PEORIA. Ariz. – It was a simulated game with minor league hitters on a practice field, with Seattle Mariners pitchers Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee taking turns on the mound.
A couple of photographers fired away as Lee faced batters for the first time all spring, then checked their photos.
“Look at this, he’s smiling,” one said.
Sure enough. All through his windup, right up to the point of delivering the pitch – and following through – Lee appeared to be grinning. Not straining, not adding extra effort ... smiling.
Asked about it later, the 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner shook his head.
“I may be grimacing, I don’t know. I know I’m not smiling,” Lee said. “The game isn’t that easy.”
Lee’s perspective on baseball and life differs from many of his Seattle teammates, just as it did when he was with Montreal, Cleveland and Philadelphia. He loves baseball and works as hard at it as anyone.
But pressure? Adrenaline rushes? Nervousness?
No. Lee has dealt with life and death, fear and despair away from baseball, survived it and knows that baseball is a great game, a lovely way to make a living but nothing worth driving yourself crazy over.
Four days after Kristen Lee delivered the couple’s first child, Jaxon, in 2001, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. There was chemotherapy, followed by infections and relapses – and the Lees were told there was only a 30 percent chance their son would live.
What Lee and his wife went through put sports in a different light.
Jaxon lived, but the things Lee learned through his son’s battle remain part of his demeanor.
“That was eight years ago now,” he said Sunday. “When he was 5, they told us he was in complete remission, and now I treat him like he was any other boy.”
“My perspective is probably a little different, because the entire time I’ve pitched, I’ve had a wife and child, and now two children,” Lee said. “Baseball has always been important to me – it still is – but I don’t worry about what I can’t control.”
Pitching coach Rick Adair has worked with Lee for three weeks now.
“He’s all business, serious about his work. He has fun, but when it comes to working, his focus is complete,” Adair said. “People watch him work, and he knows they watch.
“My first impression? He’s a model guy for what we believe in. He’s a winner, I love his style of pitching, his presence, his leadership. Cliff’s a guy whose stuff gets guys out, who controls the running game, does all the small things that make the difference between winning and losing.”
Now 31, Lee is considered one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game, the guy who went 22-3 two years ago, the man who went 2-0 against that fierce New York Yankees club last October in the World Series.
When the Phillies made Lee available in trade so that they could pursue Roy Halladay, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said it was a deal he never thought twice about.
For three young players – pitcher Phillippe Aumont, outfielder Tyson Gillies and pitcher J.C. Ramirez, Zduriencik landed Lee to pitch with Hernandez atop the Seattle rotation.
Lee is in the final year of his contract, but the Mariners are fine with that. They’ll try to sign him long-term but know getting him to agree to one will depend upon the 2010 season – on and off the field.
His value on the field has shown up already, and he hasn’t pitched an inning in an exhibition game. Wakamatsu sees a difference in his pitchers because of Lee.
“Cliff’s work ethic, the way he goes about things, has had an impact on our young pitchers, and it’s had an impact on Felix,” Wakamatsu said. “He and Lee play catch together every morning. Felix is a young guy with a lot of pressure on him, and he’s watched Lee work, watched his routine.
“If you’re a young pitcher and you know Lee’s story, it gives you hope. Here was a guy who wasn’t expected to do much, he wins the Cy Young Award and has become one of the best in the game. He got there by working, making adjustments, learning the game.
“He has respect because he’s earned it.”
After spending parts of five seasons with the Indians in the majors, Lee’s record was 49-28. In 2006, he won 14 games. A year later, he was sent to the minor leagues.
“I didn’t enjoy going back to the minor leagues, but I didn’t want to be that bitter guy, either,” Lee said. “I tried to make myself a better pitcher. I used it as motivation. It was the first time in my career I’d ever struggled like that. Sometimes you have to go backward before you can go forward again.”
It was a lost season for Lee in 2007. He worked 10 minor league games and went 2-3, then got 20 big-league appearances and went 5-8 with a 6.29 earned run average. When he came to spring training the next year, there were no expectations of him except his own.
“Do I expect to win every time out? I expect to give my team the chance to win. I expect to go deep into the game. That’s what I expect of myself,” Lee said.
Then he went out and won the Cy Young Award.
“The year I won the Cy Young Award, I located every pitch, I cut down my walks and I had a great start to the season,” Lee said. “I’ve always been confident. I’ve always gone to the mound thinking I’m going to win. If you don’t have it, it’s hard to be successful.
“Winning the Cy Young Award didn’t so much give me more confidence as validate the kind of pitcher I was, that I’d move into a select group.”
It also helped validate his approach.
“During the course of a season, you’re going to have your A game, your B game and games where you just have to scrap through it,” Lee said. “But I really believe if you focus on the work between starts, if you prepare the right way, you should have your A game most times out.”
After what he has seen off the field, Lee is unflappable – on and off the mound. In the midst of negotiating a contract extension with Philadelphia this winter, Lee went hunting with a couple of friends along the Mississippi River near his Arkansas home.
When his cell phone rang, it was the Phillies. Never mind that contract – he’d been traded to Seattle.
Lee was surprised, not entirely pleased with the development, but again kept things in perspective.
“What did I do? I stayed on the hunt,” Lee said. “It was a beautiful area and a good hunt. So I stayed out there.”
Today, he says, he feels part of the Mariners team, feels he fits well into a group of players who trust one another, enjoy each other and share the goal of winning.
“A good clubhouse is a place where everyone is on the same page, and they enjoy messing with each other,” Lee said. “Having Ken Griffey Jr. in the mix changes things. He knows how to keep it light, and how to make it serious, too. With Ken here, it’s a whole other dynamic. I’m enjoying myself, getting my work in.”
And smiling. On and off the mound.