Clifton Phifer Lee was born on August 30, 1978 in Benton, Arkansas. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Cliff’s father Steve was a firefighter for 30 years. Later he was elected to the Benton City Council. Cliff got his middle name from his mother Sharon’s side of the family. It’s her dad’s name.
Benton, a suburb of Little Rock, was home to roughly 20,000 people at the time. It has grown by more than 20 percent in the ensuing years. Until Cliff came along, the town’s most famous resident was country music legend Charlie Rich.
Cliff was a good athlete who loved sports, but he rarely watched games on television. He had several cousins living within shouting distance, so most of his leisure time was spent in the neighborhood playing with family and friends. His first forays into organized baseball came under the watchful eyes of local youth coaches John Echols and Gary Jame.
Cliff’s passion for baseball grew as he got older. He always believed that he would be a major league pitcher. He had talent, competitive spirit, and high-octane confidence. He also had some history on his side. Arkansas had produced a few good hurlers over the years, including Dizzy Dean, Lon Warneke and Preacher Roe.
Cliff’s cockiness helped him on the hill, but it did not come without a few negatives. As far back as anyone can remember, Cliff was someone you didn’t want to be around after a loss. He took defeats personally. Friends, family and teammates often bore the brunt of his frustration.
As a teenager, Cliff was one of those pitchers you loved to hate. He was usually the best player on the field—and he wasn’t shy about letting people know it. Showing up an opponent was part of his game. He could be a hell-raiser off the field, too.
Fortunately, Cliff had a wise coach to keep him from running too far off the tracks. Wes Gardner, a tall right-hander who had some solid years as a starter and reliever for the Bostom Red Sox in the 1980s, lived in the area and was Cliff’s American Legion coach. Cliff idolized him and listened to everything he had to say.
During his senior season at Benton High School, Cliff was selected in the eighth round of the draft by the Florida Marlins. He was inclined to turn pro, but an injury made him think twice about toiling in the low minors. He turned down Florida’s offer and instead enrolled the following fall at Meridan Community College in Mississippi, which boasted a good baseball program.
Cliff toned down his act with the Eagles, but this didn’t have the desired effect. If anything, Cliff drew less attention from the scouts. In 1998, he was selected again in the draft—this time in the 20th round by the Baltimore Orioles.
Again, Cliff declined to go pro. He had a scholarship offer from the University of Arkansas and decided to spend at least one more year sharpening his game. In 1999, he posted a record of 4–3 in 65 innings for the Razorbacks, with 77 strikeouts and a 4.45 ERA. Arkansas didn’t have much of a team, so there was no compelling reason to stay for his senior season. Besides, he was newly married to his girlfriend Kristen. They had known each other since Cliff was in seventh grade.
ON THE RISE
The big leagues came knocking for a third time after the ’99 season. This time, it was the Montreal Expos, who liked what they saw enough to select Cliff in the fourth round. He was a promising lefty—a young gun with good movement on his pitches who could bear down and get big outs when he needed them, assuming his control was good that day.
Cliff signed with the Expos in July and began his minor league apprenticeship. In 11 starts for the Class-A Cape Fear Crocs in 2000, he went 1–4 with an ERA over 5.00. Despite his so-so numbers, Cliff was promoted to the Jupiter Hammerheads of the Class-A Florida State League for the 2001 campaign.
A lot of talent went through the Jupiter locker room that season, including major league veterans Curtis Pride and Tim Raines, and future big leaguers Brandon Phillips, Wilson Valdez, Brad Wilkerson, Carl Pavano and Jason Bay. Cliff went 6–7 in 20 starts, striking out better than a batter an inning. He gave up only 78 hits in 109 innings. He was rated by Baseball America as Montreal’s #11 prospect.
