Cliff Lee: Pitcher, Philadelphian

Posted: May 23, 2011 by joshgoldmanphl in Philly Sports

On December 15, 2010, Cliff Lee cemented his legacy in the city of Philadelphia. For once, after years of trade demands and ugly exits, someone actually chose us.

In 2009, the Phillies knew that without an addition to a rather bland starting rotation, they would likely leave their October hopes unfulfilled. Cole Hamels was 7-5 with a 4.42 ERA at the trade deadline that season. He was the ace, and an underwhelming one at that. After Hamels, Joe Blanton was 7-4 at the deadline while Jamie Moyer was 10-7. But both starters had ERA’s above 4 (Moyer was above 5).

Then there was J.A. Happ. The rookie southpaw had a record of 7-2 by the end of July and an ERA of 2.97. There was some high hope for Happ, but trusting a rookie in postseason baseball results in a lot more horror stories than fairy tales.

The Phillies needed an anchor to lead this pitching staff and compliment an offense that was good enough to play well into October. The Phillies needed Roy Halladay.

A former American League Cy Young Award winner, Halladay was very publicly “on the market” in 2009 as he all but packed his bags in mid-July. The Bluejays fans gave him a two-minute standing ovation as he left the mound on July 24th, or what was to be his last start at the Rogers Centre after a brilliant 12-year career in black and blue (are those their colors? I’m guessing).

He was as good as gone.

Then the unthinkable happened. The Phillies, assumed to be the favorite to land Halladay, traded for Cliff Lee with Halladay still on the market. Cliff Lee? Yeah, he won a Cy Young too. But he’s not Roy Halladay. He’s not THE MAN. We wanted THE MAN.

So Phillies fans begrudgingly accepted their new ace. His legacy, it was assumed, would be as a guy who probably helped the Phillies — but ultimately as a guy the Phillies got because they couldn’t land Halladay.

As they say, it takes a real man to admit when he’s wrong.

From day one, Cliff Lee made an impression on the city of Philadelphia that would not go unnoticed nor unappreciated. His numbers aside (he was 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA in the regular season; 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in the postseason), Lee’s intangibles made him an instant fan favorite. It was his hustle to and from the dugout between innings. It was his cool demeanor under intense pressure. It was the pace in which he worked through innings. It was his total lack of fear on the mound. Before long, Phillies fans knew they had something special — even though his last name was five syllables short.

That’s why Phillies fans loved Cliff Lee. And boy, did they love him. But 2009 would not be his legacy, That would come from what happened next.

Surely, you know the story. The Phillies traded Cliff Lee to Seattle in an attempt to replenish a farm system now decimated by the acquisition of Halladay. Or so the Phillies say. Maybe they saw him as “unsignable” with Free Agency one year away and the Yankees poised to strike. Or maybe they thought they had enough pitching, and might as well get some young talent for a guy who might be gone after just one season. Who knows? But he left, and he made no bones about it: he wanted to stay.

Then, after a season in which he took the Texas Rangers to the World Series while the Phillies watched from home, comes December 15. It will forever be a “where were you when…” moment for Phillies fans. The night Cliff Lee said no to Texas, and more importantly said no to New York, and yes to us.

It was as if the Scott Rolen’s of the world never existed. Never was there a Curt Schilling, never a J.D. Drew. After years of being the city and team that pushed stars away, someone had just turned down more money to come play in Philadelphia.

Yeah, it meant a lot. And not just to baseball fans either. It meant a lot to all of us. Here’s proof: a billboard paid for by the city that hung above I-95 for months after Lee signed with the Phillies.

Cliff Lee may go on to win Cy Young’s in Philadelphia. He may win World Series’. But 50 years from now, he’ll be the guy that when given the option between cheesesteaks and cheesecake, boldly declared, “Whiz With.”

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