There was a shining half-season last year when Cliff Lee pitched for the Seattle Mariners, and every fourth day (the fifth belonging to King Felix) he’d pitch and push back against the growing realization that the team couldn’t hit its way out of a pile of day-old rally fries. The accuracy of his fastball, so familiar with the low corners, and his metered pace defied the hitters who would disappoint once he quickly allowed them the stage again. Lee was, at that time, a brilliant journeyman, a gentleman of the road. His pitching was mercenary, and context-free.
Now he’s a settled man, towing with him to the pitcher’s mound a satchel of stability, money, respect, and esteem. By actively choosing Philly over New York and eschewing the biggest or at least the most prestigious paycheck on the table, he deliberately chose to pitch in a smaller (though equally rabid, I’d argue) baseball market, alongside three other studs who undoubtedly dissipate the hot glare of the spotlight. Lee, once the Tarantino-esque mysterious free agent, has moved in with a nice suburban family. Where will he hide his gun?
Lee pitched a midweek day game against the Brewers that I had the chance to watch pretty closely. Recalling the joy of the Lee pitching performances of yore, I zeroed in on his work. I saw the same guy, the same meat of Lee’s game: the big curve working off of the hard, straight fastball, the clock-like wind-up and delivery, the intimidating demeanor of an ace. But the intangibles were fuzzy at the edges: the location, the genius of his pitch sequences, the actuality of his impermeability (“I’m beating you because I’m beating you, and I will continue to do so.”)
His fastball still hummed, touching 94 at times, but the precision was lacking. He left them up, and the Brewers were touching them with long fly outs and drives to the gaps. Lee’s cutter, which usually hints at the corner of the strike zone before ducking out of it at the last moment, hung like a mediocre slider. Brewers were hitting the ball squarely, which if you’d told me that would happen during any of his starts in Seattle last year I’d tell you to go jump in a lake.
On this particular sunny spring day, the sparkle of his first half in Seattle in 2010 was absent. This is notable because somewhere along the line Cliff Lee became, for me, the pitcher that doesn’t falter, who wills himself past fallibility. The average performance means that I have to accept that Cliff Lee is capable of average performances. It’s like watching your dad trip.
This Brewers game is the exception, and a light one at that, as Lee is actually pitching very well this year (24 strikeouts to 2 walks), and even today he was able to stop the bleeding at two earned runs through six. Gosh, was it only two? There was another one unearned, but I could’ve sworn it was more. And anyway the Phillies caught up soon after he left the game. But in the symbolism that each baseball game represents for the single viewer, this faltering performance represented a shift in the Lee archetype. For Lee, a bad start is nowadays a ripple in a broad pond, a Philadelphia stinker that’ll soon be lost in the greater body of great starts, that will span years in the city and in the uniform.
Lee’s stopovers in Philly the first time around, Seattle, and Texas were ethereal, and fleeting. Once he was gone, you felt like one of the townsfolk watching the aloof hero disappear into a dust cloud on the way to the next town in need. But Cliff Lee has settled down. His career has taken on linear airs, which comes with the small forgivenesses afforded by family, knowing, as families do, that time is a healer and all we’ve got is time.