Cliff Lee, Wife Struggle Through Son's Leukemia Diagnosis
Cliff Lee is a marvel to his still-new Texas Rangers teammates and mystifying to opposing batters and so-called baseball experts.Permit his wife, Kristen, to share some insight before he takes the mound at Yankee Stadium tonight in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series -- maybe his last in a Texas uniform.How did Cliff, 32, conquer early-career wildness and become one of the most efficient pitchers in major league history? How did this occasional hothead become so utterly poised under pressure?"You ask me how he keeps so calm," Kristen says. "I think it's because he knows that baseball isn't life or death."The realization came, devastatingly, in 2001. Cliff and Kristen's 4-month-old son, Jaxon, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia and given a 30 percent chance to live.Today, Jaxon is a healthy, active 9-year-old whose dad has a chance to pitch the perpetually woebegone Rangers to a 2-1 series lead over the 27-time world champion Yankees.It's a strangely wonderful juncture for the Lees. On July 9, Cliff was a Seattle Mariner awaiting an all-but-done trade to the Yankees. But Texas swooped in with a sweeter, 11th-hour trade offer and -- poof! -- Cliff was a Ranger.His contract expires after this season, and the bottomless-pocket Yankees are certain to try to sign him.
Meanwhile, get this: If the Rangers topple the Yankees, their World Series opponent could be Philadelphia. That's the franchise that abruptly traded Lee after he helped get them to last year's World Series, where he went 2-0 against, naturally, the Yankees.Such intertwining subplots would smother some players, but not the seemingly unflappable, 6-foot, 3-inch, 190-pound left-hander Lee."I don't get caught up in that at all, to be honest with you," he says. "I'm a Texas Ranger right now and we're in a good position and we're going to try to win a World Series ring. That's where my focus is."Perhaps never has a pitcher of Lee's unquestioned caliber been shuttled to so many teams.He began his pro career in the Montreal organization but in 2002 was traded to Cleveland, where he gradually bloomed into a pitcher who went 22-3 in 2008 and won the Cy Young Award. Yet he's played for four teams in the last 15 months.Cliff and Kristen have almost become accustomed to his winding career path and chaotic life changes. They just never envisioned Texas as a stop, even though Arlington is the closest major league city to Cliff's and Kristen's hometown of Benton, Ark., where they maintain their permanent residence.Each season, Kristen, Jaxon and his sister Maci, 7, spend the summer months with Cliff and return to Benton when school starts. Now, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, Cliff is a mere one-hour flight or 4 1/2-hour drive away."It's been a huge thing, totally, because we've never had it," Kristen says. "We've never played close to home. It's definitely nice."
A month into Cliff's Rangers tenure, Kristen and the kids returned to Benton. But this time, when his team played a Sunday afternoon home game, Cliff had the convenience and team's blessing to fly to Arkansas and stay until Tuesday morning."He'd never been home [in Arkansas] one single time, ever, during the season," Kristen says. "It's saved me and the kids a lot of trips."Jaxon recently got to pitch in a game and, in his only inning, struck out the side. Naturally, his grandparents, Steve and Sharon Lee, were there. Steve, 56, retired after 30 years in the Benton fire department and is starting his fourth term on the city council."After that game, I called Cliff and told him he needed to get his pitch selection from his son," laughs Steve. "He's pretty active. That's one of God's miracles, right there."Clifton Phifer Lee -- the first name is that of his maternal grandfather; the middle is his mother's maiden name -- was about Jaxon's age when he told his father he planned to be a major league pitcher.It certainly helped that his American Legion coach, Wes Gardner, had been a major league relief pitcher.When Jaxon developed a high fever and was vomiting, they took him to the emergency room. Cliff and Kristen were stunned when initial tests suggested leukemia, and they were told to take Jaxon to Orlando's Arnold Palmer Hospital.
Watching their infant son go through chemotherapy was difficult enough. But when Jaxon relapsed in January 2002, he had to be taken to San Antonio for radiation treatment and a stem cell transplant."Seeing your child almost die is the second-worst thing that can happen, next to losing your child," Kristen says.She says she believes that helped Cliff keep baseball in perspective when he struggled through abdominal injuries in 2003 and 2007, even though fans saw his competitiveness boil over on three memorable occasions.In 2004, he threw his glove 20 rows into the stands after a poor outing in Toronto. In 2007, he plunked Texas' Sammy Sosa in the head on the day the Rangers honored Sosa for his 600th career homer.In his next start, Cleveland fans booed when he was taken out. He mockingly tipped his cap and the following day was sent to the minors."Throwing the glove in the stands in Toronto was after four or five bad games in a row," Lee says. "I had a little frustration built up. That happens a lot in this game. Usually, guys go underneath the tunnel and vent frustration down there, but I chose to throw my glove in the stands."Obviously, with experience you improve. That's been years ago, so obviously I've had a lot of things happen between now and then that's made me a better pitcher, person, everything. That's life."
Last Dec. 16, Cliff and Kristen were shocked when Phillies officials phoned to say they'd traded him to Seattle. A day earlier, his agent had sent the Phillies a contract proposal.What the Lees didn't know was that Philadelphia was in the process of obtaining Roy Halladay to replace Lee.When Seattle started poorly this season, the Lees knew he'd soon be dealt again. The trade to the Yankees seemed so certain that the Lees spoke to New York pitcher CC Sabathia and his wife, Amber, close friends from when the players were teammates in Cleveland, about places to live in New York.Watching Jaxon and Maci in the swimming pool of their Seattle rental home, Kristen teased Cliff that he would have to help them pack for the move to New York."Just as soon as I said that, he was off to Texas," she says. While he went to a news conference in Seattle, she had 90 minutes to pack the kids and 14 suitcases. They met Cliff at the airport."Cliff's not used to going through the [public] airport, so he's going through security with his computer in his carry-on," she says. "I said, 'What are you doing?'"It was pretty high stress. Needless to say, I had a migraine when we finally made it to Texas at midnight."But guess what? The move they didn't expect has in many ways been their most rewarding.
Either way, he probably would have been on the Yankee Stadium mound this week. Instead, last week in St. Petersburg, Fla., Kristen proudly watched from the stands as Cliff won Game 5 of the AL Division Series, giving the franchise its first playoff series victory in its 50-year history."It's amazing how things work," she said. "You're expected to win in New York. And in Texas, I feel like he's getting the glory that he deserves. He doesn't look for it, but I feel like he deserves a little bit of glory."He works so hard and we've been through so much, on the field and off. It's nice to see it come around full circle and know that everything happens for a reason."