Cliff and Kristen also welcomed their first child, Jaxon, into the world that spring. However, their joy turned to terror on the final weekend of the season, Jaxon became desperately ill, and his mother took him to the ER. Doctors suspected he might have leukemia. Further tests were performed, and those fears were confirmed. Jaxon was given less than a 35 percent chance of survival. Chemo, radiation and umbilical-cord blood transplants halted the cancer.
Kristen would learn what it meant to be a young baseball wife with a sick child in 2002. Cliff, meanwhile, would learn that to be a good pitcher he couldn’t take his troubles to the mound. Husband and wife performed brilliantly under trying conditions. Cliff went 7–2 for the Class-AA Harrisburg Senators with a 3.23 ERA in 15 starts.
The Expos, however, weren’t so fortunate. In a financial free fall, the team was uneven on the field and dismal at the box office. There was talk of contraction for much of the year. At the end of June, the Expos rolled the dice and traded for Bartolo Colon, the ace of the Cleveland Indians. The Montreal brass hoped to give the club a shot in the arm for a last-season playoff run. The price was steep. The Expos packaged Cliff along with fellow blue-chippers Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips, plus veteran Lee Stevens.
The Indians assigned Cliff to the Akron Aeros of the Eastern League. After three starts, he was promoted to Class-AAA Buffalo. He spent the remainder of the minor league season as a member of the Bisons’ starting rotation, going 3–2 with a 3.77 ERA.
Cliff was rewarded with a cup of coffee that September, joining the Indians for his first two major league starts. He pitched very well in both. He allowed a run to the Minnesota Twins in his debut and a run to the Kansas City Royals six days later.
Cliff was sent back to the minors for most of the 2003 season, spending the bulk of that time back in Buffalo. He pitched well, but an abdominal strain derailed him at various times. When healthy, Cliff was terrific. For the Bisons, he went 6-1 with a neat 3.27 ERA.
Cliff was recalled for a start against the Royals in June and notched his first win before returning to Buffalo. He rejoined Cleveland for good in mid-August, taking a regular spot in a starting rotation that included CC Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Jason Davis and Billy Traber.
Cliff’s record stood at 3–1 entering September, but he failed to earn a victory in five straight starts. His other numbers were solid, and the Indians were satisfied that he would be a productive part of their 2004 rotation. After a 94-loss season, they had nowhere to go but up.
Cliff got off to a roaring start in 2004. He became the first Cleveland pitcher since Dennis Martinez to begin a season at 5–0. After picking up his first loss, he strung together five more wins. The law of averages finally caught up with Cliff in the second half, as he finished the season at 14–8 with a 5.43 ERA. Needless to say, he endured a couple of serious shellings along the way.
Some of it was fatigue, but much of it was Cliff’s tendency to keep throwing the same pitch after veteran hitters had learned what to expect. Another problem for Cliff was that he found it difficult to remain consistent with his delivery over the long haul of a season. He would be become furious at himself when the wildness started. Once he threw his glove 20 rows into the stands after being lifted by manager Eric Wedge.
The good news was that Cliff finished ’04 strong, notching four victories against one loss in his final five decisions. His 14 victories tied him for tops on the Tribe with Westbrook, and he was one of the best strikeout pitchers in the American League with 161 Ks in 179 innings. With their young starting rotation leading the way, the Indians took a big step toward respectability, going 80–82.
The 2005 season looked like Clevelands’ year. They boasted a formidable lineup led by table-setters Coco Crisp and Grady Sizemore and sluggers Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner. Cliff was the class of the maturing pitching staff. He topped 200 innings for the first time and got stronger as the year progressed. He went on a nine-game winning streak after the All-Star break, benefiting equally from his pinpoint control and his teammates’ lusty hitting. The Indians were tough to beat when Cliff started. In all, they went 23–9 in his 32 starts.
The Indians looked like they had a shot at the postseason as the final month unfolded. Heading into the last week of September, they had dropped only four games. But Cleveland lost six of its final seven contests and missed the playoffs. Each defeat was a gut-wrencher—Cliff was on the losing end of the 1–0 game, a brilliant duel with hard-throwing Seth McClung of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It was Cliff’s final decision of the year, giving him a sparkling 18–5 record with a 3.79 ERA. His win total was the highest of any AL lefty, and he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.
