I remember when he arrived in the Major Leagues on Sept. 15, 2002. He had come to the Indians organization earlier that summer in the Bartolo Colon trade that brought the Tribe a handful of big league prospects.
And while the then 23-year-old Cliff Lee wasn’t the centerpiece of the deal, he was no mere throw-in. Brandon Phillips, a fast-talking, almost-ready-for-the-big-leagues infielder with a hip-hop swagger, was the blue chip, and Phillips did turn into the ballplayer he was expected to become.
The expectations on Lee were grand as well. He was a prospect on the rise, but the Indians didn’t need him to step into the rotation and take over for Colon. They already had an anchor for their starting rotation in left-hander CC Sabathia, so they could afford to wait for Lee.
He didn’t disappoint them. OK, so he had a misstep in 2007 when the Indians sent him back to Triple A. He didn’t like the idea of being back in the Minors.
What players do? Lee was 28 then, and his resume already included two 14-win seasons and an 18-win season. He wasn’t injured, and he hadn’t forgotten how to pitch. He was just going through one of those hiccups that players sometime have.
Lee picked the wrong time to have his, though. His struggles kept him off the ’07 playoff roster during a season in which the Indians came within a win of making it to the World Series.
No telling what might have happened had Lee pitched. He might have made a difference. He might have proved the arm needed to carry the Indians to where they hadn’t been in a decade.
One thing I remember well about Lee in the years I talked to him and wrote about him was that he didn’t live his life peeking over his shoulder. Few players I have met live totally in the present the way Lee always did. He never dwelled on what he couldn’t change, even if it was last night’s bad outing. He never revisited the stories that came out yesterday.
I also remember his confidence. To call it cockiness would be to call it wrong. He had a belief in himself that he was comfortable with, though not arrogant with. He seemed to know he was a cut above others who made their living throwing a baseball.
Believing and proving are two different things. No argument there, right?
And all the belief in the world, all the cockiness can’t mask a 5-8 record with a 6.29 ERA, numbers that got Lee sent back to the Minors in ’07.
But that 2007 season taught Lee, now 30, a lot about himself. His trip back to Triple A helped him relearn to pitch – to trust his fastball. And learn Lee did, as the Cy Young Award he won in 2008 proves.
In a few hours, he will showcase this talent for a national audience when he starts Game 1 of the World Series for the Phillies, who picked Lee up in a midseason trade with the Tribe. He will be facing the Yankees, a team that he has faced countless times.
He will also be going against an old teammate and his friend – Sabathia, himself a Cy Young winner with the Indians in 2007.
Two former Indians, two players who matured into staff aces in the same city and in the same uniform, pitching in a World Series opener at the new Yankee Stadium, performing under baseball’s brightest lights: Lee against Sabathia.
This is where I always thought Cliff Lee would be: pitching on this big stage. I just figured he would be doing it in Cleveland, not in Philadelphia.