Bill Conlin: A word of caution about Phillies' big deal with Lee

Posted: December 15, 2010

MIKE CUELLAR, 20-9, 3.08 . . . Pat Dobson, 20-8, 2.90 . . . Jim Palmer, 20-9, 2.68 . . . Dave McNally, 21-5, 2.89 . . .

Meet the invincible Baltimore Orioles starting staff of 1971. Four 20-game winners, accounting for 81 of 101 victories.

Invincible . . .

Until the O's ran into Roberto Clemente and Danny Murtaugh's resourceful Pirates in the World Series.

One of the greatest pitching staffs ever assembled went down in seven games to the Bucs.

Steve Blass had not yet contacted Steve Blass Disease. He pitched a four-hitter in Game 7 to outduel the screwball-throwing Cuellar, 2-1.

The O's were not the only great pitching staff to be cruelly shocked after a totally dominant season. In 1954, Early Wynn (23), Bob Lemon (23), Mike Garcia (19), Art Houtteman (15) and an aging Bob Feller (13) accounted for an astounding 93 of the Indians' 111 victories.

And how did that no-prisoners march through the American League turn out?

In a World Series sweep best remembered for the Willie Mays catch of a 450-foot Vic Wertz drive, Indians pitching was outscored, 21-9.

Then there was the 1998 Atlanta Braves super staff of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Kevin Millwood and Denny Neagle. They steamrollered to 106 wins. Oops. And were taken out of the NLCS in six games by the Padres. Kind of a Phillies vs. Giants Goliath slaying.

So look. Continue your parade planning.

This is an uncommon time in a city used to sloppy seconds and thrifty thirds, where outbidding the Yankees and Red Sox is so rare some fans are comparing the Cliff Lee miracle with history's greatest moments, right there with the birth of their children, V-J Day and other historic events. The haters who were comparing Ruben Amaro Jr. to Alfred E. Neuman ("What me, worry?") a day ago now are comparing him to Albert Einstein.

Before we add any more cautionary notes - and I'm as amped by this bolt from the red as anybody because I can't wait to help crank out another three fat special wraps plus the Parade Special - this happened for two reasons only:

* Cliff Lee really wanted to be back here in the city that embraced him with such love when he twice turned the Yankees bats into Silly Putty during one of the great stretches of postseason pitching. The guy left millions of Hank Steinbrenner's dollars on the Yankee Stadium table. And that is nothing to spit at, so to speak. And he dribbled effortlessly through a Texas Rangers fullcourt press with Nolan Ryan playing the point.

* A force in Phillies ownership above and beyond the normal ability and mandate of president David Montgomery and RAJ (Stoky thinks that is short for "Ruben Are Jenius") made the numbers work. The numbers are now at a staggering $170 million. They speak to the power of the sellout after sellout after sellout. And the virtual certainty the deliriously happy faithful will cause the SRO sign to be displayed 81 more times and counting. It also guarantees the Phillies will continue to supplant the Braves and Mets as the National League's No. 1 road draw. This is epic, folks, unthought of in my lifetime covering a team that drew 708,247 in 1970, the final season in Connie Mack Stadium. That's two 10-game homestands for this team.

I believe that force to be John Middleton, the man deepest in the shadows of Phillies ownership. I say that because I have heard from several of his classmates at Amherst, admirers who refused to be identified because Middleton knows them well. Both mentioned his love of wrestling while at Amherst and his dislike of any limelight shined on him. But years after his graduation, Middleton who is now a billionaire, rescued a varsity wrestling program that had been scrapped in a cost-cutting purge.

He is known to be the most committed and victory-driven member of the shadow group I dubbed the Teflonics years ago for their total silence on ballclub matters. (That's why limited partners are called "silent partners.")

I don't believe for a minute that John Middleton said, "Here, David, I'm writing a check to make this happen." That is not how wealthy people run their affairs. But I believe that with the approval of the other entities, he communicated a willingness to be there if the good times stop rolling, if there is a sudden cash crunch due to unforeseen circumstances. A losing season could whiplash the sellouts.

Just know that this organization always has had a fallback plan. The Phillies will never be on the block because of a messy divorce like the one involving the glorified parking-lot attendant who thought he was big enough to own the Los Angeles Dodgers. And they won't be left naked in the middle of free-agent season without a fallback plan, which is what just happened to Yankees GM Brian Cashman. No Lee, then who, Brian?

Oh, Ruben could probably let him have Joe Blanton, who would fit right in with what he has behind CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte. For a price.

One small thing . . . Taken a case at a time, Roy Halladay was magnificent in 2010. Ditto Cole Hamels, who got shut out more than a guy wearing a Nehru suit in a hip-hop bar. Oswalt came here with a losing record after similar nonsupport in Houston. Lee had physical problems early in Seattle and wasn't that great during his Rangers regular season.

Hamels, Oswalt and Lee were a combined 37-33 . . . That's an average of 12-11, rounded off.

Some kid named Kyle Kendrick, who is barely on the Phillies' radar, was 11-10.

Funny game, baseball. Just keep the variables in mind while you work on the parade floats.

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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