Cliff Lee: Wild and Crazy Guy

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.

© JUSTIN LANE/epa/Corbis

"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

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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