Clifton Phifer (Cliff) Lee (1978–)
Arkansas native Cliff Lee is a major league baseball pitcher. He has pitched in both the National and American Leagues, winning All-Star recognition in both circuits.
Clifton Phifer Lee was born on August 30, 1978, in Benton (Saline County) to Steve Lee, who was a firefighter and one-time member of the Benton City Council, and his wife, Sharon Lee. Lee grew up in Benton and graduated from Benton High School in 1997. Following graduation, he was drafted by the Florida Marlins but decided to attend Meridian Community College in Meridian, Mississippi. Drafted in 1998 by the Baltimore Orioles, he again deferred, instead attending the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County).
The left-handed Lee had one solid season pitching for the Razorbacks at UA, averaging more than one strikeout per inning. When Lee was selected by the Montreal Expos in the 2000 draft, he decided to abandon his college career. Lee signed that July with the Expos and was sent to the Class A Cape Fear Crocs, where he began the slow climb through the minor leagues that took him from Class A Jupiter to Double A Harrisburg to the Triple A Buffalo Bisons. In September 2002, he was called up to the Cleveland Indians. In two starts, he pitched ten and one-third innings, picked up his first loss, and posted a 1.74 ERA that boded well for the future.
Lee married Benton native Kristen Martin, whom he had known since childhood. In 2001, their son, Jaxon, was born; he was soon diagnosed with childhood leukemia but underwent treatment and survived. Two years later, the couple had a daughter, Maci.
Starting the 2004 season on the Indians’ roster, Lee opened the season by winning ten of his first eleven decisions. By winning four of his last five decisions, he finished his first full major league season with a 14–8 record and a 5.43 ERA. He was one of the American League’s top strike-out pitchers, striking out 161 players in 179 innings. The 2005 season saw additional improvement as Lee pitched over 200 innings for the first time while going 18–5 with a 3.79 ERA. In 2006, he won fourteen games. Looking for a breakout season in 2007, Lee was instead dogged by injuries. At one point, he was sent down to the minors. When the Indians advanced to the post season, Lee was left off the roster.
Lee managed a return in 2008. Starting off 12–2, he earned the start in his first All-Star game, and he finished with a record of 22–3, with an ERA of 2.54 and 170 strikeouts in 223 ⅓ innings. He collected a slew of post-season awards, including both the American League Cy Young Award and the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
The 2009 Indians struggled, and they traded Lee to the Philadelphia Phillies in July. His 7–4 record toward the end of the season helped the Phillies capture the National League’s Eastern Division. Pitching in his first post season, Lee was outstanding. He started five games and won four, including two in the World Series against the New York Yankees, although the Phillies lost the series.
His stint with Philadelphia was short lived, as he was soon traded to the Seattle Mariners. However, early the next spring, the Mariners traded Lee to the Texas Rangers, where he again pitched in the post season. Lee got two wins against Tampa Bay in the Division Series and then one against the Yankees as the Rangers advanced to their first-ever World Series. However, Lee lost twice to the San Francisco Giants, who won the World Series.
A highly coveted free agent, Lee surprised the baseball world by choosing to return to the Phillies for the 2011 season. With a five-year, $100 million contract, Lee joined a rotation that included All-Stars Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. The Phillies went to the post season in 2011 but were unable to advance past the first round. Lee meanwhile pitched more than 200 innings each season from 2011 to 2013, while being selected for the All-Star game in both 2011 and 2013.
Injuries sidetracked him in both 2014 and 2015. He was put on the disabled list in the spring of 2015, deciding to try to rehabilitate the injuries rather than have surgery. Speculation about his possible retirement began, as he was in the last year of his contract and had put his multi-million-dollar Philadelphia condominium on the market. The Phillies did not renew his contract for 2016.
For additional information:
“Cliff Lee Acknowledges Career May Be Over.” USA Today, March 9, 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2015/03/09/cliff-lee-career-ending-elbow-injury/24648865/ (accessed November 12, 2020).
“Cliff Lee.” Baseball-Reference.com. http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/leecl02.shtml (accessed November 12, 2020).
Cliff Lee. MILB.com. http://www.milb.com/player/index.jsp?player_id=424324#/career/R/pitching/2015/ALL (accessed November 12, 2020).
Webb, Kane. “What Cliff Lee Did on His Winter Vacation.” Arkansas Life (March 2011): 46–49.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated: 11/12/2020