Through my 3 or 4 years of playing poker for a living I ran across a few professional and collegiate athletes at my table. Tim Connolly of the Buffalo Sabres once tried goofy talking me into making a bad raise into his preflop pocket kings. I once bluffed Fred Jackson, running back for the Buffalo Bills, out of a pot of about a thousand dollars. And Paul Harris once told me, as he played his hands without looking at his cards with no regard for money, that he was going to graduate from Syracuse because he promised his Grandma he would. A year later he was opting out of his senior year and entering the NBA draft. But one of the favorite stories of my days at a poker table, or any table for that matter,is the night I spent sitting next to Cliff Lee. While he was mired in obscurity in the minor leagues playing for Buffalo, the farm team of the Cleveland Indians, he would come to the casino and play cards on free nights. It was the summer of 2007, and little did I know I was playing cards and chit chatting with a man that less then 3 years later would one of the top 3 pitchers on earth.
Somewhere around 7pm that nite, a young ,athletic looking man sat down in the seat to my right. He wore a watch that was almost as big as a baseball. He started chatting it up with the table and somebody asked him what he did for a living. The man stated he played professional baseball. The same man asked what his name was. “Cliff Lee”, he said. Then came the sound of crickets, as noone had ever heard of him except me. A few seconds later I said , “ I know you! You were on my fantasy team last year. You stunk so much I had to release you .” Cliff Lee and the whole table laughed and Cliff declared, “Ya I still stink.”
As we continued to sit next to each other we started on a private conversation. I asked him what went wrong that he was pitching in the minors after a pretty good year in the majors a few years back. He told me that the problems started a few weeks back. He was the 4th or 5th starter on the Indians roster and was the starting pitcher on Sammy Sosa night in Texas. “ I hit Sammy Sosa in the head on Sammy Sosa night and he had to leave the game,” Lee non-chalantly explained to me. “What?”, I said. “Ya, then me and Victor Martinez (Indians all star catcher at the time), got into a fist fight in the dugout. He was mad and said I threw at him on purpose.” “Did you?”, I asked. “Ya he was crowding my plate so I nailed him.” I laughed as he told me this story straight faced. “So wait you hit Sosa on Sosa night and fought your catcher, and then got sent to the minors?”. “ Ya. But also I can’t get anyone out ,and Laffey (Indians 5th starter at the time) was pitching decent and not fighting his own catcher, so they sent me down.” The man was brutally honest about his short-comings the last few years on the mound. And every few minutes as we sat next to each other that night I turned to him laughing ,saying “Really man,,,... On Sammy Sosa Night?!!?”
Here is how one newspaper detailed the night Lee hit Sosa. Notice how Lee didn't admit he hit him on purpose. Maybe I am the only one he told the truth to?
"The argument escalated in the third inning when Lee hit Sammy Sosa in the head with a fastball. Sosa, honored before the game by a large delegation of family, friends and politicians from the Dominican Republic for hitting his 600th homer June 20, had to leave the game.
Lee said he had no intention of hitting Sosa, especially in the head. Martinez reportedly was upset for Lee's lack of remorse. He felt he should have at least come to the plate to see how Sosa was doing."
So as the night went on we kept talking. About his family and life on the road. He told me how much he missed his kids and how hard it was to be away from them. Every few hands he stepped away from the table to use his cell phone. I asked him why his watch was the size of a small country? He asked me If I knew anywhere good to eat in this casino. “The hot dogs are nasty, stay away from the hot dogs.That’s all I know” He thanked me for the advice.
At some point in the night I felt there was an opening to actually give him a little pep talk. The way he talked about his career that night was with a big question mark and a humility that bordered on giving off a vibe that he might be ready to call it quits. Between his being away from home and not being sure if he was ever going to get back to the big leagues, I found Cliff Lee at a poker table that night with an obvious amount of self doubt for himself. As we got talking I remember apologizing for releasing him from my fantasy team. He laughed and said “ I would have released me too."
It was right around this point that I did indeed decide to give Cliff Lee a pep talk. I told him in so many terms, “ Listen, hang in there, You are a lefty,which is a valuable commodity. You are still young and you know you have great stuff. Just keep pitching hard and I know you will find yourself back in the show someday.” “Thanks man. I hope so.”
Three years later, Cliff Lee is not only back in the majors, but he has amassed the best postseason numbers to start a career of all time. Three years later Cliff Lee is arguably the best pitcher on the planet. Last night he became the 2nd postseason pitcher of all time to record 10 strikeouts in 3 postseason starts in the same season. He is 7 and 0 to start his playoff career with an Era in the low 1's. He is 55 and 25 since that night with an era in the low 3's.
That night I played a big hand one on one with Cliff Lee. I had pocket kings ( the 2nd best starting hand possible in poker),and he had a pair of sixes in the hole. We were isolated in the hand ,and on the flop came a 6, blank blank board. My kings looked good to me. He bet, I raised, he re-raised. I went into the think tank and after a few seconds decided my Kings might be good and I was going to put my last 3 or 4 hundred into the pot . (Really a bad read by me all things considered)
It was then that Cliff Lee did something I have never seen anyone do at a poker table before. He turned his sixes over and showed me what he had. (He had an unbeatable set of sixes.) He said to me “ Save your money kid , I got you crushed.” This minor league baseball pitcher decided to spare me a ton of money, in a kind act of humanity. I said “Thanks a lot Cliff Lee, you saved me a ton.” The whole table was stunned that he spared me. Cliff Lee just went on with his business. I wonder if he had mercy on me because he was flattered that not only did I know who he was ,but I believed in his future.
When he left the table around midnight he made a point to shake all ten people at the table’s hands. He made his way out , and I never saw him again. As I watched him ascend the next few years into one of the most savvy and talented pitchers in the major’s , I have always glowed at his successes as if he was a special friend of mine.
Did my pep talk that night turn around his floundering career and bring his wayward mind back to a place of hope and belief? I don’t think so. But your dog gone right until he refutes it, I am forever going to jokingly gloat that I turned Cliff Lee into the monster he is today. And through his selfless kindness in that one hand, I can also tell people “ Hey did I tell you about the time Cliff Lee paid my rent for me ? "
Yankee fans everywhere can blame me for this today if they want to. And they can also thank me in November when he puts on the pinstripes.