‘Lieby’ played for the Phillies from 1994-2006. His career is overlooked by some younger fans, often lost due to the period in which he performed.
Lieberthal broke into the big leagues during the strike-killed 1994 season, a year after the Phillies’ unexpected romp to a National League pennant. His career ended just before the glory of five straight National League East pennants began in 2007.
Lieberthal’s career largely spanned a frustrating period in club history. But there is no denying the numbers or his reputation. Lieberthal may have been the greatest all-around catcher to ever put on a Philadelphia Phillies uniform.
Lieberthal was chosen by the Phils with the third overall pick in the first round of the 1990 MLB Amateur Draft. He was selected 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, Lieby was catching at AA Reading as a 20-year-old. He would even get a taste of the AAA level later that same summer.
The ‘Macho Row’ Phillies stormed to a stunning NL 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, Lieby was gaining valuable experience as a 21-year-old with AAA 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 AAA, but was called up to make his big league debut that summer. The promotion came when Phillies starting catcher Darren Daulton suffered one of many career knee injuries. This one would knock ‘Dutch’ out for the year, and Lieberthal would become the starter.
LIEBERTHAL REACHES THE BIG LEAGUES
On June 30, in what was a sort of homecoming, Lieby got his first start in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. In the top of the fourth inning, Lieberthal lined a clean base hit to left field off Dodgers starter Pedro Astacio. It was his first of what would be 1,155 big league hits.
Just over two weeks later, the Dodgers were in Philadelphia at Veteran’s Stadium. With starter Ramon Martinez on the mound, Lieberthal cranked his first of 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 12. It would result in the cancellation of the remainder of that season.
Daulton returned to take over his starting spot when play resumed for the 1995 season. Then in 1996 the Phils signed free agent catcher Benito Santiago, who supplied the club with 30 home runs.
Lieberthal spent much of 1995 back at AAA, and then became Santiago’s primary backup in 1996. However, his season ended in mid-August after he suffered torn cartilage in his left knee.
Santiago only lasted one year in Philly. Daulton’s knees had led to his permanently giving up the catcher position after 1995. So at age 25 in the 1997 season, Lieberthal became the Phillies’ starting backstop. He would hold that distinction for the better part of a decade.
LIEBY AS THE PHILLIES STARTING CATCHER
In 1999, Lieberthal hit for a .300/.363/.551 slash line with 31 homers and 96 RBI. He became just the eighth catcher in big league history to hit for a .300+ average and bang 30+ homers in a season.
He became just the second Phillies catcher in history, after Boone, to be named as a National League All-Star in that 1999 season. Lieberthal also set a new Phillies record for fielding percentage at the catcher position (.997). For that 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 a second straight season. 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, and affect him for the next month and a half. His season would finally end in early September.
The following year was again marred by injury. On May 12 at Arizona he was picked off first base, suffering major knee damage on the play. That injury that would require surgery and finish his 2001 season.
Lieberthal recovered and again took over the starting Phillies catching duties as the club would down the final years at Veteran’s 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 MLB postseason in each of his final four years as the catcher from 2003-2006. But the club would ultimately finish just short of their collective goals.
THE END OF THE LINE
At age 34 in the 2006 season, Lieberthal saw time, his 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 was a 26-year-old catcher named Carlos Ruiz.
Ruiz made his own big league debut in 2006 and took over as Phillies starting catcher after Lieberthal left. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Following the 2006 season, Lieberthal became a free agent for the first time. He signed a one-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 2007 season. He then served as backup to Russell Martin in what would prove to be Lieby’s big league swan song.
Perhaps ironically, the Phillies would finally break through and win that elusive NL East title in 2007. 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 catcher position. He is also ranked fifth in homers and seventh in both hits and RBI on the all-time MLB rankings for Jewish ball players.
Seen here along with Charlie Manuel over Pat Burrell’s shoulders, Lieberthal was elected to the Phillies Wall of Fame in 2012. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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 2000s. ‘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 2000s 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.