Three Ways to Understand Cliff Lee

Carson Cistulli · July 1, 2010 at 12:17 am · Filed Under Mariners 

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.

Though there’s obviously room to analyze Lee’s historic half-season, another very popular tact — one of which I heartily approve — is merely to enjoy it.

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.


22 Responses to “Three Ways to Understand Cliff Lee”

  1. greentunic on July 1st, 2010 1:20 am

    To add to your first point, which was rather touching honestly,

    Mr. Lee’s ability is so special right now, that it BELONGS in the World Series. I want to see him pitch for the Twins or the Mets to win a championship. This absurd performance of his needs to be seen, appreciated, and contributed to baseball lore.

  2. maqman on July 1st, 2010 2:07 am

    Amen to the above.

  3. J.L. White on July 1st, 2010 2:59 am

    Hey, Lee just pitched in the World Series last year. Although it would be smart for the M’s to trade him to improve long-term, I don’t think it would be below Cliff Lee if he stuck around and won a Cy Young award as a Mariner.

  4. joealb1 on July 1st, 2010 7:10 am

    Dennis Eckersley.

  5. kcw2 on July 1st, 2010 7:18 am

    Well done, sir.

  6. robbbbbb on July 1st, 2010 7:47 am

    Ralph Waldo Emerson? What team does he play for?

  7. Rusty on July 1st, 2010 7:49 am

    I say the M’s should trade him now and then sign him as a free agent next year when his goal will likely be to draw a negative number of walks.

  8. SunDevil1 on July 1st, 2010 7:52 am

    I agree with Tunic. And as we all know, every truly great artist, or cosmologist, or athlete, is in fact insane.

  9. Carson on July 1st, 2010 8:39 am

    Joe Montana once said:

    “I don’t think it’s the want to be good, or the want to win. It’s more so the thought of failure that scares you into wanting to be the best you can be.”

    So, yeah. I think there is some validity to point number two. Anyone who is at the top of their profession is likely very concerned with failing themselves and their teammates/co-workers. Perhaps family and fans in the case of athletes, also.

  10. smb on July 1st, 2010 8:51 am

    The day he signs with the Yankees, and he will, is the day he becomes dead to me. I’m enjoying this while it lasts, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t bittersweet at best. When he comes to town and 1-hit, CG’s us, I will probably vomit.

  11. abender20 on July 1st, 2010 9:34 am

    I appreciate your efforts in the name of Mariners fans. Kudos on the clever NERD score concept as well. I absolutely understand, however, why your writing takes as much flak as it does. There are quite a few ways to run up a high word count through thorough analysis, ruminations on an event or trend, or perhaps something like a minor league write up. But pieces have to have a point. Writing in the name of bringing new information to an audience generally qualifies. Writing for the sake of amusing yourself doesn’t. Even ignoring the bizarre comparison of a Cliff Lee trade to an unfortunate death of a college student, I’ve found most of your writing to resemble self-gratification. You are quite clearly a talented writer who enjoys writing, but do remember your audience. It isn’t you.

  12. heyoka on July 1st, 2010 9:37 am

    I remember after the M’s drafted Ryan Anderson, that he said he’s going to be the best pitcher in baseball.

  13. Funes el memorioso on July 1st, 2010 9:59 am

    “…another very popular tact — one of which I heartily approve…”

    You “take a different tack” not tact. It is a sailing expression.

  14. joser on July 1st, 2010 10:05 am

    I normally try to avoid playing grammar nazi around here, but given the overall quality of Carson’s writing and breadth of his vocabulary, I feel compelled to note:

    Though there’s obviously room to analyze Lee’s historic half-season, another very popular tact

    The word you want here is “tack” — as in a sailing ship taking different tacks (zig-zagging) when sailing close to the wind. “Tact” is what diplomats possess, and what folks like Lou and Milton do not: knowing how to say the right things (and not say the wrong things) to avoid ruffling any feathers. Tact is what Zduriencik shows when asked about any of his players; it most certainly is not what Bavasi showed when asked about Dave Samson.

    I suppose if someone might be offended by us somehow not enjoying Cliff Lee’s performance, it might be tactful for us to pretend to enjoy it, or to at least not mention that we’re not enjoying it… but every part of that would be crazy. And I don’t think it’s what you meant.

    Again, sorry to nitpick but this is one of those little points that really bugs me. But hey, I for one enjoy your pieces as a change of pace at USSM and (last I checked) I’m part of the audience that most certainly is not you. Of course if I didn’t enjoy it, the tactful thing would be not to say anything. But that’s not the tack we generally take around here.

  15. joser on July 1st, 2010 10:09 am

    Ralph Waldo Emerson? What team does he play for?

    Given that he was born in and spent his entire life around Boston, I think it’s pretty easy to guess.

  16. kcw2 on July 1st, 2010 10:11 am

    Since I like the piece, I will respond to abender20 that there are no points to the piece. IMO, there are three.

    Statistical: What Lee is doing is a performance that is the equivalent of maybe four standard deviations above the mean. Three sds above the mean account for 99.73% of all occurrences. Four sds above the mean account for 99.994% of all occurrences.

    How: On beyond his physical ability, he imagined something that no one could imagine.

    For us: It is fantastic; don’t miss it; enjoy it.

  17. dnc on July 1st, 2010 10:13 am

    but do remember your audience. It isn’t you.

    His audience isn’t just *you*, either. I have thoroughly enjoyed everything Mr Cistulli has contributed here, and imagine I will continue to do so going forward.

    If you don’t like it, don’t read it. But please don’t pretend you speak for USSM at large.

  18. LB on July 1st, 2010 3:01 pm

    The word you want here is “tack” — as in a sailing ship taking different tacks (zig-zagging) when sailing close to the wind. “Tact” is what diplomats possess, and what folks like Lou and Milton do not: knowing how to say the right things (and not say the wrong things) to avoid ruffling any feathers.

    It’s great how you want to help him get untracked.

  19. georgmi on July 1st, 2010 4:46 pm

    I likes me some words, arranged entertainingly. If that takes some folks out of the narrative, that’s useful feedback, and certainly the author should consider that, but at the end of the day, you have to pick the portion of the audience that you’re going to write to. Twain said that, and he was a man who knew how to convolute a paragraph.

    I also likes me some Cliff Lee, and would like to see him in a Mariners uniform until he’s Jamie Moyer’s age. I don’t expect it, but I’d like it.

  20. Wallingfjord on July 1st, 2010 6:14 pm


    Count me as someone else who enjoys your posts. You are impossibly florid. I picture you scribbling your posts with a quill pen before typing them into the computer.

    As for Cliff Lee… I don’t know what else can be said. He’s great, and he’s not staying. Would you?

  21. PBS on July 1st, 2010 6:26 pm

    “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

  22. chimera on July 1st, 2010 8:04 pm

    I’m really, really going to miss Cliff Lee.

    I love King Felix, but Lee is freaking awesome — he absolutely refuses to walk anyone (other than the tiny few).

    It’s too bad this season turned out the way it has. Oh well, I guess it’s only baseball.

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