The Princess and the Frog, with the role of the princess played tonight by Cliff Lee

Star studies is generally about examining how star personae resonate with the world around them, with their social and cultural contexts. Marilyn Monroe negotiated sex in the 1950s; Judy Garland allows gay men a queer space in pop culture; action stars in the 80s recouped white masculinity after Vietnam, etc. etc. We tend to think of stars in a national sense; we tend to think of Hollywood stars as emblems of the nation and the national mood, negotiating social and political issues for the nation. I wonder though, if sports stars, or at least baseball stars, are better thought of regionally.

We can easily suggest that the a large part of Cliff Lee’s significance lies in how nice it is, especially in a recession, to see a ballplayer not be be less greedy than he could be. It’s not unreasonable to argue that after Lebron James and Tiger Woods, we all need to see modesty and a father and husband who cares about and considers the desires of his wife and kids. We can easily position Cliff Lee’s importance through a throwback narrative of the country boy who gets a chance in the bigs but always maintains that “aw shucks” personality, never forgets the Arkansas town he came from. It’s part of the mythology of baseball writ large, baseball as national pastime– something we are still trying to recover after the steroid era, and something the Yankees clearly can’t provide. This is an easy reading of Cliff Lee.

Yet, I do not think Cliff Lee acts out issues that matter to us. Rather, he acts out issues that matter to Philadelphia. That stuff up there? That matters to Major League Baseball. That’s what matters to the New York Yankees, to Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettite. This is actually an argument I made in 2009 about that World Series as a pivotal moment where the Steroid Era, corporate brand of “America’s Team” began to give way to the post-Steroid era whose poster boys are slightly awkward, skinny white boys like Chase Utley and Cliff Lee. However, what I realized this week is that as true as all of that narrative is, as important as that narrative is to so many people, it is not why Cliff Lee matters.

She said

“I would have never dreamed when we got traded here from the Indians that we would say, ‘Ooh, Philadelphia, I can’t wait to get there.’ But it’s a city like I’ve never been in before. We haven’t had that exact feeling anywhere else.”

Who has every admitted that before? Among our most famous cultural exports right now is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia which, as much as I adore it, is not always a flattering profile of the city of brotherly love.

He said:

I don’t know what the fans do to create that much more volume and excitement in the stadium, but it’s definitely something extra here.

Who says that? Who ever talks about Philly fans without immediately mentioning batteries or santa and snowballs? (Jerry Crasnick did… but almost as absolution.)

Crasnick writes:

[Agent Darek] Braunecker invited pitcher Cliff Lee and his wife, Kristen, to his office in Little Rock, Ark., with a specific set of instructions: Take a piece of paper, and list the five teams you want to play for the most. Rank them in order from 1 to 5. No. 1 on the Lees’ wish list: a return engagement with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Who ranks Philadelphia number one? Who ranks Philadelphia number one over New York? This is the perpetual Philadelphia inferiority complex. New York has taken industry from the shores of the Delaware, world series titles from Shibe Park, Billy Wagner from the bullpen (well ok maybe that worked out OK). Their bars are open two hours later. Their restaurants are open all night. We should be honored to have Northern Liberties called the Sixth Borough. Who hasn’t heard the list over and over again of all the things that make New York great and thus clearly must make Philly an awful place no one would want to be?

So, who ranks Philadelphia number one? Who has told us that we are good and we are worthy and maybe we can be just a little bit less angry for a day or two? You already know the answer.

Cliffton Phifer and Kristen Lee (and Jaxon and Maci) are like the princess that kissed the ugly little frog and made us a prince. And the part of the Frog will be played tonight by the city of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Phillies organization and most of all the people of Philadelphia.


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