I Sense Something…A Presence I Haven’t Felt Since…

I have to apologize.  I developed a bad case of writer’s block this past week and I was struggling with finding a good angle for the Phillies.  The obvious angle would be to write about the greatness of Cliff Lee and what a great move the Phillies made by trading for him.  That just seemed too easy.  However, I would not be doing a good enough job if I were to ignore Cliff Lee and what a great addition to the team he has been.  I need to talk about him, but I want to talk about more than just the numbers he has been putting up since he arrived.  Let’s take a look at the numbers first and then a possible event of apocalyptic magnitude.

I was down at the “Bank” last week to see, firsthand, Cliff Lee pitch another complete game masterpiece.  He had a no-hitter going into the 6th inning until Chad Tracy lined a single to centerfield.  He dominated the D-backs.  Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch said it too, “Lee dominated us all night.”  That game made Lee 4-0 as a Phillies starter and lowered his ERA to 0.82.  Opponents have been batting .161 against him and he has walked 6 batters while striking out 34.  Those are frightening numbers if you think about it.  His numbers are better than C.C. Sabathia’s after he was traded to the Brewer’s last year.

Lee continued to impress Monday against the Mets by pitching 7 innings and allowing no earned runs to further lower his ERA to 0.68 in five starts with the Phillies.  He is now 5-0 as a starter for the Phillies.

I will admit that I was more in favor of getting Roy Halladay.  I was happy with the trade for Lee because we did not have to give up any of our better prospects or a current starter, but I would have been happier with Halladay simply because of all the hype he got from the media.  Hindsight is 20/20 though.  Halladay has a 2-3 record with an ERA of 4.5 for the month of August.  He has pitched one complete game.  An argument could be made that Halladay’s ERA would be lower than 4.5 if he had switched to a league in which the hitters are unfamiliar with him, but to say it would be as low as Lee’s would be insane.

It is a good thing that I’m not the GM of the Phillies because I would have made a much more costly trade with Toronto for Halladay rather than the deal that was made.  I also have to apologize to Reuben Amaro Jr. because I thought he would be an Ed Wade clone.  I am thoroughly impressed with what Reuben has done with this team in his first season as the GM.  I can only hope that he can continue the good work because it is going to get harder in the next couple of seasons.  Especially, if Lee continues to do what he has been doing, signing him is not going to be easy.

Watching Lee these past few weeks got me thinking about two things.  One, when was the last time we have been able to witness a talent like this play for the Phillies?  And two, will Philly be considered a baseball city again?  I’m probably going to infuriate every baseball purist in the city right now or at least the one or two that might read this article, but oh well, I don’t care.

When was the last time we have been able to witness a talent like Cliff Lee play for the Phillies?  This isn’t really a hard question to answer.  Two names immediately come to mind, Curt Schilling and good ‘ol Steve “Lefty” Carlton.  As great as Schilling was, he gets eliminated from the discussion rather easily since he never won a Cy Young Award.  Cliff Lee finished 4th in AL voting in 2005 and won the AL Cy Young Award in 2008, the same year he made his first and only All-Star appearance in his career so far.  I know I’m about to tread into delicate territory by comparing Cliff Lee to probably the best pitcher in Phillies history, but I’m just going to compare the two players.  It is way too early to supplant Steve Carlton as the best pitcher to don the red and white pinstripes with Cliff Lee, but I believe it is time to at least have some fun and compare the two pitchers.  We are just going to compare them.  Nothing more, nothing less, and so the members of the “Steve Carlton is the Greatest Phillies Pitcher Ever” club can take a deep breath and relax.  Besides, I was convinced that this comparison is legitimate after a long conversation with an elderly gentleman named Joe at the 401 Diner late last Friday evening.

Let’s begin.  (PLEASE NOTE: for every one of these comparisons, we are going to use the first 8 seasons of each player’s career)  That makes the most sense since “Lefty” played 24 seasons and Lee has only played 8 so far.

In his first 8 seasons in the majors, Steve Carlton had a record of 104-72 compared to Cliff Lee’s record of 88-48.  Sure, “Lefty” had 16 more wins and wins the battle there, however, that can be a little bit deceiving.  The better number to look at is the win-loss % which is .590 for “Lefty” compared to .647 for Lee.  Lee wins that battle.  For those keeping track at home…

”Lefty” – 1     Lee – 1

Next, how about ERA?  Carlton’s ERA was 2.86.  Lee’s isn’t even close, 3.90.  You can argue that it was a different era and that both pitched in different leagues, but I won’t because I think that it is pointless to do that.  Carlton would still clearly win that battle in my opinion.  In no way can you account for more than a whole point in their ERA’s by claiming a different era and/or different leagues.  Maybe it would be closer, but “Lefty” would still win.

