Three Ways to Understand Cliff Lee
It’s becoming clear at this point that, owing to his absurdly low walk rate and his general ownership of every frigging major league batter, that the pitcher we’re witnessing right now in Cliff Lee is one that we’re unlikely to witness again before we shuffle off this mortal coil.
Thing is, though joy is easy to experience, it’s more difficult to articulate. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
It’s with that in mind that I present this to you, the readers of U.S.S. Mariner — three brief attempts to understand (and celebrate) Lee’s accomplishment to date.
I, one time, went to a funeral for a young woman I’d known in high school. She was in her second or third year at RISD when she died and it was a sad thing to’ve happened. Very sad. Except, towards the end of this girl’s funeral, a math teacher from our high school spoke. He was (and, I can only assume, still is) a spirited Greek person — like, actually from Greece — and he said about the young woman, “I think God took Addi [that was her name] because he wanted to have a new great artist in heaven with Him.” His message, more celebratory than sorrowful, was well received by everyone in attendance.
It’s with almost no part of my tongue in my cheek that I suggest this is a legitimate concern with regard to Cliff Lee. If God is in the business of snatching from us our most excellent specimens, then Mariner fans ought to worry less about Lee being traded to a playoff contender and more about him getting recruited for some manner of celestial baseballing league.
After his most recent start — a complete game victory at the Yankees, mind you — really the only thing Lee would talk about is how he walked a batter. Literally, a batter. “I’m not too pleased about it,” Lee said. “My goal coming into the season is not to walk anyone for a whole season.”
Let’s play a game of This One Thing Is Like This Other Thing.
Ready? Let’s go.
That one thing Lee said is kinda like this other thing Bill James said, on the last page of the last Bill James Baseball Abstract Newsletter, as follows:
“I have a cold, cold horror of failing people. In many ways my life is dominated by a fear of disappointing people.”
Perhaps it’s been said before, but it can also probably be said again: to operate at the highest level in one’s field is very likely not a function of wanting or willing oneself to do well, but, much more likely, a function of not wanting to fail. Regardless of whether it’s disappointing other people (as in the case of James) or disappointing one’s own self (as with Lee), that doesn’t matter.
Apropos the above — specifically, Lee’s comment about setting a goal of not walking anyone for a whole season — here’s the only possible reaction for a normal person to have: Cliff Lee is insane.
But Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “Self-Reliance” — which, alot of people don’t know, is actually about Cliff Lee — in that essay, Emerson reminds us, “to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”
Perhaps a pitcher before now has suggested that it was his intention not to walk a batter for an entire season. However, if this is the case, I don’t remember it. Really, it’s as if Cliff Lee has invented this concept, has even dared to imagine that one could navigate his way through a complete major league season without walking even a single batter — and, in so imagining, has almost accomplished it.