Cliff Lee: Wild and Crazy Guy

Ronald Martinez, Getty Images
Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

The most dominant postseason pitcher of his era, Cliff Lee of the Texas Rangers might like to tell you his success can be traced to serious introspection in a thinking man's game. Sounds feasible enough.

He could make that case, except for one catch. He's given it no thought.

"I don't really dig that deep into what I think or why I think it," said Lee, whose playoff record is one for the history books even with the San Francisco Giants delivering a comeuppance in Game 1 of the World Series.

Some guys make pitching sound like string theory. Lee is not one.

Things turned around for him when he stopped trying to jam righthanded hitters, when he started using both sides of the plate and commanding all his pitches.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

He's made it look so easy, conspiracy theorists began studying the smudge spots on the bill and back of his cap during these playoffs thinking there had to be something else at work.

It's not as if he developed a potion that makes the ball allergic to wood as Ray Milland's character did in the old Disney-style baseball classic, It Happens Every Spring. The substance on his cap is a perfectly legal rosin residue.

You can't blame people for wondering, hitters especially. Before his loss to the Giants, Lee was 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight postseason starts. He'd struck out 34 hitters and walked just one, unheard of in an era of the Incredibly Shrinking Strike Zone.

In Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays, Lee struck out 11 hitters to win his second game of the series. Against the Yankees in Game 3, he threw eight shutout innings with 13 strikeouts.

That series never reached Game 7. But the specter of the Yankees needing to beat Lee in a deciding game to reach the World Series led exasperated New York outfielder Nick Swisher to say, "You guys are talking about Cliff Lee? [Expletive], who cares? I can't wait to hit against his (behind)."

Everybody's talking about Lee in this postseason, except, as usual, Lee.

YOUNG AND DUMB

Reticence wasn't always the case with him. He was what baseball scouts call a "tough sign" mostly for his sense of self-worth. He also gave scouts reason to worry about him for his off-field issues as a high school and college pitcher. He was arrogant and stubborn on the field. Primarily a strike thrower on the mound except for when he purposely plunked someone, wildness ruled the day elsewhere in his life.

In 2006, when he was pitching for the Cleveland Indians, I asked him about his reputation as a Major League prospect. He offered descriptions like "flamboyant" and "hellion." I looked at this flat-liner standing before me. This was a character out of Animal House?

"I was young and dumb," he said then. "It's not like I was completely stupid, selling drugs or anything. When I figured out I was going to be pretty good at baseball, I figured I'd better get my act together and make something of myself.

"I just wasn't a very good kid. Yeah, I've been to jail, and it's not a fun place to be. I really don't deserve to be where I am right now."

In a recent Sports Illustrated story, Lee's wife, Kristen, mentioned "crazy stuff" in her husband's life when they were growing up in Benton, Arkansas. But that sense of invulnerability had its place on the mound. Scouts thought his fastball was just OK. What they noticed then, what they still notice now, is a supreme confidence bordering on disdain in how he uses that fastball.

"A lot of young pitchers give hitters too much credit," said Mark Shapiro, the man who stole Lee for Cleveland from a desperate Montreal organization. "That's not Cliff."

Acquiring Cliff Lee, in part, cemented Shapiro's reputation as a GM. Trying to make a pennant push, the Expos traded Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips to Cleveland in a deal for pitcher Bartolo Colon.

HOT IN CLEVELAND

The one glitch for the Indians -- a turn of events still rued in the city of Cleveland -- is that Lee suffered a disastrous 2007 season. After one start in which fans booed him, he mockingly tipped his cap and was sent to the minors the next day. He wasn't even on the playoff roster when the Indians came within one win of beating Boston and going to the World Series.

That's officially an "Only in Cleveland" sports moment. Not quite like never winning a NBA title with LeBron James, but given that Lee won the AL Cy Young Award the very next season and given what he's done since...well, no wonder people in the city I call home feel cursed.

Lee had a 6.38 ERA in 2007. The next season, he went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA.

NOT IN CLEVELAND

In a rebuilding mode and knowing they couldn't sign him, the Indians traded Lee to the Phillies in 2009. That's where his postseason legend began. In Manhattan for the World Series opener against the Yankees, Lee's cab got stuck in traffic going to the stadium. He hopped out, got on a subway not knowing where he was, placed a call to the visiting clubhouse to get directions, and arrived an hour later than normal.

Starting pitchers are creatures of habit. Lee's routine was greatly compromised. No big deal. He threw a complete game with no walks, no earned runs and 10 strikeouts.

With Philadelphia working to bring pitcher Roy Halladay to town, it dealt Lee to Seattle last December for payroll reasons. The Mariners' season quickly fell apart, prompting them to trade Lee to Texas in July.

WILL HE STAY OR WILL HE GO?

Why so much movement for such a great pitcher? Follow the money. As the top free agent on the market, Lee is about to become a "tough sign" again once the World Series ends.

Texas is the closest major league team to Lee's Arkansas home town but the Yankees, as usual, are considered the favorites to secure his services.

That's as long as Lee doesn't put too much thought into the rough treatment his wife got from some Yankees fans during the ALCS. They spit and threw beer in her direction and yelled obscenities.

Will he stay in Texas?

He does have a chance to do something truly historic, something that has nothing to do with matching Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or any of the great postseason pitchers in baseball history.

He has a chance to say no to the Yankees as the ultimate free-agent prize, something his good buddy, former Indians teammate C.C. Sabathia, couldn't do.

For a guy who likes to keep things simple, turning down the Yankees won't be easy given that they're expected to give him $150 million reasons not to.

Cliff Lee has forced himself into the discussion of the greatest postseason pitchers in modern baseball history. There is one disclaimer: Pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson didn't pitch against wild card or division winners. They did their damage exclusively in the World Series against the best of the other league. Still, it's worth seeing how Lee stacks up against some other top postseason pitchers:

Josh Beckett 7-3, 3.07 ERA, 14 Games
*
Whitey Ford 10-8, 2.71 22 games
*
Bob Gibson 7-2, 1.89 ERA, 9 games
*
Sandy Koufax 4-3, 0.95 ERA, 8 games
*
Cliff Lee 7-1, 1.96ERA, 9 games
*
Andy Pettitte 19-10, 3.83 ERA, 41 games
*
Curt Schilling 11-2, 2.23 ERA, 19 games

The Mental Floss Store Is Back!

Mental Floss Store
Mental Floss Store

You've been asking about it for months, and today we can finally confirm that the Mental Floss Store is back up and running! Simply head here to find dozens of T-shirts with all sorts of unique designs to choose from, whether you’re in the market for a pi pun, a risqué grammar joke, or something only your fellow bookworms will appreciate. You can even use your new Mental Floss shirt to teach your friends all about scurvy.

Mental Floss Store

If you’re just in the mood to express your love of all things Mental Floss, you can also get our darling little logo on phone cases, tote bags, mugs, baby bibs, and more.

Mental Floss Store

Head on over to the Mental Floss Store to see our entire collection. And if you use the code FLOSSERS, you'll get 20 percent off your order. 

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.