Just over two years ago, Cliff Lee walked into manager Eric Wedge’s office and asked him for a favor. He asked to be sent to the minors. After a solid year in 2005 (18-5 with a 3.79 ERA) Lee had a mediocre year in 2006 and hit rock bottom in 2007 going 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA. He couldn’t hit spots with his fastball, he could not get it by people like he used to and his off speed stuff was not working because no one had to respect the fastball. As an Indians fan, I knew he was good because I had seen him do it before but I feared he was a one hit wonder. When he went to the minors, I thought there was a chance he would return, but that in all likelihood he would never return to form. A Cy Young Award and a complete game virtual shutout later (0ER, 1R), we have a new version of Cliff Lee.
What he did Wednesday night may not have been one for the ages, but it was certainly one for the current age. If the Yankees go on to win in 5 or 6, no one will care that Cliff Lee threw an absolute gem in a stadium so tailored to offense that even a bingo caller calling plays for the Redskins could score. He was about as close to perfect as I have personally seen in a World Series game and he did it against one of the better offenses of recent memory, at least statistically. Granted there is some inflation, but be honest, what kind of money would you have put on anyone to navigate this lineup so flawlessly? Add to this masterstroke the work of Chase Utley and the Phillies, and it was a shockingly dominating performance by the defending champs. They came out on the road and were almost flawless at the plate and in the field. I cannot heap enough praise on Cliff Lee and the Phillies for Game 1, but this series is anything but over. The Yankees have to like their chances tonight with Burnett on the mound and facing Pedro Martinez, a man who once called the Yankees his “daddy”. The aging wonder was nearly unhittable in seven innings of Game 2 against the Dodgers, but you have to wonder if he can keep it up. Burnett, apart from the first and last inning in his last start, was masterful and the Yankees have got to like their chances to bounce back as I do. I would try to put a number on the score, but when you have a guy like Pedro you are unsure about and a mercurial guy like Burnett and it could be anywhere from 1-0 to 11-10 and everything in between. I think the Yankees will even up the series heading back to Philly, but going up 1-0 could not have been a bigger deal for the Phillies.
Ok, this whole “Instant Replay” thing has got to be addressed. Last night Jimmy Rollins, intentionally or not, made a great play making it look like the ball hit the ground and got the double play. I understand wanting to get every call right, and in this case they did, and everyone likes that, but think about the consequences for a second. The most cynical of us will stop reading here as they complain about the “consequences of getting it right”, but hear me out. When you think about it, baseball is the only sport that you could really play without any officials or umpires. You can put a chip in the bases that tells when they are touched, use technology every network has for balls and strikes, and use any number of computerized methods to tell about tags and fair/foul calls. Does anyone really want a game without officials/umpires? The art of catching is reduced as catchers can no longer matter as much and there will be less good in selling a call to umpires. As a result, no one will learn the subtleties of the game and the players will steadily become more robotic and aesthetically displeasing. Do people think that officiating errors are not part of the game? They are and, as crazy as this sounds, should remain that way. One of the charms of sports is how it is not simply a matter of pure efficiency, there is a razzle and/or dazzle to the athletes and the game. I do not want to see a million guys who have the perfectly learned mechanics of Mark Prior, I want to see the Lincecums, Tiants, and Bob Gibsons. Derek Jeter’s swing is by no means the taught swing of today as he sort of drags his hands through instead of using his hands to put the bat head in the zone immediately, but I would bet that if he would have been forced to abandon his current swing he would not be the player he is today. Mechanical perfection does not equal quality in pitching, hitting, or baseball in general. The technical and mechanical perfection that is craved by fans these days may be enticing, but with baseball, it just does not work in the interest of the game. Baseball is not like the other sports of America. It is steeped in history that the NBA, NHL, NFL and others just cannot match, and it is not helped by the new technology in the same way the other sports have been. Proceed with caution MLB; because once you start expanding it, there is no limit to how it could be used. It would take away some of the charm and aura that makes baseball such a beautiful game and America’s past time.