After their fine showing in ’05, the Indians were expected to take the next step and capture the Central Division crown in 2006. They got off to a great start, with six wins in their first seven games. But they struggled to play .500 ball after that. The Indians entered the All-Star break with 40 wins. Their 50th victory did not come until August 11th. Cliff’s record stood at a solid 10–8 at this point—good enough for the Tribe to sew him up through 2010 with a contract extension.
Both sides wanted to avoid arbitration, which would have occurred that winter. Cliff and Kristen felt comfortable in Cleveland, especially now that Jaxon was doing better. They called it a “Southern town in the Midwest.” The Indians, meanwhile, had been busy, inking extensions with Sabathia, Martinez, Hafner, Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta. By signing its top young stars, Cleveland’s front office was eager to repeat the successful business strategy that had produced a pair of pennants in the 1990s.
Cliff bolstered the team’s long-range plan by winning the final game of the season to finish 14–11. He led the Indians with 33 starts and was second on the team in wins to Westbrook and strikeouts to Sabathia. His 4.40 ERA was nothing to write home about, but his control was excellent, and he usually had his best stuff in his biggest outings. The Indians posted a 78–84 record, good for fourth place.
Cliff began the 2007 season on the shelf with an abdominal strain suffered in spring training. After his return, he never found his rhythm, winning just five times in 16 starts with an ERA over 6.00. Cliff was unable to locate his fastball, and he began relying more on his off-speed stuff. When Cliff fell behind, hitters sat on his fastball, which he often delivered directly into their wheelhouses.
With Sabathia, Fausto Carmona and the other starters holding their own, the Indians had no choice but to pull Cliff from the rotation and send him to Triple-A to work out his problems. In his final start before the demotion, he was booed off the field. He sarcastically tipped his cap before ducking into the dugout.
Cliff worked hard during five weeks at Buffalo and regained some of his feel for pitching. The Indians recalled him on September 2nd to be a lefty out of the bullpen. He hadn't made a relief outing since his college days, and then only twice. His return to Cleveland showed some signs of promise, but when the regular season ended, his numbers were still ugly and he was left of Cleveland’s postseason roster. That was a cruel blow for a guy who craved the playoff spotlight.
MAKING HIS MARK
During the offseason, Cliff got healthy and spent time working with pitching coach Carl Willis. The Indians, looking for a comeback year from Cliff, hoped he would reach his potential in 2008. He delivered a historic season. The 30-year-old was perfect in April, winning six straight starts before his first loss. He also notched his first career shutout. Cliff took a 12–2 record into the All-Star Game, where he was tabbed as the AL starter.
Cliff continued to roll through July and August. His control was outstanding. After a 5–0 mark in August, he notched his 20th victory on September 2nd, shutting out the Chicago White Sox, 5–0. He won twice more to finish at a remarkable 22–3 with a 2.54 ERA. Both of those figures led the AL. His .880 winning percentage was the fourth-best ever by a pitcher with more than 30 starts. Only Ron Guidry, Randy Johnson and Lefty Grove—like Cliff, all southpaws—had won a higher percentage of their decisions. Come Cy Young voting time, Cliff garnered 24 of 28 first-place votes to easily outdistance Roy Halladay and Francisco Rodriguez for the award.
Throughout the first half of the ’08 campaign, Cliff and Sabathia compared notes, traded tips, and supported each other. But CC was not around to see Cliff’s fantastic finish. The Indians traded Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers in July. At that time, Cleveland seemed hopelessly lost in the competitive AL Central, partly because Carmona and Westbrook were inconsistent contributors. But a late-season surge helped the Tribe finish a respectable 81–81.
