Lieberthal may be the greatest all-around catcher to this point in Phillies history
LIEBY’S PRO CAREER BEGINNINGS
Lieberthal was chosen by the Phils with the third overall pick in the first round of the 1990 MLB Amateur Draft out of Westlake High School in California, where he had been an All-American.
His maturity and all-around athletic ability allowed Lieberthal to rise rapidly through the Phillies farm system. By the 1992 season, he was catching at Double-A Reading as a 20-year-old. He would even get a taste of the Triple-A level later that same summer.
The ‘Macho Row’ Phillies stormed to a stunning National League pennant in the 1993 season. That mulleted crew very nearly captured a World Series title, falling short in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays.
While all of that excitement was happening at the big league level, Lieberthal was gaining valuable experience as a 21-year old with Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. In that 1993 season, Lieberthal hit .262 with 17 doubles and 40 RBI over 417 plate appearances.
Lieberthal began the 1994 season back at Scranton, but was called up to make his big-league debut that summer when Phillies starting catcher Darren Daulton suffered one of his many career knee injuries. This one would knock ‘Dutch’ out for the year, and Lieberthal would become the starting backstop.
LIEBERTHAL REACHES THE BIG LEAGUES
On June 30, in what was a sort of homecoming, Lieberthal got his first start in Los Angeles against the host Dodgers. In the top of the fourth inning he lined a clean base hit to left field off Dodgers starter Pedro Astacio. It was the first of what would be 1,155 career hits in his Major League Baseball.
Just over two weeks later the Dodgers were in Philadelphia for a series at Veterans Stadium. With starter Ramon Martinez on the mound, Lieberthal cranked the first of what would be 150 career home runs.
That first taste of Major League Baseball would end abruptly, not just for Lieberthal, but for everyone involved with the game. The player’s strike began on August 12th that year and would result in the cancellation of the remainder of that 1994 season.
Daulton returned to take over his starting spot behind the plate when the strike was settled and play resumed for the 1995 season and became an NL All-Star. However, yet another knee injury knocked him out for the year and ended his career as a catcher.
With Daulton set to miss the entire 1996 season the Phillies signed free agent catcher Benito Santiago. The veteran would supply the club with 30 home runs, but had only been signed for one year.
Meanwhile, Lieberthal spent much of the 1995 season back at Triple-A. He then returned to the big-leagues and became Santiago’s primary backup in 1996. However, Lieberthal’s season ended in mid-August after he suffered torn cartilage in his left knee.
With Santiago spending only that one year in Philly and Daulton’s knees leading to his permanently giving up the position, Lieberthal became the Phillies starting everyday catcher in the 1997 season. He would hold on to the job for the better part of the next decade.
LIEBY AS THE PHILLIES STARTING CATCHER
That first year as full-time starter saw Lieberthal blast 20 homers with 77 RBI over 134 games. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck once again the following year. Lieby’s 1998 campaign was cut short after a late-July pelvic injury knocked him out for the year.
In 1999, Lieberthal returned with one of the best seasons by a Phillies catcher in the history of the ball club. He hit for a .300/.363/.551 slash line with 31 homers and 96 RBI that year. Lieby became just the eighth catcher in MLB history to hit for a .300+ average and bang 30+ homers in a season.
During that big 1999 season, Lieberthal became just the second Phillies catcher in history after Boone to be named as a National League All-Star. He also set a new Phillies record for fielding percentage (.997) at the catcher position. For that defensive excellence he was honored with an NL Gold Glove Award.
Lieberthal was off to another great year in 2000 and was named an NL All-Star for the second straight season. Then on July 17, a collision at the plate with New York Yankees star Bernie Williams resulted in an ankle injury. It would knock Lieberthal out for two weeks, affect his play over the next month-and-a-half, and cause his season to finally end in early September.
The following year was again marred by injury. On May 12 at Arizona with the Phillies in first place by six games in the NL East, Lieberthal was picked off first base. On the play he suffered major knee damage. That injury would require surgery and finish his season. The club would go 64-63 without their star catcher and end up just two games off the 2001 NL East Division crown.
Lieberthal recovered and again took over the starting Phillies catching duties as the club wound down the final years at Veterans Stadium and then opened up Citizens Bank Park. For his return in 2002, Lieby was named by The Sporting News as the NL Comeback Player of the Year. In 2003, Lieberthal caught a no-hitter thrown at The Vet by Kevin Millwood.
The Phillies were contenders for the postseason in each of his final four years as the catcher from 2003-2006. The club would ultimately come just short of their collective goals during those years of building talent but frustrating finishes.
THE END OF THE LINE
At age 34 in the 2006 season, Lieberthal saw time, injuries, and other organizational options finally catch up with him. He split the catching duties almost evenly that year with a feel-good “33-Year Old Rookie” story in Chris Coste. And getting his first taste of the big-leagues that year was a 26-year-old catcher named Carlos Ruiz.
Following the 2006 season, Lieberthal became a free agent for the first time. He chose to sign a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 2007 season, serving as the backup to Russell Martin in what would prove to be Lieberthal’s big-league swan song.
Ironically, the Phillies would finally break through and win that elusive NL East title in that 2007 season. It was the first of five straight division crowns for the club. So, it turns out that the Phillies won the division the year before his debut and the year after he left, but never while he was with the team.
On June 1, 2008, Lieberthal signed a one-day contract in order to retire with the Phillies. He was applauded by fans as he threw out the first pitch at that night’s game.
THE WALL OF FAME
Lieberthal left as the Phillies franchise all-time leader in Games, Home Runs, and RBI at the catching position. He is also ranked fifth in homers and seventh in both hits and RBI on the all-time Major League Baseball rankings among Jewish ball players.
In 2012, Lieberthal was elected to the Phillies Wall of Fame. Again, this is the ultimate organizational honor for any individual associated with the team.
“I’m not a Hall of Famer, but having an organization that does this, just to go along with the great players that played here. I was a good player but very lucky to be on one team for that long. There’s a lot of good players that come through Philadelphia that, in the business of the game, they only stay for two or three years.”
Shortstop Jimmy Rollins was a little younger and would become a leader on the perennial Phillies winners of the late 2000’s. ‘JRoll’ was Lieberthal’s teammate from 2000-06.
“He basically, start to finish, was a Phillie,” said Rollins per MLB.com’s Jake Kaplan. “He was here through a lot of tough years in the late ’90s…made his mark…a good catcher, and he could also hit.”
Mike Lieberthal did indeed make his mark in Philly. It’s a shame that those early 2000’s Phillies teams couldn’t win just a few more games each year, thus getting him to the postseason. But Phillies fans who got to see him play know his value to the club for a long time at the most difficult position on the diamond.