I’ve collected baseball cards as long as I can remember. It’s definitely something I picked up from my brother. He used to collect Phillies’ fan favorite Lenny Dykstra, now known more for his problems off the field than for his brief streak of dominance and near-MVP miss on the field and I couldn’t get enough of the Kid, Ken Griffey Jr., with his backwards hats, beautiful swing, and baseball cards blowing bubble gum. I hadn’t quite got the whole local loyalty thing down until age 10 or 11 but I could pick out Phillies’ players cards from a very young age. One card we always used to take with us was the card to the left, a 1990 Classic Yellow Mike Lieberthal card.
My brother and I had some luck over the years getting autographs at the ballpark. He got Steve Avery when Steve Avery was the hottest pitcher on the planet, in recent years I’ve gotten Chase Utley and Shane Victorino. We’d root through his cards before games and take who we thought would be at the ballpark. Mike Lieberthal was always in that stack. We didn’t know who he was, we’d never seen him play, but this was before we, or I at least, had any concept of minor league players. From the time this card came out until our parents stopped regularly taking us to games, 1995 or so, we brought Mike Lieberthal just in case. We never saw him play.
Lieby would burst on to the scene in 1997, a 68-94 finish for the Phils, good enough for dead last in the NL East. But Lieby, at age 25, put up 20 HRs and 77 RBIs. Injuries, as would become the story of his career, slowed him down in 1998, but his 1999 season, a 77-85 finish for the Phils good enough for 3rd in the tough NL East, earned him his first of 2 consecutive All-Star births, a .300 average, 31 home runs, and 96 RBIs. Lieby would make the All-Star team again in 2000, but the progress the Phillies had made under manager Terry Francona could not be sustained, as they finished last, with a 65-97 record. But these seasons by Lieby were important. They gave us someone, a seemingly hard-nosed, determined backstop to root for.
Lieby, in 1997, replaced long-time Phils’ backstop Darren Daulton, whose 1995 injuries forced a 1996 move to the outfield and whose 1996 injuries limited him a trial run in 1997 at first base for the Phils and later the eventual World Champion Marlins. Lieby had gigantic shoes to fill; to this day Dutch remains
one of the most beloved Phillies players of all-time, playing parts of 13 seasons for the Phils, leading the NL in RBIs in 1992, earning 3 All-Star selections in 4 years, and leading the Macho Row Phillies wire to wire to the 1993 NL Pennant. Dutch is still a very visible figure in local media, appearing on both Comcast Sports Net and 97.5 FM the Fanatic. And the ladies love him. To this day.
Mike Lieberthal’s legacy was forever cemented in my mind as the guy whose card I had but never saw play until the really lean years happened. He, Scott Rolen, and Curt Schilling were our only players of real name value in those weird years where every other team in the division was better than us. And of those three players, he was the one who was the least vocal about wanting to skip town and play for a contender.
Lieby lost most of the 2001 season, which was very unfortunate due to the Phillies’ amazing come-from-left-field run at the NL East crown. They finished the year 86-76, their best finish since 1993 and only 2 games behind the dominating Braves. Lieby only played 34 games that year, hitting .231 with 2 HRs and 11 RBIs. I have no doubt Lieby would have out hit Johnny Estrada‘s line of .228, 8 HR, and 37 RBIs if healthy. Sadly, this became Lieby’s MO. He faced a string of minor and major injuries, had an excellent 2003 where he hit .312 with 13 HRs, but could never fully recapture his All-Star form. As a high schooler and then college kid, I heard crowds voice their displeasure with Leiby. There was anecdotal evidence tonight on 97.5 the Fanatic that Leiby was booed on opening day 2006. Many Phillies’ fans remember him as the guy who always got hurt, who never played a full season. But what if I told you that perception was different from reality?
This is where we get to the meat of this post. Darren Daulton was inducted to the Phillies Wall of Fame this past Friday. Daulton patrolled the backstop for parts of 13 seasons in the Phils’ pinstripes, catching 1018 games, hitting 123 home runs, with 525 RBIs, with a triple slash line of .244/.423/.777 as a backstop. He is currently one of two catchers currently on the Phillies’ Wall of Fame; similarly beloved Bob Boone, who also made 3 All-Star games at catcher for the Phils, catching 1112 games for the Phils, was a member of the 1980 World Series championship team, perennial Gold Glove contender and seven time winner, and part of the coolest Phillies’ play/advertisement of all time. Boone hit 65 HRs in a Phils uniform, with 456 RBIs, and a .259/.325/.370 triple slash line. Disclaimer: Boone played 13 games at positions other than catcher that were included in the triple slash line. Both Daulton and Boone are and were very popular, as the city of Philadelphia seems to take to catchers. See: Ruiz, Carlos. Would it surprise you to know that Lieberthal had better numbers than both of them?
As a Philly, Lieby had 150 HRs as a catcher in 1174 games behind the plate with 609 RBIs. His triple slash line was .275/.338/.788, out-pacing offensively both Daulton and Boone in a similar number of games. Lieby caught the most games in Phillies history, which should count for something, or at the very least begin to soften the blow retroactively that he did miss a number of games throughout his career.
Lieby spent his final season, 2007, as a Los Angeles Dodger, serving as a back-up for upstart Russel Martin. The team went 82-80, good enough for fourth place in the suddenly explosive NL West. Coincidentally, the Phillies would break their 14 year playoff drought that year. Lieby had played on all 13 of the teams that missed the playoffs in that span. In 2008, there was a slightly happy ending. Lieberthal signed a brief contract with the Phils in 2008 and officially retired as a Philly on June 1, 2008, mimicking the actions of Doug Glanville in 2005. Is Lieberthal Phillies’ Wall of Fame worthy? Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives.
Lieberthal played the 2nd hardest position to field, according to the Bill James’ Defensive Spectrum, won a Gold Glove there, and made two All-Star games.
Lieberthal had better stats than the two other Phillies’ catchers on their Wall of Fame.
Lieberthal caught more games for the Phillies than any other player.
Lieberthal struck out very rarely, an overlooked fact of his career. His career high was 86 K’s in 1999 and averaged a strikeout per 7.39 ABs as a Phillie.
Lieberthal was a home grown player, drafted, came up through our system.
Lieberthal was a key piece of the teams that helped get the new ballpark built.
Lieberthal’s perception with the fans is nowhere near as positive as it is with Darren Daulton or Bob Boone.
Lieberthal never played on a Phils playoff team and, in fact, might be damaged by the fact that he played on teams that came up just short of the playoffs for five out of his last six seasons.
Mike Lieberthal, in short, is a really puzzling case of a guy who put up pretty numbers for his position for a few years but gained the fans’ eyer at the end of his run for inability to stay healthy late into his career. His case for the Phillies’ Wall of Fame is muddled by the dark ages that were the late 1990s, years Lieby really began to come into his own. He received a large ovation on Saturday, so Phillies’ fans may be beginning to soften their stance on him. His numbers and presence as the literally one player who survived as a Phil all thirteen years in between playoff births should be recognized but it likely won’t be. Unfortunately, Lieby doesn’t carry a whole lot of popularity and his name isn’t referenced very often unless its in a conversation about how beneficial it was in 2007 that his $7.5 million per year contract expired or how he likely could have helped us win the 2001 NL East if he would have been healthy the whole year. I think he should be up there, but it is unlikely he will be featured. Only time will tell.