The change in Cliff’s approach to pitching was obvious to even the casual fan. Whereas in past seasons he had pounded the strike zone and put away hitters with his fastball, now he was a complete pitcher. Righties could no longer count on waiting for a heater down the pipe. Cliff did a masterful job of keeping the ball away from them, leaving them guessing as to speed, break and location. Looking back, he realized that his disastrous experience in 2007 gave him the mental toughness he needed to become an ace.
Cliff had taken that final step into the elite class of major league pitchers. Unfortunately, the Indians were taking steps backwards. After their great promise of 2005, they seemed unable to get out of their own way. That meant Cliff, like his friend Sabathia, would soon be a luxury Cleveland could not afford. Fans hoped the Tribe could pull it together and make a run at the division crown, but the talent simply wasn’t there. When Cliff took the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals in June, his ERA was a tick above 3.00, yet he had only three wins to show for his efforts. He went out that night and shut out the Cards, carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning.
The For Sale sign went up on Cliff in July. With the Indains looks for a package of young players, the Philadelphia Phillies offered the best deal. It featured four decent prospects, including catcher Lou Marson.
Cliff paid immediate dividends for the Phillies, who needed an ace to solidify their rotation. In his first start, he pitched five-plus innings of no-hit ball on his way to a 5–1 complete game victory. He even doubled and knocked in a run.
Cliff went 7–4 for the Phillies with 74 strikeouts in 79 innings and a 3.39 ERA. His number in Cleveland were basically the same, except for the wins and losses. On the year, Cliff finished at 14–13 with a 3.22 ERA, setting career highs with six complete games, 221 and 2/3 innings and 181 strikeouts. The Phillies finished the year with 93 victories, well ahead of the rest of the pack in the NL East. For the first time in his career, Cliff was going to pitch in the postseason.
In the opening game of the Division Series against the Colorado Rockies, Cliff matched goose eggs with Ubaldo Jiminez until the Phillies broke through for a pair of runs in the fifth inning. They tacked on three more in the sixth to win 5–1. Cliff pitched a complete game, allowing only six hits. He had a shutout going with two outs in the ninth when a wild pitch and a double scored a meaningless run. Cliff fanned Garrett Atkins for the final out.
The Phillies dropped the next game but won Game 3 after the series moved back to Denver. Manager Charlie Manuel handed Cliff the ball for Game 4. He walked off the mound in the 8th inning with a 2–1 lead. But a pair of hits off reliever Ryan Madson put Philadelphia in a 4–2 hole. Fortunately, the Phillies came back in the ninth on clutch hits by Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth. They scored three times to win the game 5–4 and take the series.
Next up were the Dodgers in the NLCS. The Phillies barely survived a Game 1 slugfest and squandered an inspirational outing by veteran Pedro Martinez in a 2–1 loss in Game 2. The team left Los Angeles with a split, however, and Cliff was scheduled to work Game 3. Again, he was masterful, twirling eight innings of three-hit, 10-strikeout ball in an 11–0 blowout. The Phillies rallied for a comeback victory in Game 4, and then finished off the Dodgers with a 10–4 win in Game 5.
Cliff faced a familiar foe in the World Series, the Yankees. He kept the magic going in Game 1, outdueling Sabathia for a 6–1 victory. The contest was actually close until the 8th, when the Phillies turned a 2–0 lead into a 4–0 advantage. Cliff fanned 10 again and finished the game himself. He yielded a ninth-inning run on a groundout, and then struck out Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada in front of a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium to end the game.
The Yankees recovered to make a near-mockery of the series, taking three straight from the Phillies. Cliff took the hill in Game 5 to stop the bleeding. Chase Utley staked him to a 3–1 lead with a first-inning home run, and he kept the Bronx Bombers in check until the eighth inning, when they chased him with three straight hits. Chan Ho Park and Madson came on to preserve a nerve-wracking 8–6 win and give the Phillies a little hope. Unfortunately, Hideki Matsui had the game of his life two nights later, and New York won the championship.
