Circuitous (adj.): having a circular or winding course.
The word is also defined as not being forthright or direct in language or action.
Clifton “Cliff” Phifer Lee’s career path to World Series Game 1 ace could fall into both categories. In fact, it’s a tale that involves one of the worst trades in baseball history, seven different organizations, a cancer scare and two trips to the Fall Classic.
Over the last three seasons, Lee has endeared himself to not one, two or three major league fan bases, but four. And has done so in remarkable fashion on the field. Try a 2.98 ERA, 17 complete games and one Cy Young award in 93 starts since the open of the 2008 season.
A far cry from clubhouse in-fighting, being booed off the field and a demotion to the minors. All of which he would endure before getting his first taste of October baseball.
Lee, a Benton, Ark., native, was originally selected in the eighth round of the 1997 MLB draft by the Florida Marlins. He did not sign with the Fish, opting instead to enroll at Meridian Community College in Mississippi where he pitched for one season, after which he was drafted again — in the 20th round by the Baltimore Orioles. The year at a C.C. had cost him 12 rounds.
However, Lee bounced back. Instead of signing with the Orioles, he chose to attend the University of Arkansas. Two years later he signed with the Montreal Expos as a fourth-round pick in the 2000 draft.
In his first two years in the minors, Lee showed improvement and was promoted from A-Cape Fear to high-A-Jupiter, and then to AA-Harrisburg for the start of the ’02 campaign. That year he started 15 games for Harrisburg before the first of his many transactions — a trade that will go down in history as one of baseball’s worst.
On June 27, 2002, Lee was shipped to the Cleveland Indians with Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew. Colon was a solid 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA in 17 starts for Montreal, yet the Expos finished 19 games back of the Braves in the East, and 12.5 games behind the eventual NL Champion Giants in the Wild Card. Needless to say, the Expos gambled and lost the entire savings account.
En route to the majors, however, Lee had one more very serious hurdle to overcome that most minor leaguers know nothing about. Lee’s four-month old son Jaxon was diagnosed with leukemia and given a 30% chance to live. However, after chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and a stem cell transplant, Jaxon, now a healthy nine year-old, is in remission. (He could be seen in his father’s arms after the Rangers clinched the AL pennant.)
After three drafts, his son’s bout with cancer and one very lopsided trade, Lee made his major league debut on September 15th of 2002 in an Indians uniform.
He made 11 starts in his first two seasons for the Indians with a respectable 3-4 record and 3.30 ERA. In 2004, Lee finally became a regular in the Indians rotation and posted an above average 14-8 record with a severely below average 5.43 ERA. His 81 walks that year are still a career high by a wide margin.
He showed dramatic improvement in his second full season. Lee led the team with 18 wins, finished second in innings pitched with 202 and third in strikeouts. Along with his 3.79 ERA, Lee finished fourth in the 2005 Cy Young voting. Lee helped the Tribe to 93 wins in 2005.
Yet, as the Indians regressed in 2006 — from 93 wins to 78 wins — so, too, did Lee. Despite his dip in production, Lee earned his first big contract when the Indians signed him to a $14 million deal in midseason. Motivated, driven, and ambitious should have been words used to describe Lee’s 2007 season, right?
The ‘07 season did not start as planned, however, when Lee suffered a groin injury in spring training and was forced to start the season on the disabled list. He struggled mightily in his return to the rotation, going 4-9 with a 5.38 ERA in his first 16 starts of the season.
On July 21st, things began to unravel for the newly minted millionaire — at the Ballpark in Arlington, of all places.