Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Poor Mike Lieberthal

Mike Lieberthal, the catcher for the Phillies, used to be good. Now, he is stealing money. That's the background.

Here's the column that will drive any Phillies fan crazy.
They weren't. While Lieberthal does try to maintain his sense of humor in the face of fire, there is nothing cavalier about his approach to the game he was raised to play. (We've told the story before about his mother feeding the pitching machine, taking a line drive in the eye and getting right back in there the next day.)

His personal struggles tear him up inside, eclipsed only by the team's struggles.

Maybe he consoles himself with his $7.5 million.
"This isn't a happy day unless we win," Lieberthal said before the Phillies did just that, beating the Cardinals, 7-5. "I've never looked at money as a priority. The chance to play good and win is all that matters to me."

I call your bluff. Give half your money back to the Phillies.
Lieberthal has become the player fans take the most glee in booing. He gave them plenty of fodder by hitting a major-league low .142 with runners in scoring position last season. He entered last night hitting just .232 overall and .111 with runners in scoring position. He had just seven RBIs.

Some fans see those declining numbers and cringe that Lieberthal, an all-star in 1999 and 2000, will be their catcher again next season. (Trading that contract won't be easy.)

"I sense the fans don't want me, that they feel like they need a change," Lieberthal said. "Obviously knowing I'll be back next year probably doesn't make them happy."

If fans aren't cringing, they're booing.

Last year against Houston, Lieberthal came up to bat in a critical situation with runners in scoring position. The whole crowd collectively got tense, because Lieberthal was up to bat. That "with runners in scoring position" stat is usually not valid. That isn't the case with Lieberthal. He got hit by a pitch, and the crowd erupted in happiness and relief.
"The last couple of years it seemed like I was booed for bad performance," Lieberthal said with a laugh. "Now they just don't like me.

"The runners in scoring position... the losing. I've been here the longest, so maybe the fans identify with me more.

"No one likes to get booed, but I understand it. I've talked to Mike Schmidt about it. It doesn't matter what you've done in the past. It matters what you're doing now. He was a Hall of Famer and he got booed, so I have to keep it in perspective. At the same time, you hope it will turn around."

I booed Mike Schmidt during once during one of his slumps. I feel very bad about it. But please don't compare yourself to the greatest Phillie ever. He had the good sense to retire instead of embarassing himself. Lieberthal feels no such compulsion.
The Phillies signed Lieberthal to a three-year contract extension in August 2002. The deal included an option for a fourth year, should Lieberthal prove his health by getting 1,200 plate appearances from 2003 to 2005.

What was Lieberthal supposed to do, turn down the option?

"I didn't put a gun to them," he said.

Good point. Ed Wade signing him to a long-term contract at this stage of his career was an incredibly bad idea, which is dragging the team down.
Lieberthal has been healthy enough to play, but the truth is he's probably not healthy enough to produce like he did several years ago. Many regular catchers begin to decline around age 33. A major injury, like the one Lieberthal suffered to his right knee in 2001, can hasten a decline.

Lieberthal had two solid seasons after the knee injury, but the knee has never been the same. Now, it's creakier than ever. He plays with constant pain and weakness in the knee, but seldom talks about it for fear it will be translated as an excuse. The pain and the weakness have affected his throwing and hitting because he pushes off his right leg in both activities.

Lieberthal doesn't expect fans to feel his pain, but after more than a decade in Philly, he feels your pain.

So the object of our venom should be the GM?

I have a P.R. plan for Lieberthal. Say the following: "I stink. I will continue to stink. I'm sorry. I'm doing it for the money. It's not my fault Phillies management was foolish to sign me. I have to look out for myself."

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