Before pennant fever takes over, some parting words for Mike Lieberthal, in case the curtain comes down on his Philadelphia career.
Catcher Mike Lieberthal has been at it for 14 seasons, 1160 games and a franchise-record 1,126 starts behind the plate, making him the longest-tenured athlete in the city of Philadelphia.
If he is not retained, or walks away from baseball when his contract expires, he will disappear into the sunset as perhaps the best backstop in team history. Certainly, he’s the team's most prolific run producer to wear a mask, chest protector and shin guards over an extended period of time, all the same color, all for the same employer since June of 1990.
Despite his longevity, his career doesn't resonate the way it should. Blame can be assigned to a number of guilty parties, none of whom are named Mike Lieberthal.
It took a conversation with Inquirer baseball writer Jim Salisbury, one year ago at Citizens Bank Park, to remember that Lieberthal had two bad knees, to unlock that repressed memory from the recesses of my brain, buried under the popular notion that Lieby was just "too pretty" to be a catcher.
It took this brilliant nugget of wisdom, mouthed like a puppet, for Salisbury to counter with his point about a pair of creaky knees, a tactful way of explaining that Lieberthal was getting the short end of the stick, specifically from punks like me.
It felt like I had been knocked from my consequence-free bubble and buried under a pile of flesh and bone. Surgery. Pain. Dirt. What did I know about any of it? Ever since then, I never felt comfortable writing about Mike the catcher, and never again deluded myself into thinking I’m on equal footing with a beat writer.
"Lieberthal is bored." There’s another dandy that attached itself like a bur and grew roots. "Lieberthal is bored, playing a game for complacently for millions, when any one of us would trade anything for just one day in his cleats."
Bogus tradeoff. Here’s a trade with some validity. In 2001, Lieberthal traded in a burgeoning career, one that included 46 total home runs in two injury-shortened seasons in 1999 and 2000, for a torn ACL, MCL and lateral meniscus in his right knee, diving back to first on a routine pickoff play. After that, he was never the same. That’s a fact you only hear in conversations with reporters, or in the whispers of season ticket holders with matching seat cushions, who remember when the standards weren't so high. The time before Piazza, Javy, Pudge and Lieby rewrote the rules.
"Bored" wasn’t the right word, either. "Regretful" was. The perfect word to describe looking back over 14 underappreciated seasons of good baseball.