Family takes Lee yard in Wiffle ball
Indians' Cy Young candidate is no match for contest winners
BAY VILLAGE, Ohio -- When Indians left-hander Cliff Lee takes the mound, all he tries to do -- as he has been apt to say time and time again -- is put zeros on the board.But there's a catch to that approach. It only applies when a baseball is in the American League Cy Young Award candidate's left hand. When he's tossing a Wiffle ball, as was displayed recently at the green fields of the Huntington Reservation near the shores of Lake Erie, Lee takes pride in putting up a few crooked numbers. Lee was tattooed for 14 runs in just two innings, mostly by the three boys of the Fortunato family, the winners of the second annual Direct Energy Backyard Challenge. "It was perfect day for Wiffle ball," Lee said of the clear blue sky and moderate pre-autumn temperatures. "For them to come out here and play with a Major League player and for me to provide that opportunity, it was good and fun." To put a little perspective on Lee's rocky outing, which came just 17 hours after a no-decision Wednesday against the Twins, the two innings were good for an ERA of 63.00. The 14 runs he surrendered at the mercy of boys and girls ages 5-14 were more than he allowed in his past five Major League starts combined. "If I would have known it was going to be like that, I would have tried to throw a little harder," Lee said. "It was a good chance to let the kids swing and try to hit a home run off me." The hits came in more ways than one. Kevin Fortunato, the oldest of the three boys, ripped a line drive off Lee in his team's first go-round against the 30-year-old left-hander. It smacked Lee right in the collarbone. "I really wasn't ready for that," Lee said. Kevin, one of the quietest boys according to the boys' mom, Wendy, took it easy on Lee in his next at-bat. The 13-year-old laid a check-swing grounder down the first-base line and beat out Lee's throw at first base. "I didn't want to hit him again," said Kevin, sporting a red Fausto Carmona T-shirt jersey. The biggest hit of the day came off the bat of Matt Orr, who crushed a first-pitch meatball from Lee over the makeshift fence in left field. The blast marked just the 12th home run Lee has given up all season. Lee revved it up a bit in Orr's next at-bat, but the youngster was still able to slap an opposite-field single. "If I would have known he was going to swing like that, I would have given him a little more," Lee said. "The second time up, I tried to gas him up a little bit, but he still made contact. His stance kind of had me scared." Scared might be the last way to describe the youngest of the Fortunato boys, Luke, who was a little disappointed with his effort against one of the best pitchers in baseball. "I thought I was going to hit a home run and a triple," said the 7-year-old, who still collected two solid singles on the day. "I wanted to pull them down the left-field line." As for Craig, the spectacled middle child and only youngster sporting a Lee jersey, he was just happy to have Lee around before the big game. The three boys and Lee had a little batting practice at the Fortunato family's version of Progressive Field before making the 100-yard trek to the local park. "I've never even had batting practice before," the 11-year-old said. When Wendy and the boys put their name in the completely random drawing to have Lee come to their neighborhood, none of them ever thought they had a chance. But it'd be tough to find winners more deserving than the Fortunatos. With a sandy patch serving as the pitcher's mound and sidewalk-chalk batters' boxes, the Fortunato boys treat their front lawn as if it's Progressive Field, Wendy said. Before they break out the bats and balls, they even do their best Indians grounds crew impersonation, watering down the tiny field. "Our family loves the Indians. It's what we do as a family," Wendy said. "We go to Indians games during the summer instead of vacation. We even did our family picture last year in all Indians clothes." The event, which was organized by Direct Energy, served as a unique experience for Indians fans, big -- but mostly small -- to catch an athlete of Lee's caliber away from the daily grind of the 162-game Major League schedule. "This has really become a great, unique event," said Dean Gyorgy, Direct Energy's director of sponsorships and brand. Lee, though he looked tuckered out as he sat on a lawn chair and signed autographs for the Fortunato's friends and family, certainly concurred. "It was definitely a more laid-back game than a Major League game," Lee said. "That's what it's all about, coming out here and having fun."
Andrew Gribble is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.