In five pressure-packed postseason starts, Cliff had allowed only seven earned runs in just over 40 innings of work. He won all four of his decisions and deserved a fifth victory. He surrendered 33 base runners (27 hits and six walks) and struck out 33.
The contract extension Cliff had signed years earlier with the Indians included a club option for 2010. The Phillies exercised that option. Then, hoping to control the two best pitchers in baseball, they decided to trade Cliff out of the league to Seattle for prospects. The deal meant they could afford to sign Roy Halladay. The Mariners sent JC Ramirez, Tyson Gillies and Phillippe Aumont to Philadelphia in return for Cliff.
When the Mariners looked at the AL West, they saw a wide-open path to the playoffs. No team had a clear advantage. By adding Cliff to the top of a rotation that already included Felix Hernandez and Ryan Rowland-Smith, Seattle liked its chances. The M’s felt confident even when an injury kept Cliff off the mound for a few starts in April. Unfortunately,the Mariners had grossly overestimated their hitting. With the exception of Ichiro, every player in the lineup struggled. Soon it became clear that Seattle was headed for a 100-loss season.
With Cliff’s free agency just beyond the horizon, it made no sense for Seattle to keep him. On July 9, he joined the Rangers, his third team in less than a year. Texas was in much better position to make hay in the AL West. Teamr president Nolan Ryan had gotten the team’s young hurlers to trust their stuff. Now he needed a guy like Cliff to lead them to glory. Ryan was bidding against the Yankees, and for a day or so, it seemed as if Cliff was headed for the Bronx. But in what appeared to be an 11th hour change of heart, Cliff decided to head to Arlington instead. Part of the reason was that the Rangers played just a few hours from his home in Benton.
Cliff had pitched brilliantly for Seattle, winning eight games with a 2.34 ERA. He was less successful in the second half with Texas, winning just four of his 15 starts. Still, he was clearly the master of his own universe. In 212 innings, Cliff walked a grand total of 18 batters.
The Rangers cruised to the division title and faced the Rays in the Division Series. Cliff stymied Tampa Bay in Game 1 with a five-hit, 10-strikeout performance across seven innings. The Rangers won 5–1 powered by home runs from Nelson Cruz and catcher Benjie Molina, another midseason pickup.
The Rays won two of the next three games to knot the best-of-five series at two games apiece. Once again, Cliff took the mound in an all-or-nothing postseason game. This time he went the distance, fanning 11 Rays and allowing just one run in a dominant 5–1 win that sent the Rangers to the ALCS for the first time.
The Rangers and Yankees split the first two games of the series. Cliff faced Andy Pettitte in Game 3 in New York. Texas scored a pair of first-inning runs on a Josh Hamilton bomb, but Pettitte was untouchable after that. Cliff kept hanging zeroes on the Yankees, never allowing more than a single base runner. Finally the New York relievers imploded in the ninth, yielding six runs. Cliff took a seat on the bench as manager Ron Washington sent Neftali Perez to mop up the 8–0 win.
The teams split the next two games to set up Game 6 in Arlington with the Rangers needing one more win for the pennant. Many fans believed Cliff should get the nod. He had the Yankees thoroughly spooked at this point, so why not close out the series right away? Washington opted to go with Colby Lewis. If he won, Cliff could start Game 1 of the World Series. If he lost, Cliff could face the Yankees on a full rest in Game 7. As it turned out, Lewis was dominant. The Rangers won 6–1 to reach the World Series for the first time in their history.
The World Series opener featured the marquee match-up of Cliff vs. Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants. Most onlookers gave Texas a slight edge. The Giants had been scratching for runs all year, and their luck had to run out sooner or later. But as Cliff discovered, the San Francisco offense was hardly a pushover. In a rare postseason clunker, he didn’t make it out of the fifth inning. The game turned into a slugfest, as the Giants won 11—7. It was Cliff’s first postseason defeat.
