Cliff Lee's Chance at Redemption Has Been Well Worth the Wait
If you want a lesson in perseverance, you don't have to look any further than the American League All-Star team.
It isn’t every year you have an All-Star that has battled back from tough times, so it must be really special when there is a group of them.
On the heels of Josh Hamilton's exhilarating performance in the 2008 Home Run Derby, Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Cliff Lee will try to battle some demons of his own.
No, he didn't rise up in a battle with drugs like Hamilton, nor did he face the constant media microscope that Milton Bradley did.
Lee had a battle against something much different. He had a battle against himself.
His first two years with the Indians were a bit of a tease to the Cleveland fans. He was acquired in 2002, and in September he made a two-game debut. He didn't win either game, but he gave up just one run in both contests.
Lee would be absent for most of 2003, not making a big-league start until late June. He'd finish his rookie campaign at 3-3, with a 3.61 ERA, a very good sign that the best had yet to come.
His first year in the big leagues was 2004, and his 10-1 record through the first 19 games left no doubt he would be a solid starter in the big leagues. Then came some growing pains, as he lost six times and failed to get a victory for a more than a month.
His emotions soon spilled out beyond his control.
After getting pulled in the fifth inning in a game at Toronto, in which he gave up six runs and 10 hits, Lee walked off the mound and fired his glove 20 rows deep into the stands.
"I didn't even realize I did it until a couple minutes afterwards when I was just sitting there,” Lee told reporters.
From July 21, 2004 to Sept. 2, 2004, Lee carried a 10.51 ERA. He shook off the rough stretch for the most part, winning four of his last five games, but he did not end the year with the success he had in the beginning.
2005 would be the year he put it all together. He finished the year as a legitimate Cy Young contender, winning 18 games and posting a 3.79 ERA. His control from the previous year improved vastly, as he cut down on his walk total. Cliff was in control and the best had yet to come, or so everyone thought.
2006 was a step back to reality, as not only did the Indians falter after a surprising 2005, so did Lee. His ERA bloated up around 4.40, and he could not pitch in a game without giving up a run.
He had six starts in 2005 in which he didn't surrender an earned run. In 2006, he did not go a single start without giving up at least one earned run.
Still, Lee signed a three-year, $14 million extension with Cleveland and was designated by Mark Shapiro as a “core” player.
His 2007 season would be thrown into a tailspin when he suffered an injury in Spring Training. He missed about a month of action, not making his debut until early May.
From there, it was an uphill battle. Lee could not hold a lead when it was given to him and his frustration was evident. It all boiled over one evening in Texas, after he hit Rangers slugger Sammy Sosa in the head.
Lee's emotions spilled over and he and catcher Victor Martinez got into several arguments on the mound. Their public spat lead to a closed-door meeting the following day, but Lee's worst moment had yet to come.
His next start was at home against Boston and he took a beating that would effectively end his 2007 year as a starter. Lee was pummeled for seven earned runs and was booed off the mound in his own home ballpark.
He responded to the fans by tipping his cap, a mistake he didn't admit at first.
"I wasn't trying to show anybody up; I just took my hat off," Lee was quoted as saying.
He also put it back on shortly after. Today, Lee will admit his mistake, and part of his stubbornness in admitting his wrong could be attributed to the fact he got sent down to Triple-A Buffalo after the game.
"It was a really, really stupid thing to do. You're out there competing, and you're at home getting booed...it's not a good feeling,” Lee told Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter.
Much of his struggles that year can be pointed at his injury and lack of conditioning in Spring Training, but Lee became unraveled. He hit rock bottom in his career when he got sent to the minors and lost his rotation spot for the rest of the year.
Lee was also the subject of many trade rumors in the offseason. With three guys fighting for one rotation spot for 2008, many thought the Tribe should have gotten something for Lee while he still had some value.
The Indians felt otherwise. They saw what Lee was capable of and they weren't ready to give up on him.
Pitching coach Carl Willis invited Lee down to his home in North Carolina for a few days to instill that into him. They played catch on a high-school field and talked about re-implementing a strategy Lee had in the spring of 2007 before he got hurt.
Lee's 2008 Spring Training wasn't perfect, but he put himself ahead of the competition and finished strong. He had his chance to prove he could still pitch in the big leagues.
Not only did he pitch in the big leagues, Lee dominated them. Hitters like Athletics' infielder Jack Hannahan said it was like night and day facing him last year and this year.
Lee is no longer battling himself. He is now battling the opposition as one of the best pitchers in the American League. It has no longer become about emotion or struggles. It is about playing the game the way Cliff learned how to play it as a young kid in Arkansas.
He is no longer that angry, glove tossing, hat-tipping pitcher he was in 2004 to 2007. He has become humbled and privileged to be where he is. Lee could barely hide his excitement at Monday's press conference to announce the starting pitchers for the 2008 All-Star Game.
"I am completely baffled and privileged to get this honor," Lee told the media in attendance.
Today, Cliff Lee is painting the corners of the strike zone with his fastball and stunning hitters with his devastating curveball. His past two years haven't been about stats or records. His past two years have been about falling off the map and making a rise to glory.
Beyond the numbers, Cliff has made strides in his career that prove he is not just a fluke in this first half. He wouldn't continue that un-hittable success he put on display in the first few weeks. But he would prove he was for real.
Lee has persevered through the doubters and has arrived at his ultimate point of redemption; the point where he takes center stage, quite like Hamilton did, to show everyone just what he's made of.
It should not shock anyone to sit back and look at his entire story. The truth is he's been seeing the same story over and over again in his own family.
His son Jaxson was diagnosed with leukemia at only four-months old. His chances of surviving were set at just 30 percent before Cliff and his wife Kristen decided Jaxon needed a bone marrow transplant.
The Lee family's struggles were far from over as their daughter was born three months premature.
Today, both of Lee's kids, seven-year-old Jaxson and five-year-old Maci are both healthy and watching their dad persevere through his career, quite like they did through their lives.
When Lee takes the mound at the top of the first inning on Tuesday night, he'll be taking it for more than himself. With his kids in his thoughts and his emotions in check, Lee is pitching for anyone who ever had a redemption moment.
At least he isn't battling himself anymore.
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