The score…

”Lefty” – 2     Lee – 1

That leaves just one more category to look at, awards.  Steve Carlton made 4 All-Star appearances in his first 8 seasons.  Cliff Lee has made only one All-Star appearance.  Steve Carlton won his first Cy Young Award in the first season in which he was even in consideration.  Cliff Lee has won 1 Cy Young and finished in fourth place in AL voting in 2005.  To me, it is a draw between the two guys in regard to the Cy Young Award since both pitchers won 1 in their first 8 seasons albeit Lee was in the running to win 2.  The All-Star appearances break the tie for me, so “Lefty” wins the awards battle too.

The final score…

”Lefty” – 3     Lee – 1

Turns out this wasn’t even really a close debate.  I can’t help but find the win – loss comparison interesting though.  However, the question was…”When was the last time we have been able to witness talent like Cliff Lee play for the Phillies?” the answer is simple, not since Steve Carlton.  It is unlikely that Cliff Lee will ever unseat Steve Carlton as the greatest pitcher in Phillies history, but I think he could potentially come close if he is given the chance by Reuben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies organization to continue to build a legacy here in Philly rather than leave a half-finished one here.

That brings me to my last thought that came to mind.  One which tends to spark a lot of debate, especially with the baseball purists that believe that baseball reigns supreme among the four major sports in America – will Philly be considered a baseball city again?  The purists and die-hard Phillies fans will argue that Philly is a baseball town or rather has been a baseball town for the past year to two years.  Not true.  Philly is and has been a football town for at least the past 20 – 25 years despite the recent success of the Phillies.

Once upon a time Philadelphia was a baseball city.  No doubt about it.  I think the fact that two baseball teams called Philadelphia home at one point illustrates that enough.  It might be hard to believe, but many citizens of the great “City of Brotherly Love” lived and breathed baseball.  Somewhere along the way that changed and the passion of the city turned toward its football team.

Like I said earlier, I estimate the turning point to be about 20 – 25 years ago.  That is when a brash, no-nonsense, old school Chicago Bears defensive coordinator was hired to be the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, replacing “Swamp Fox” Marion Campbell.  His name was James David Ryan, better known as Buddy.  Buddy was the embodiment of the fan.  He knew how to make a connection to the fans unlike any other coach that this city has ever seen before with the exception of maybe Dallas Green.  The combination of Buddy’s charm and a long playoff appearance drought for the Phillies— only one appearance from 1986 – 2006, and possibly more importantly, 0 appearances from 1984 – 1992—converted Philly from a baseball town to a football town.  It was a perfect storm of sorts.  The Phillies were riding an escalator down while the Eagles were riding one going up.

Why doesn’t Dick Vermeil get any credit for converting Philly from baseball to football?  Well, when Dick came to town the Eagles stunk and the Phillies were busy winning a lot of games and going to the playoffs.  The Phillies were the best thing in town during the 1970’s.  Sorry Flyers fans, it’s true.  The Phillies were first and the hot pants girls were second.  Vermeil might have turned the Eagles franchise around and got more fans to notice the team, but he did not convert the city to football.  Buddy did.

So, with two playoff appearances in a row, most likely three, and a World Series title, will Philly convert back to baseball as its favorite sport?  It hasn’t converted yet, but it could.  Philly won’t convert overnight.  A few things need to happen first before a conversion to the dark side is complete (whether they are likely to happen or not is for you to decide)…

1.  The Phillies need to make a deep playoff run that lasts until late October if not into November this year. This is important because it will mean that the Phillies will be on everybody’s mind and will be one of the most popular if not the most popular water cooler and barroom discussion topics.

2.  The Eagles need to go into the tank. And by going into the tank I mean 6-10, 5-11, or worse—something that has only happened twice during the Reid era.  It would be better for the Phillies if the Eagles go into the tank early, but that is not likely with the all-you-can-eat buffet of Jell-O and tapioca pudding they will be fed in September and October.  That means there will have to be a late season collapse of Titanic proportions.

3.  The Eagles need to follow a bad season with another bad season. Two bad seasons in a row would mean that Andy Reid would finally be out of a job.  At least in Philly he would be, and surprisingly a lot of Eagles fans would love for that to happen.

4.  The Phillies need to sign Cliff Lee to a contract. Philly was a baseball town the last time they had a pitcher like Cliff Lee.  They need to make sure he wears a Phillies uniform for a long, long time.  This is not going to be easy for the myriad of reasons I presented earlier, but if this city is to convert to baseball, signing Lee to a contract is paramount.  Lee wants to test free-agency which will mean the Phillies will have to compete with the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Dodgers for his services and if he continues to play like he has, it means that he won’t be cheap.  The Phillies have to ask themselves if the juice is worth the squeeze.

Could Philly be a baseball town again?  It’s possible.  Is it likely?  The Phillies at least have some control over whether that happens or not.  Some of it is out of their hands and in the hands of the current king of Philadelphia sports.  The least that the Phillies can do is take care of what they can control and hope for the best (or worst) in regard to what they can’t control.  By showing their loyal fans and some Eagles malcontents that they are truly dedicated to continued long-term success, as the Eagles have demonstrated over the past 25 years, the Phillies will convert more fans over to their side and maybe, just maybe convert the entire city.

– Sean Dempsey