Sunday night’s ALCS game was a watershed event in my young life.
When I drew pictures of Indians’ games in first grade, I would always depict my heroic Tribesmen humiliating the Bronx Bombers. When I adopted the Red Sox as my second-favorite team in middle school, it was mostly because Boston fans shared my hatred for Steinbrenner and his crew. And when, during multiple trips to New York, I risked my life by wearing my Yankee Hater hat on the subway—being killed for thumbing my nose at the boys in pinstripes would be the noblest death I could imagine.
Yet on Sunday, I was on the verge of actively rooting for the Yankees, because their victory ensured that Cliff Lee would face CC Sabathia in Game One of the World Series.
It doesn’t take a diehard Indians fan to remember that both Lee and Sabathia are their former hometown heroes. Conscious fans of any baseball team probably remember when both pitchers left Cleveland. And even if they don’t, I am certainly not the first writer to mention the connection.
I’m not excited simply because my former hometown aces are together in one place, or because they are both in the national spotlight. I am hoping to see one of my favorite pitchers outduel one of the most frustrating players I have ever had the misfortune to root for.
I began to dislike CC Sabathia very early in both his career, and my life—long before he joined the infamous Yankees. While I had been a statistics aficionado since before I started grade school, at that age most of my judgments about baseball players were based on pure observation. However, even as I have matured and begun to follow the numbers more closely, it’s an impression that still remains.
From the beginning I was struck by Sabathia’s inconsistency. Even as a rookie he showed flashes of dominance on the mound, but it was hard to ignore his mediocre outings. For every start where he made hitters scratch their heads, it seemed, he pitched two outings looking like Dave Burba. As his career has gone on, his bad games have become fewer and farther between, but I never shared the comfort my fellow Tribe fans seemed to exhibit when CC took the mound. I realize that even the best pitchers can’t be dominant every start, but I’ve always felt Sabathia was disturbingly unpredictable.
I took a lot of heat from my fellow Clevelanders for my cynicism, especially towards the end of his career with the Tribe. I was furious whenever someone said he deserved the Cy Young Award in 2007—I thought Fausto Carmona was a legitimate challenger to Beckett, but not CC. My peers were slightly more sympathetic to my concerns by the time he was declared the winner; there were several moments in the playoffs when I truly hated to say “I told you so.”
Similarly, I was one of the only people I knew who was not outraged when Sabathia was traded. In addition to my personal dislike for him, I saw the parallels between that deal and the Bartolo Colon trade that brought fan favorite Grady Sizemore to town.
Then there’s the other guy we got in that great trade with the Expos: Cliff Lee. Just as I formed a completely subjective (and perhaps slightly irrational) opinion about Sabathia’s failures, I have been enamored with Lee since the first time I saw him pitch—something about him just clicked in my mind. I became his fan when he first saw significant playing time in 2005, and despite his poor numbers I trusted him in a way I could not with CC. I was glad to see him succeed in 2006, heartbroken to see him flounder in 2007, and ecstatic when he emerged as one of the best pitchers of the game in 2008.
I can’t explain what it is about Lee that so appealed to me. It could be that my opinion is completely arbitrary, just like my opposition to using instant replay to ensure accurate umpiring. But while CC rubbed me the wrong way, there was something about Lee, the way he played, the way he pitched, the way he approached the game, that made him one of my favorite players.
While Sabathia was choking in the 2007 ALCS, Lee wasn’t even on the roster. He’s already made a name as a successful playoff pitcher this year in Philadelphia—no easy task playing next to Cole Hamels.
Here’s hoping the world gets to see him win.