Daily Herald
Well-traveled Lieber hopes to finish career with Cubs
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 3/16/2008 12:05 AM

MESA, Ariz. -- Jon Lieber played baseball in Baseball City, Fla., where there was little else to do but play baseball.

He has lived in Eugene, Memphis, Carolina, Clearwater, Wilmington, Buffalo and Tampa.

And those were only his minor-league stops. Not quite Johnny Cash being everywhere, man, but no doubt there were some bumpy bus rides along the way.

In the bigs, it's been Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and now back to Chicago, and you can hardly blame Lieber if he makes that his last, but beloved, stop in a long baseball career.

"More than likely," he said the other day as he continued to prepare for the 2008 season. "We'll see. But I'd definitely like to say I'll finish my career here in Chicago."

Lieber and the Cubs had something special going a few years ago, but elbow surgery intervened in 2002, and Lieber wound up going away, to New York with the Yankees and to Philadelphia.

The soon-to-be 38-year-old right-hander has been one of the more understated players in the game during the last two decades.

Ask him about a near no-hitter, and all you're likely to get is, "That was the furthest thing from my mind."

But Lieber does bring a unique perspective to the game. During his major-league career, which began in 1994, he has pitched in four different major-league markets with four decidedly different mindsets.

Whether it has been in small-market Pittsburgh, in front of the adoring faithful of Wrigley Field, in the glare of the Big Apple or in the harsh and gritty environs of South Philly, Lieber has been able to survive and thrive.

"Oh yeah," he said. "They're all different, each in their own ways. It's the way businesses are. Some places were easier. Some places were tougher, just depending on the market."

Here's how he sizes up each stop:

Steel City start

Maybe we should call it Steelers City. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers are king, and University of Pittsburgh football isn't far behind.

So maybe old Three Rivers Stadium was the perfect place for a kid out of Council Bluffs, Iowa, to break into the bigs.

Lieber was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1992 but found himself traded to the Pirates the next year. He came up with the Bucs in '94 and was their opening-day starter the next year.

"I really enjoyed my time in Pittsburgh," he said. "I was there for five years. It's a very small-market atmosphere, not a whole lot of media pressure. The expectations for us were not to win, but to be competitive.

"That's the type of ball team they put out there. They were dismantling right before I got there. It's tough to build from the ground up and expect to win right away. There definitely wasn't a whole lot of pressure there.

"I just kind of went about my business on my own."

Chicago prime time

The Cubs obtained Lieber after the 1998 season in a trade for outfielder Brant Brown.

In Lieber's second season, his pitching coach was a rough-and-tumble rancher by the name of Oscar Acosta.

"He meant a lot to me as a pitching coach," said Lieber, who works now with pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "I felt (Acosta) got me to that plateau in '01 because he confronted me that year, that spring, and basically said, 'This is what we need you to do. We're expecting you to do these things.'Œ"

In 2000, Lieber led the major leagues in innings pitched with a whopping 251. The next year, he won 20 games, becoming the last Cubs pitcher to do so, as he went 20-6.

It was in Chicago where Lieber made a name for himself as a pitcher who works quickly and throws strikes. He also has enjoyed success in Wrigley Field, going 29-18 with a 3.62 ERA at the Friendly Confines.

"There's no better place," he said. "I guess that's the best way to describe it. I was fortunate to have success over here, and I'd like to continue that while I'm over here.

"It was time for a change in my career. I was basically getting into my prime. It just seemed the move to Chicago was refreshing in a sense. That's a different market, obviously a little bit bigger. Things just kind of took off.

"I felt like my career kind of blossomed when I got here. It seems you'll see a lot of guys now whose careers take off at age 29 or 30. That's what happened for me, I thought."

New York, New York

Lieber underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in 2002, cutting short his final season with the Cubs.

The Yankees signed him and rehabbed him in '03 as they went to the World Series and lost to the Marlins.

In '04, Lieber came back and went 14-8, helping the Yankees to the league championship series, where they fell to the Red Sox.

If the pressure of New York was going to get to anybody, it wasn't Lieber.

"I just kind of flew underneath the radar," he said. "There were much bigger names than me who were on that team who took a lot of the pressure off me. I just tried to go out there and produce every fifth day. You could definitely see where the pressure could be on some of those guys."

Yankee Stadium is a special place, but Lieber was too busy resurrecting his career to spend too much time gawking at the monuments in center field. That's not to say he didn't stop and smell the green grass now and then.

"To me, I was more worried about keeping my arm healthy," he said. "So I don't think I got caught up in the surroundings. The monuments were awesome. There's definitely a lot of history there. As far as stepping on the field, I was just happy to be on the field."

Getting his Phil

They've booed Santa Claus in Philly. Broadcaster Bob Uecker joked that Philadelphia fans would boo kids hunting Easter eggs.

Even though the Phillies became the third team to give Lieber an opening-day start, he heard it from the Philly faithful when things didn't go well. Things went well early, though, as Lieber went 17-13 in 2005.

Injuries slowed him in '06 and '07, depriving him of pitching in the playoffs last season.

"It's definitely the toughest place I've ever played as far as expectations year in and year out," he said. "You just try to do the best you can and hope they can see what you're trying to give them, and leave it at that.

"They can be a little tough. That's Philly for you."

One last stop

Like so many Iowans, who bus in from Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Davenport, Lieber will find himself once again at Wrigley Field this summer.

"I feel great," he said. "I think the best word is 'rejuvenated.' I'm excited, and we'll see what happens."

And although he's too busy to wax sentimental over being able to call Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium home, that doesn't mean he's not grateful.

"The one thing I'm thankful for in my career is to have a chance to play in these two stadiums," he said. "Not only that, but Boston, too. Not too many guys can say that for two of the three teams, they actually played for the home team. It's been a great honor and a pleasure to do that."