It’s been pretty cool reconnecting with some of the unique personalities I worked with during my quarter century with the Cubs – as I’m on a mission to track down players I worked with to talk about their playing days and find out what they’re up to now.
A few days ago, I caught up with Jon Lieber – a 20-game winner for the Cubs during his 2001 All-Star campaign. Lieber pitched in the majors from 1994-2008 – and was a Cub from 1999-2002 and in 2008.
Chuck: Jake Arrieta won 22 games last year and was a Cy Young Award winner. Greg Maddux won 20 games in 1992 and was a Cy Young Award winner. You won 20 in 2001 and got nothing for it. Are you bitter?
Lieber: “No, not at all.”
Chuck: I was kidding there. But do tell me about your memories of your 20-win season.
Lieber: “It was just a season where I felt like I started figuring things out. Maturity wise, I felt like I was more in control of the game as the season went on. I think the guys that surrounded me on the team, in the lineup or on the bench; they definitely contributed to me winning 20 games. It just wasn’t me. A lot of things have got to factor in that. Your offense. Your defense. You have to have a good team around you to win a lot of ball games. As far as winning the Cy Young, that would have been great, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the three guys that were ahead of me – (Randy) Johnson, (Curt) Schilling and Matt Morris were more deserving than I was. No question about it.”
Chuck: One thing I remember – heck, anybody who watched you would remember – was that you were known for quick games and low pitch counts.
Lieber: “I’m a firm believer that when you keep your defense on its toes and you get them into the batter’s box, that’s all they want to do. They want to hit and score runs. That was always my goal throughout my career – to get the guys on-and-off the field as quick as possible. Obviously, being smart out there while I’m pitching was the key. I wanted to get off the field as quick as possible. Looking back now, I think a big success in my career is that I wasn’t afraid to pitch to contact. I was very simple in my approach in my games. I was basically a two-pitch pitcher throughout my career – fastball , slider. I took a lot of pride in being able to locate on both sides of the plate and being able to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters. I think that’s what makes the games go fast. You put the guys you’re facing into a defensive count, and they’re going to swing more likely. It’s going to lower your pitch count. The game’s going to be much faster.”
Chuck: One of your career highlights had to be pitching in the 2001 All-Star Game. Looking back 15 years later, what was that like for you?
Lieber: “It was great. It was unbelievable. It was something you always dream of as a little kid. When you’re in the background, you put yourself in those moments. Here it is, I’m finally living it at 31 years old. I’m taking it all in. That was the greatest thing – the guys on the team. I remember Curt Schilling, and I lockered next to him, he said, ‘Man, get as much stuff signed and you can, because you never know if you’re going to make it back to one of these. That was probably the best advice going in, because I was a little gun shy. I probably wouldn’t have asked for anything. I’m very thankful that I did. I really savor those items. I hope to hand them down to my kids. Looking back at it, I’ve got stories to tell about it. It seems like it just happened yesterday. But now we get to the game time situation, and that’s all the stuff I want to forget. I get out there, and the first two hitters (Derek Jeter and Magglio Ordonez) hit home runs off me … I’m thinking this is going to be embarrassing. I knew a lot of people were watching this game, but I was able to wiggle my way out of it, just giving up the two solo shots. Wish it could have been better, but it’s definitely something I’ll never forget.”
Chuck: I’m going to go back one year to 2000. We opened the season in Japan, and you were selected to make the Opening Day start. What was that like for you?
Lieber: “Man, that was exciting. Making the trip overseas where games counted. And then all of a sudden you find out you’re going to get the first game that actually means something. That doesn’t happen every day. I took a lot of pride in that. I was excited. That was the first time in history that those games actually counted and meant something, so it was a great opportunity. I had a blast. I hadn’t been there before. It was a lot of fun. I wish I had the opportunity to do it again.”
Chuck: Kevin Tapani – mentor or bad influence?
Lieber: “Mentor. No question.”
Chuck: With you, I wasn’t sure which way you’d answer that!
Lieber: “Definitely a mentor. Tap, what can I say? He was the first guy to really step up and make me feel welcome. The funny thing is, the way he comes across, he’s got that dry sense of humor. You didn’t know if he was serious or not. Or if he was playing a joke on you. Looking back now, I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to play with him, to get to know him for those three years. Tap was one of the best teammates I ever had the pleasure of playing with. I wish I’d stay in better touch with him. It’s very rare to come across people like Tap. He was just one of a kind. He was a very special person, a great teammate, and a great guy to hang out with.”
Chuck: My favorite post-Cubs Jon Lieber story was ripped directly from the Deadspin.com headlines. I vividly remember tapping into the site during spring training (in 2007), and there was a story there titled “Jon Lieber Has A Big-Ass Truck.” It seems you had a little truck that stood 9 feet, 2 inches tall.
Lieber: “I was in Philadelphia, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting around with Tim Worrell, a great teammate, and he pulls out this magazine. He shows me this site that makes these trucks in Georgia. We both were like, ‘That’s awesome. Let’s call them.’ I make the phone call. The guy said, ‘I’ll bring one over. I’ll let you look at it. I’ll let you drive it. So he does, and I fell in love with it. I look back now, it was a stupid purchase. I wish I wouldn’t have done it. My wife sat there and said, ‘Please don’t do this. Please don’t do this. Please don’t do this.’ It was in one ear and out the other. It was just a toy. But we had a lot of fun in this toy. It had all the bells and whistles. It had an authentic train horn. When I say authentic, I could blow that horn, and people two miles away would think there was a train close by. It was one of those impulsive buys that I wish I wouldn’t have done. You can’t take it back. It is what it is. I had it for about three years before selling it in 2010 … The truck actually had a tractor trailor motor in it. This thing had some horsepower. The gas mileage was actually pretty good. The truck got 10-to-12 miles per gallon. It could turn on a dime. It could park in-between two cars. It could almost do it all. It was a lot of fun”
Chuck: The article said it originally cost $211,000. Is that correct?
Lieber: “It was actually closer to $256,000. Then again we’re over the $200,000 mark, so it really doesn’t matter.”
Chuck: What are you doing now?
Lieber: “I have four children. I’m really involved with the kids. We purchased a bunch of property here in Mobile (AL) about 15 years ago. I’m into residential development now. I got involved about four years ago and pulled the trigger on it about two years ago. We’ve developed this neighborhood just outside of Mobile. We’re just taking it a little bit at a time.”