Cliff Lee, Zen Master

Even answering lame questions at the Auto Show, he had complete command of his stuff

Cliff Lee made an appearance at the Auto Show at the Convention Center yesterday, and it sure was nice to see him. In fact, it was damn near therapeutic.

For the brief time that we saw him we could forget about the perpetual wintry mix outside and the slushy quicksand that awaits us off every city curb and all the buff and shiny new model cars with clean and basic recessionary designs and made up color mixes with price tags out of the economic reach of most Philadelphians. We could forget, too, the fact that though we live in the hardest of modern times the only food auto show browsers could buy to fortify themselves was all notably overpriced and decidedly yucky and left you feeling out of sorts and suffering the kind of fatigue you experience when having to kill time in an airport for way too many hours.

But because of Cliff Lee, we could overcome that and a lot more; we could free our troubled winter-whipped psyches to think of the wonders of the split finger fastball and curveballs that nip the corners and the glory of back-to-back shutouts in the middle of July and the beatific pitching rotation that our Fightin’ Phils will be sporting come the start of the 2011 baseball season. Just seeing Lee reminded us that the true harbinger of spring is not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, to quote Bill Veeck, the late idiosyncratic Chicago baseball owner, but the sound of bat meeting ball.[SIGNUP]

Yes, it sure was good to see good ol’ Cliff Lee, who you’d have to suspect loathes the sound of bat meeting ball, but whose presence on this dank and soulless February afternoon allowed us to touch base however briefly with our childhood and to daydream freely about the coming of spring and all the hope that it will surely bring.

Many at the Convention Center felt similarly, it would seem, because many hundreds showed up buoyant and happy to see and hear Cliff Lee talk baseball. It didn’t matter that most of the questions he was asked were pretty lame because the people asking the questions were mostly kids or grown ups who act like little kids. In fact, it mattered not at all because when an event is as inherently optimistic and filled with love and gratitude for a figure as this one, who’s going to complain?

You look around, and you think life in the moment is pretty darn swell, cock robin, sitting here in what amounts to a pep rally designed to get us excited about spring training and the coming baseball season—the most pleasing of notions ‘round these parts these days, you’d have to agree.

And if the questions to Cliff Lee about his toughest games and the toughest hitters he’s ever faced and how he feels about having Chooch back as his catcher are kind of silly and seem designed to elicit waves of applause, who’s going to quibble? Who couldn’t use a little rah-rah in their morale right about now?

Still, when you’re a Philadelphian, there’s always room for quibble, and mine is with one of the questioners—not a fan, but a TV reporter from one of those dopey mid-morning local chat shows. Somehow the dopey TV reporter manages to snag the microphone and ask Cliff Lee a question, a cheesy act to begin with, but then you hear what she’s asking Cliff Lee, which is where he likes to go when he’s out on the town… what restaurants he likes and, you know, where he likes to hang in Philadelphia.

Cliff Lee’s answer, which comes swiftly, makes you immediately like the dude even more than you already do, which is pretty hard since this is a guy who gave up a chance to play for the New York Yankees to come back to be with us even though he was rudely shown the door here.

What I like to do when I’m not working, Cliff Lee told the dopey TV lady, is sleep and eat.

She pressed him again.

Please Cliff, we thought, don’t tell her you like to go to Parc.

Sleep and eat, Cliff Lee repeated to the dopey TV lady. And… I like to stay at home.

Yes. Yes!

With the dopey TV lady vanquished, Lee went on to speak eloquently and thoughtfully about baseball fans in general; why he prefers baseball fans here in the Northeast, including those who reside in New York and Boston, because they understand the game in this part of the country and he can feel that when he’s out on the mound. He finds it energizing, and not just when he’s pitching here in Philly, but when he’s pitching away from home too. He doesn’t mind when fans give him a hard time as long as they know the game; it shows they’re engaged and that motivates him.

So much of success, Lee explained at another point, is about control: controlling your thoughts, controlling anxiety; and concentrating on your mechanics, on doing things over and over until you find a rhythm, a winning way.

When someone in the audience suggested, as so many Philadelphians often do, that the Yankees sure do suck, Lee begged to differ.

No, he said, the Yankees do not suck. And then he said it again. The Yankees do not suck.

In fact, the Yankees are a good team, he said. They have been for many decades and probably will be for a long time to come.

It was classic Cliff Lee, the way he said it, so matter of fact, so Zen in tone. There was just no quarreling with it.

Then, in that same tone, he said that the the Phillies should be a little better than the Yankees this year.

It wasn’t a prediction, and it wasn’t a promise, but it was enough to see the coming of spring in the near distance, and we’ll settle for that.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]), is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.