I bagged a quick sandwich on the night of December 13, 2010, bemoaning a cold, long night at the office. But the phone was stuck to my ear, and on the other end was my dad.
“Cliff just told the Yankees he wasn’t going there,” I said.
“Oh my God,” replied Dad.
For the following five hours I sat like a stone in front of the television. I was dazed. ESPN put it on the ticker: “Lee to sign with Phils.” I grabbed a beer, maybe two. It felt weird.
A year earlier I stood inside Nationals Park with a brood of unruly fans, whooping it up to the sad visitors as Roy Halladay slung a quality start past the unsuspecting Nats. And then Roy Oswalt joined the club. We had Shane Victorino and Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. We nearly won a third-consecutive National League pennant. And before that was Pedro Martinez, charmed all-star games, and the original Cliff Lee trade that signaled an entirely new era of Philadelphia baseball, an era of limitless potential, of an undying thirst to be the very best in sports.
When we shuttered Lee to Seattle to acquire Halladay, we sighed and tried to understand the realities facing Ruben Amaro Jr. It never really felt right. But on December, 13, 2010, it was right. For the 2011 season, there was Lee and Halladay, together, with Oswalt, with emerging ace Cole Hamels, with a powerful offense and a stout bullpen. A summer of incredible opportunity faced us then.
Tuesday the Phillies announced they were buying out Cliff Lee’s contract, which was inevitable but nonetheless sad. The move effectively ends Lee’s Phillies tenure, and possibly could lead the left-hander to retirement.
Lee symbolized everything hopeful in us during those glory days. The evening of December 13, 2010, when Lee decided to sign a friendlier deal with the Phillies – instead of following more money with the Rangers or Yankees – stands as one of the most surreal moments in recent Phillies history. We immediately printed shirts and created hashtags promoting a rotation of Lee, Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels, which subsequently fared very well in 2011. Helped by the addition of rookie Vance Worley, the rotation turned in one of baseball’s greatest seasons. Lee was the linchpin, the missing piece that always felt so perfect in Philadelphia.
The legend of Cliff Lee soared to life during Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, when the lefty quietly and, almost unwittingly, mowed down the Yankees en route to a complete-game, 10-strikeout victory. Of all moments in Lee’s career, none may be as definitive as his nonchalant catch of a Johnny Damon pop in the sixth inning.
But before that, Lee quickly endeared himself to fans by effortlessly subduing lineups, hurling fastballs in every direction past watching hitters, sometimes tossing in a looping curve for fun. Upon his return to Philadelphia he did more of the same, and watching he and Halladay in the same rotation offered some incredible comparisons. Where Halladay seemed to control every pitch with tight movement and impossible accuracy, like a machine, Lee simply shot bullets through the strike zone, peppering the canvas like a man on the job.
And sometimes Lee would swing the bat successfully, hitting two home runs in 2011, because even a broken clock is right twice a day. And then, when he didn’t swing successfully, Lee simply stopped running to first base. He had no time for failure. He just wanted to work.
And yes, Lee failed. He surrendered 26 home runs in 2012, including one to Scott Hairston that made Scott Franzke particularly upset on a live broadcast. Lee had a funny habit of pitching terribly, just randomly, before firing off three or four impressive starts. Sometimes men had bad days. And that was it. Whatever.
“Whatever” was how Lee defined himself throughout his Phillies tenure. Good or bad, win or loss, the sun was rising tomorrow, and baseball was still to be played, and family was still to be loved, and life was still to be lived. Lee always seemed to stand for more than simply playing the game. He chose Philadelphia partly because he just loved Philadelphia, enjoyed Rittenhouse Square and appreciated when fans chatted him for a quick moment. In fact, somebody you know has met Lee.
If anything, Lee allowed us to swallow a period of decline a little easier. He still pitched well in 2012 and ‘13, and was pitching a little above league average in 2014 when, in July, he suffered an elbow injury that ended his season.
Cliff Lee was outstanding. In three-and-a-half seasons after signing his free-agent contract in 2010, he went 41-30 with a 2.89 ERA, striking out 739 while walking 114. He allowed less than one hit per inning, too. He did his job and did it well.
Maybe we didn’t win a championship with Lee. We really should have, but we didn’t. Those days are gone, and so are the days that Lee gave us, all those afternoons at the Bank, those crisp, two-hour evenings of pitching supremacy. But boy was it special. For just a little while, Cliff Lee was the very hope coming to life – that the Phillies could be the very best, that baseball looked awestruck at us, and that Philadelphia was the place to be – to raise a family, to have a career, to watch a ballgame. Hell, it still is.