Phillies' Lee becoming a fan favorite once more

Cliff Lee: fan fave
Cliff Lee: fan fave
Posted: February 17, 2011

THE QUESTION keeps getting asked, and the answers keeps coming back at about the same percent breakdown. The most popular athlete in Philadelphia these days seems to be a man who has played here approximately 3 months of his career, a man who said of the Phillies last October that "I didn't mind seeing them get beat," after the Giants advanced to play his latest team in the World Series.

The willingness to say such a thing as well as feel it might be why Cliff Lee seems to be running just ahead of Roy Halladay and well ahead of Michael Vick as Philly's fave in these informal polls conducted on air, over the Web, in publications.

Seems is an important word here, for Halladay is a close second, if not 1-A, although my gut is that he's getting some guilt votes. Someone says "Lee," and you say, "What about Halladay?" and they say, "Oh, yeah, Halladay."

Or "Halladay, too."

Halladay, after all, last year won the team's first Cy Young Award since Steve Bedrosian's in 1987, threw a perfect game during the regular season and a near-perfect no-hitter in his first-ever postseason start. He threw 272 2/3 innings for the Phillies and seemed well on his way to the kind of postseason Lee recorded here in 2009 before a groin injury eliminated Halladay's chance to dominate and forced him to rely completely on his guile.

As interesting as Lee's popularity is, the reasons often given are even more so. Many will point out he took less money to come here than he could have received elsewhere. Halladay did, too, even accepted fewer years to sign a multiyear deal with the Phillies.

He likes the town, they say. So does Halladay, who often mentioned the buzz produced and maintained by the Citizens Bank Park crowd, and the baseball acumen of the fans.

Both men have also said their families dig Philly in the summertime. Maybe Lee expressed it better when he spoke about his family discovering its history, and the enjoyable contrast of their permanent home in Arkansas and here. If there was one noticeable difference during the news conference the other day, confirmed by transcripts, it was that Lee and Cole Hamels were the least reticent of the five, and in that order.

For example, when all of them were asked, "How much do you want to be the best out of this group, and how much do you think that will drive all of you?" Lee's answer was the first and only one.

"To be honest with you, for me, I could care a less what the guy ahead of me did," he said, adding a few paragraphs later, "There are a lot of guys that want to one-up the next guy. And if that works for you and brings the best out of you, that's great. More power to you. But personally I don't look at it that way. I'm trying to do what I do regardless of what the guy before me or behind me does."

Lee was also the lone answerer to several other questions directed to the whole group, most significantly one that asked about a historic comparison and another that asked whether anything less than a World Series victory would be deemed a disappointment.

While the lack of response from the others was to some extent the fault of the moderator, it did offer a window into the group's personalities.

All five are confident bordering on cocky.

But Lee and Hamels are better translating that cockiness into words.

Two weeks ago, a writer I know who was working on a story for the New York Times asked me whether I thought Vick was the town's most popular athlete. I speculated that it probably was still Chase Utley, although I noted he is not as Teflon as in the past. I mused that Lee would get some votes and Halladay too, but it seems clear - that word again - that the race is between these two.

Lee's slight edge, if there is one, might simply be due to his slightly edgier personality. He's a tiny bit more accessible than the closely guarded Halladay, a little bit more acerbic even. After making those comments about the Phillies during a news conference just before his start in the World Series, Lee reached the door wearing a smile, turned to someone and said:

"That'll play big in Philly."

And it did.

Like the polls nowadays, most people liked the panache. Very Philly.

"I pulled for a lot of those guys," Lee said back then. "But it's weird: When a team gets rid of you, you kind of like seeing them lose a little bit. I know that's weird, but part of me wanted them to win where I could face them in the World Series, too. It would have been a lot of fun." *

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