feel like nothing out of the ordinary for high-priced athletes. A skirmish here, a beaning there. But as a whole, it appears that Lee might not be the consummate professional that his on-the-field numbers indicate. Certainly everyone in life enjoys the ups and endures the downs, but Lee hasn’t made it easy on himself.
Either way, Cliff Lee will land himself a massive contract this offseason — be it with the Yankees or someplace else. He will likely find himself in a fifth different uniform in a little over two calendar years. That makes three drafts, two colleges, five trades, six organizations and two trips to the Fall Classic. For one of the single most dominant pitchers in the game today, one has to ask, why does everyone continually NOT want him on their team?
Rangers fans could not care less about the answer to that question if he goes out and pitches the way we all know he can.
by Braden Gall
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