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Cliff Lee and Room Elephants

Jeff Sullivan had a nice post the other day about Cliff Lee. He made the assertion that Cliff Lee is, was, and forever will be the perfect pitcher. This led me to try and think of Cliff Lee's flaw, his Achilles something or other. The obvious answer, the obvious room elephant in regard to Cliff Lee is age. Cliff Lee is not an old man, but he seems old for a pitcher. His age is relative, of course. He is only thirty-two, but it seems, even at the height of his relative perfection, that the clock is ticking and his time at the top will be short. His late blooming precision is mind-boggling. He just pitched his third shutout in a row. He did it against the Boston Red Sox. He did it against a line-up of hyperbolic giants. He cut through them like a surgeon. It was a thing of pinpoint perfection. The perfection was calculated. It was artistic.

Cliff Lee's art, like all great works of art, is a thing of craft. It is obvious that he has spent countless hours honing something deep. All great artists have some inkling that they have something great ticking in them. Age doesn't matter. Obstacles don't either. Marriage kids, family, life, death, disease, addiction: these are just things that help drive. For Cliff Lee, the batter is the lump of clay, the block of wood, the blank canvas, the silent, unheard note. The ball is the thing that molds the lump of clay into a perfectly well run piece of perfection. His craft, his art, is ageless (even though it exists in short bursts). His is the art of the out. It is perfect like a pop song, like the sketch a master makes on a napkin to cover a tab.

The problem, the sad thing at the heart of his existence, is that it feels as if Cliff Lee is only getting started. His art (the art of all athletes really) is running, constantly moving away from gravity, from time. He is thirty-two years old. Yes, he is young. He is still very young. At some point, however, the the pop song that is his perfect precision will begin to date. He will begin to age, to breakdown, to become irrelevant. This is hard to imagine, because he has begun to attain a certain perfection. His perfection has a certain urgency to it. He doesn't walk people. He doesn't want to give anything away. It is true that he is walking a few more batters this year, but he's striking out a few more too. It's like he's tweaking things, getting things ready for his masterpiece. Maybe we're right in the middle of it.

This is the thing about sport. There are rules. There are frames that exist. Preset notions that act as barriers, as metaphorical sheep dogs trained to guide. Because of these preset notions, because of the rigidity of their existence, we know when someone is approaching greatness. Good things rarely sneak up. We get excited about perfect games by the third inning. If a player hits a triple in his first at bat, we assume that the hard part is over, that the cycle is well within reach. Of course it is true that real value goes far beyond trivial moments of perceived perfection. For example, two three run home runs and two walks will usually (if not always) be more beneficial that the novelty of the cycle -- but novelty sticks and true success is often overlooked, often undervalued. Tangents be damned, since 2008, Cliff Lee's performance as a baseball player has been everything but novelty. His existence has been a thing of pure perfection.

Everything clicked for Cliff Lee in 2008. He was twenty-nine. He won the Cy Young Award. He deserved to win the award. He led the league with an ERA+ of 169 and he was second in the American League with a WAR of 7.3. For all intents and purposes, his body was centered at the exact point of perfection. The year before, however, had been a nightmare. He was sent down to the minors after a start against the Red Sox in which he gave up seven runs in four innings. He was called back up in September, but was relatively useless in his return. There was nothing predictive in his existence to prove that he would morph into a thing of worth (let alone a thing of perfection).

In 2008 Malcolm Gladwell had an article in the New Yorker. A friend sent it to me. The article, titled "Late Bloomers," used writer Ben Fountain's long, slow, methodical, depressing rise to the relative top as a sort of jumping off point for a deeper discussion about the nature of genius. My friend was being nice. It took Ben Fountain a long time. Ben Fountain abandoned draft after draft. My friend was a fan of a screenplay I had written. He had read every draft. There were probably ten, twenty, I lost count after a while. The screenplay centered on the imaginary world hidden deep in the not-so-metaphorical subconscious of a once thought to be family friendly entertainment company. The once thought to be family friendly entertainment company (while keeping up appearances) had begun to grow a type of edible wonderment. Wonderment came in the form of potato-like orbs that made characters feel like Vicks VapoRub smelled. I was fascinated with the idea of wonderment and Audio Animatronics.

I revisit the script every once in a while when I'm wanting to reenter the world. Even though it seems Jon Favreau and Michael Chabon are developing something incrediblly similar (as is the nature of things and stuff), I enjoy the characters and know them at such a level that it is nice to revisit from time to time. As I grow, the characters grow. My friend who sent me the article did it as a means of helping me understand the fact that art is a thing that is nurtured - that craft is a thing that must be honed. Even though I know this to be true, my own insecurities, and inevitably my own failings come as a result of the perception that art is a thing of youth:

Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity-doing something truly creative, we're inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, "Citizen Kane," at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with "Moby-Dick."

In my attempt to understand Cliff Lee, I find myself viewing him through the painfully reflective lens that is my own work. This exercise, in and of itself, is incredibly narcissistic. But everything reflective is a little narcissistic, so I really can't feel that bad. The parallels between Cliff Lee and myself are few. Few is an overstatement. I work hard. Cliff Lee works hard. These things are true. However, Cliff Lee is at the top of his game. He may very well be in the middle of his masterpiece. He is in the middle (or the end, depending on the nature of his next outing) of a scoreless innings streak. It has already become a thing of history. The question though, is how long will the perfection last?

Cliff Lee's number one similarity score on Baseball-Reference for pitchers through the age of 31 is Denny Neagle. The comparison is sobering. It is even more sobering when you look at the numbers. Denny Neagle's career took a nose dive when he decided to accept a very large paycheck to pitch in a humidifier-less Coors Field. The sad fact of the matter is that thin air or not, Denny Neagle was, at the time of the signing, on the wrong side of time and gravity. Because of his age, he was bound to break down. Denny Neagle, however, didn't exist in the same rarefied air as Cliff Lee. He was never thought of in any sort of historic light. He was never the most feared man on the field. He was never considered the best.

Cliff Lee, like Ben Fountain, has the air of a late bloomer. This is why we like him. This is why I like to make his story analogous to my own. It is not a good thing to do. The marketplace, and the desire for men with golden arms, has made Cliff Lee a wanted commodity. He is a millionaire many times over. He is visible at the top of his profession. As a fan, though, it is sad to know that no matter how bright he is currently shining, age and gravity will catch up. It will catch up with us all. Luck is also key, but time and effort are needed to create luck.

"Late bloomers' stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We'd like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it's just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table."

I guess, at the heart of it, I wish Cliff Lee had twenty years to work at a metaphorical kitchen table. He seems like the type that would do well with time. He is successful, so there really ought not be any tears shed. It just makes me a little melancholy to think that his time is probably, relatively short. I guess this is why we need to enjoy the bursts of light and the potential of the masterpiece. I guess this is why we keep working at our metaphorical kitchen tables. It's why we need to keep doing the things we do when our kids our asleep and our only goal is to make people feel like Vicks VapoRub smells.

Jesse Gloyd usually can be found writing essays about baseball (among other things) at buckshotboogaloo.com (which is where most of these posts live). Follow him on Twitter at @jessejamesgloyd.

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