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He rejected the New York Yankees. He spat at Yankee Stadium, and he spurned the pinstripes, and then, were that not enough, he actually went somewhere else for less money, compounding insult with the most injurious move in years.
Meet baseball's newest hero: Cliff Lee(notes), newly minted Philadelphia Phillie and antidote for a baseball-viewing public tired of the Yankees throwing around free-agent dollars like toy money. All across America, from the smallest baseball cities to the biggest metropolises and everyone in between tortured by the Yankees' profligate spending, paint the town with Schadenfreude and emit a good, long yelp.
Chuckle, Kansas City.
Laugh, Tampa Bay.
Cry, New York.
Lee, the 32-year-old left-hander with a Cy Young Award and string of sterling postseason performances, is back with the team that traded him 364 days ago. His five-year, $120 million deal is worth nearly $30 million less in guaranteed money than the Yankees offered and almost $20 million less than the Texas Rangers' proposal. Though the $24 million annual salary is higher than the contracts from New York and Texas and a vesting sixth-year option could push the overall package close to their overall value, Lee defied convention by not following the path paved with the most green.
[Photos: See Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee]
Whatever his intentions and motivations, both of which will be better gleaned at a news conference that makes the signing official, they left the Yankees stunned, stupefied, saddened. Standing in the losing clubhouse after Lee pitched Texas past the Yankees in the ALCS in October, New York general manager Brian Cashman called pitching his No. 1 priority this offseason. And seeing as Lee represented the only starter of significance, Cashman attached the Yankees' financial might to Lee and dared other teams to beat their offer.
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The Yankees played hardball with Derek Jeter(notes) and seemed inclined to do the same with Lee, saying they wouldn't go beyond a six-year deal. Then the Red Sox traded for Adrian Gonzalez(notes), spent $142 million on Carl Crawford(notes) and honked the horn as they leapt into the AL East driver's seat. Almost immediately, New York added a player option for a seventh season, the only of the three teams in the end to guarantee Lee the seven years he supposedly desired, and upped their total package to $148 million. Texas, so desperate to keep Lee, offered $138 million over six years with a vesting option for another $23 million, allowing Lee to reach the total value of the landmark $161 million deal handed his former Cleveland and would-be Yankee teammate, CC Sabathia(notes).
Even if Lee's sixth-year option with the Phillies vests, the contract maxes out at $135 million. No chump change, of course, but eight figures less than the Yankees' offer, which will lead to plenty of jokes from the Bronx – "What do Cliff Lee and the Liberty Bell have in common? They're both cracked" – and an easy retort from South Philly: "Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels."
[Related: Yankees are hurting]
No team in baseball, not even the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, can compete with the Phillies' starting rotation of Roy Halladay(notes), Lee, Roy Oswalt(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes). It is arguably the best rotation on paper in baseball history. Certainly it's the most frightening since Atlanta's Greg Maddux(notes)/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz(notes) group in the '90s, and the mere thought of it 48 hours ago would've indeed evoked chuckles and laughs and snickers and guffaws anywhere other than the Phillies' front office.
The perception inside baseball was that the Phillies were tapped out financially. The perception, too, was that Lee would chase every available dollar. A great match though they were, financial realities would intervene. While a mystery team emerged in the bidding, such last-minute appearances often come from creative agents trying to drum up leverage.
Turns out this mystery team existed, and the Phillies pulled the baseball equivalent of a bank heist, swooping in, grabbing the goods and getting the hell out before anybody knew what hit them. Philadelphia knew how to appeal to Lee. He enjoyed the city, the team. The Phillies are more likely to win the NL than the Yankees or Rangers are the AL. He's part of a historic rotation. The league is easier on his numbers, likelier to burgeon his legacy. Yes, it was risky for the Phillies – giving six years to any pitcher, let alone one who is 32, comes with significant peril – though the reward, at least today, is evident on the faces of fans not just in Philadelphia but everywhere who love to hate New York.
For the Yankees, this hurts. This hurts bad. Right now, their rotation consists of Sabathia, Phil Hughes(notes), A.J. Burnett(notes), Ivan Nova(notes) and Sergio Mitre(notes). They will beg Andy Pettitte(notes) to return for one last hurrah, and they'll plumb the trade market and see if they want to reconsider their stance on the standout but potentially jittery Zack Greinke(notes) or chase a lesser starter. And should they whiff there, too, the free-agent pitching class next season is headlined by the underwhelming Edwin Jackson(notes), and so the Yankees may have to wait two full seasons to spend the Everestian pile of cash on which they're sitting.
Boo-hoo, mocks the rest of the baseball world, the proletariat to the bourgeois Yankees. Never mind that the Phillies' payroll is likely to hover around $170 million, about 85 percent of New York's, nor that the Rangers are the saddest sacks in this whole story – the team that traded for Lee, rode him to the World Series, offered him the most potentially lucrative deal and proximity to his Arkansas home and still saw him head back to Philadelphia.
Lee's contract marks the third for $120 million-plus this offseason, and the Yankees are 0 for 3. They never approached Jayson Werth(notes) or Carl Crawford with the seriousness they did Lee, and perhaps that makes Philadelphia's thievery all the more shocking: This was the Yankees' offseason of Lee, a fait accompli, the Steinbrenner family willing to flex its financial muscles like some meathead convinced the ladies love the gun show.
Love, for Cliff Lee, went beyond money. It went back to the city where 24 brothers inside a clubhouse and millions more in Citizens Bank Park will await him and greet him, back to the team that offloaded him in a horrible deal for three middling prospects a year ago because it was worried that it couldn't sign him to a long-term deal.
Turns out the Phillies were wrong. Cliff Lee came back, and he did it to a hero's welcome, in Philadelphia and beyond.