In the time that has passed since Cliff Lee(notes) spurned his two main suitors to return to the Philadelphia Phillies, more than a few people have asked the question: What makes the ace pitcher's free-agency story so different from the one written by LeBron James?
TrueHoop's Henry Abbott wrote about it. So did Philly2Philly. It was reportedly a topic on Philadelphia talk radio on Tuesday afternoon and there were more than a few references to the similarities on Twitter. Maybe someone at your office wanted to know why Lee is viewed as a hero for taking less money than his old team (and others) were offering to go play with his pals while LeBron was transformed into sports' biggest villain for doing the same.
With Lee, his decision wasn't rammed and crammed down our throats for more than a year by ESPN. He didn't consent to a gigantic television special, didn't wear a weird picnic-table shirt and didn't engage in ridiculous banter with Jim Gray before saying something dumb like "I'm going to take my talents to Reading Terminal."
(LeBron played 619 total games over seven seasons with a Cleveland Cavaliers team he grew up 30 miles away from while Lee made 20 starts over the span of a couple months for what was his fourth team in two seasons.)
Add the sea change difference in the sports' dynamics — an NBA franchise is crippled with the departure of one star player, but that isn't the case in baseball — and it's easy to answer before getting dragged into the question's very visible subtext of race.
If I may go a bit deeper, though, I also think the difference in our reactions are heavily dictated by how the players' decisions affected the storylines we selfishly want to see as sports fans.
Personally, I felt disappointment with LeBron's decision because I had become invested in watching him eventually help lift Cleveland to its first sports title since 1964. I have no real ties to that area, but it was one of the themes compelling enough to get me to watch the NBA — something I normally don't do.
Would the national reception for LeBron have been different had he bolted Cleveland for the New York Knicks or Chicago Bulls? I believe it would have been as watching him try to resurrect the basketball experience at Madison Square Garden or follow in Michael Jordan's footsteps would also have been a worthwhile experience for me as a casual consumer.
Needless to say, we don't view his decision to pursue the easy path to a title with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — in a city with few diehard fans and very little basketball history — in the same way. Our disappointment with losing the storylines we preferred has resulted in us creating a juicy storyline we can live with — Miami Heat, universally hated team.
As for Lee, he basically just did the opposite of what LeBron did. Instead of easily signing with the Miami Heat of baseball (the New York Yankees) or a team most of the nation is generally apathetic toward (the Texas Rangers), Lee manufactured one of 2011's best plots by heading to Philly where he and three others will try and form one of the best rotations of all time. Unless you're a Yankees fan or a hitter in the NL East, that's something you can look forward to watching next season.
Whether it's fair or not, our perceptions of Cliff Lee and LeBron James are just as much about us as it is about them.
- LeBron James