Cliff had a chance to redeem himself in Game 5. The Giants had continued to hit Texas pitching and now they led the series three games to one. Cliff was sharp this time, but Lincecum was sharper. Neither pitcher yielded a run through six innings.
Cliff gave up a pair of scratch singles to start the 7th. After retiring the next two hitters, he had a choice. With runners on second and third, he could pitch to Edgar Renteria or walk him to face Aaron Rowand. Cliff chose to go after Renteria, which proved to be a mistake. He left a high fastball too far over the pate, and the veteran shortstop turned on the ball and yanked it into the left field seats. One mistake and the season was over. The Giants won 3–1 and for the second year in a row, Cliff went home knowing he probably would not be pitching for the same team again.
As a free agent, Cliff controlled his own destiny. Most assumed that he would follow the money to New York. The Yankees had their sights set on the guy who had given them fits in the postseason, and they were willing to pay any price to get him. As it turned out, so were the Rangers. Both teams made huge offers, each potentially topping $150 million.
But Cliff threw everyone in baseball a curve when he signed with the Phillies. The club had hardly been mentioned as a possible destination, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. had been working behind the scenes for months. Philly offered a 5-year deal worth around $100 million, with a possible sixth year tacked on. Cliff and his family decided to return to the City of Brotherly Love. Even though they left millions of dollars on the table, they felt the move was their best option.
With Cliff under contract, the Phillies boasted one of the most formidable starting staffs in recent memory. He and Halladay headed a rotation that also included Cole Hamels andRoy Oswalt. Midway through the 2011 campaign, rookie Vance Worley joined the rotation. As a group, they went 70–36 and helped Philadelphia lead the majors with 101 wins.
Cliff was sensational. In June, he twirled three consecutive shutouts against the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox. The last Phillie to do that was Robin Roberts in 1950. Cliff won all five of his starts that month to boost his record to 9–5. He also won all five of his starts in August. Cliff finished the year at 17–8 with 238 strikeouts and a 2.40 ERA. He also shut out the Washington Nationals, Giants and Atlanta Braves to finish with a league-high six whitewashes.
The Phillies cruised to the NL East title and seemed ready to return to the World Series as they began the NLDS against the Cardinals. St. Louis had overtaken the Braves in a dramatic Wild Card run. They stayed hot against the Phillies. In Cliff’s Game 2 start, he was unable to hold an early 4–0 lead. St. Louis pounded 12 hits off him in six inningsand won 5–4. The series went the distance, with Chris Carpenter outdueling Halladay in a classic 1–0 finale. The Cardinals would go on to win the pennant and face the Texas Rangers in the World Series. It was not an easy thing for Cliff to see the team he left end up where he hoped to go.
Having gotten a taste of championship baseball, Cliff desperately wants to win a World Series. As 2011 demonstrated, these things don’t always work out as planned. Nonetheless, Cliff has shown in recent years that he is a player worth planning around. A third straight World Series appearance may not have been the cards, but a third in four years wouldn’t surprise anyone.
CLIFF THE PLAYER
Cliff has followed a typical path for a left-handed starter. His struggles with location defined his early career from start to start. Now that he is locked in, he can relax and just pitch. Cliff has three fastballs—a two-seamer, a four-seamer, and a cutter. Basically, he picks a location and throws a 90 mph pitch that can behave one of three ways. It is a reason he is comfortable challenging hitters even when they know the heater is coming—and why he is so stingy with free passes.
Cliff also can throw a slider, curveball and changeup for strikes. When any or all of these pitches are working, he is a tough man to beat, When they’re not, he can still mix them in with his fastball to keep hitters off balance.
Cliff’s mound presence is one of his greatest weapons. He loves pitching when the pressure is on, and his confidence is unnerving to opponents. Cliff is stoic and ultra-competitive. He expects to win when he takes the hill. That attitude rubs off on his teammates.
© Copyright 2011 Black Book Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.