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August 25, 2010 at 8:34 AM

Cliff Lee controversy on ESPN radio is just plain dumb

Sitting here on a pouring Wednesday morning in Boston. Don’t see how they play baseball today unless they do it under water.
So, let’s dive into a nice topic that I first read about yesterday while trying to swim to Fenway Park. It seems that ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd, who can be heard locally in Seattle and used to work in Portland, suggested over the airwaves this week that an anonymous source told him that Cliff Lee hates it in Texas.
Cowherd then used that information to jump to a conclusion that Lee was “mailing it in” against the Baltimore Orioles this past weekend because his heart wasn’t in it. That he only gets up for the better teams.
That conclusion is just plain dumb on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. First off, Lee just may hate it in Texas. He may have hated it in Seattle too for all I know. Not like he had much of a summer to enjoy. Two days worth.
But to say he’s tanking it? Now? OK, if you’re going to make the accusation, just like prosecutors in a courtroom, you need a motive. What is Lee’s motive?
If he was going to tank it, he’d have done so in Seattle, where his team was falling apart around him. Instead, Lee was simply the league’s best pitcher at the time and even helped call a team meeting. Sound like a guy tanking it?
Now, with Texas, he has a shot at a Cy Young Award and at achieving a history-making 15-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. He’s on the verge of the biggest payday of his career and will be printing even more money this off-season with each added victory and lower ERA score. Oh yeah, there’s that whole winning a division title thing to get a shot at a World Series.
So, where is the motive to tank it? I don’t see it.
Lee doesn’t see it either.
“It’s a lie,” Lee told a local ESPN website reporter. “Write that. Are you writing? Write that it’s a lie. I did not say that and nobody close to me would say that. Either say who the source is or shut up because I am saying it is not true.”
Does Cowherd have information to the contrary? If so, he’d better step up or back down.
We discussed this yesterday on the blog when we talked about the perils of anonymous sources and how they should be used selectively.
Photo Credit: AP

First off, Cowherd is not a journalist. He’s a paid talking head. There is a difference, though the line does get blurred nowadays.
In journalism, if an anonymous source tells you something, you’re supposed to check it out first. In this situation, it would seem that somebody owed it to Lee to ask him the question beforehand.
Now, let’s not be foolish about this. Of couse Lee will never admit he mailed it in during a start. So, that whole exercise is a little silly to begin with. But then, since you have no way of ever getting to any “truth” in this story, you might consider not going with it.
Here’s what makes it a non-story. You’re trying to read a guy’s mind. I don’t know what goes on inside a guy’s head. Especially not Cliff Lee’s head. Barely know him, other than some interviews over a few months.
If you’re going to play mind reader and throw the ultimate insult an athlete’s way, don’t you at least have to gather evidence? I just don’t see the evidence here based on Lee’s body of work. Now, yes, his numbers have gone down with the Rangers. But again, it’s too small a sample size to draw conclusions from. Before getting wiped out by the Orioles, he’d been taking his team deep into big games with a shot to win against good teams and bad ones all season.
That he’s struggled in a couple of outings against bad teams means little. He’s lost to some good teams as well.
And again, there is absolutely no motive for him to mail it in right now. Zilch. Unless Cowherd can produce betting slips showing Lee put money on the other team. Now, THAT would be hard evidence of something.
Here? I don’t see it. Each poor outing by Lee lessens his chance at a Cy Young and takes money out of his pocket.
Now, it would be one thing if Cowherd spoke to, let’s say, Lee’s agent or a teammate at an adjoining locker who said he heard the pitcher directly say “I hate this place, I’m five and dive against these bums tonight ’cause I’ve got a 10 o’clock dinner res.” And even better if he had it on tape, could make a copy or a transcript and store it in a vault somewhere, with only his editors knowing of its existence.
But let’s get serious. He doesn’t have that. His bosses have no clue whether he’s got hard evidence recorded someplace or is just spouting off.
It’s a big leap– a gargantuan one — to go from “a guy doesn’t like it here” to “that guy is mailing it in”. Lotsof guys don’t enjoy playing in certain cities. Doesn’t mean they show it through their on-field play. In fact, the best way to get out of a place you don’t like is to up your market value. Just the way Lee upped his value in Seattle by playing better than just about anybody in baseball.
And if you’re going to make the leap Cowherd did, you’d better have something to back it up other than a guy putting one of the best seasons in baseball together on the mound. A guy with lots of money to lose and nothing to gain by tanking it. Frankly, based on the pitching I saw from New York over the weekend, Lee looks to have a better World Series shot with the Rangers than the Yankees. At least this year.
So, yeah, like Lee says. Time to shut up.
One more thing. Lots of commentary about the need to drive up Web hits and stuff with controversies like this. Not really true. Yes, the radio airwaves have long been polluted by folks who will say anything to drive up ratings. That’s true. I’m not in the radio biz, full-time anyway, so I’m not going to apologize for what employees good and bad do on that side of the media spectrum. Just like Daren Brown isn’t going to answer for Mike Shanahan even though both work in the coaching side of pro sports.
As far as Web hits go? Well, I’ve only got my firsthand experience trying to keep this blog going the past four years to use as a barometer.
You get a one or two-day spike with big controversy, but the best way to generate Web traffic on a consistent basis is to stay interesting within a credible realm. Doesn’t mean you become a choirboy. You can be controversial and still know what you’re talking about. Not everybody has to agree with someone for that person to be interesting. Or to generate discussion. In fact, it’s better to challenge people with arguments they may not agree with, but can at least be viewed as a possibility by those who disagree with them.
But you don’t want to be generating traffic the way Cowherd is doing it with this. With the principal source of his “story” saying he’s out to lunch and the preponderance of evidence suggesting that’s the case. If I’ve missed the Cliff Lee motive here, please fill me in. But if you’re going to prosecute, you absolutely need a motive.
If not, case dismissed.



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