December 14, 2010

Welcome back, Cliff Lee.

When the Philadelphia Phillies essentially traded Cliff Lee for Roy Halladay, people mostly understood.

Yes, Lee was the hero of the 2009 World Series run. Hell, he was the only reason the Phillies even sniffed a championship. He came over from the Indians as a man possessed, dispatching National League hitters like they were cardboard cutouts. While Cole Hamels floundered after an exhausting 2008 season, Lee established himself as an elite playoff pitcher. Everything the Phillies needed him to do, he did.

But with only one year left on his contract, we also thought he'd chase the money. After a rocky 2007 in Cleveland that included a demotion to the minors, Lee had finally been christened a star on baseball's biggest stage. He was in line for a gigantic deal, and he deserved every cent of it.

Meanwhile, Roy Halladay, a Cy Young-winning arm who dreamed of pitching under the bright lights in Philadelphia, was ready to leave a boatload of money on the table for a shot at a championship. He took a three-year, $60 million extension, ensuring that the Phillies would still have a true ace on the roster. As hard as it was to believe, he made Lee expendable. If, for whatever reason, you could only have one, Roy was your guy.

But then, even after Cole Hamels got his mojo back and Ruben Amaro Jr. traded for Roy Oswalt, it still wasn't enough to lock down a third straight World Series appearance. Three aces. Not bad, but still not enough.

Lee hit the market, and the bidding started high. Far too high, we all assumed, for the budget-conscious Phillies. But then this afternoon, out of nowhere, rumors started to leak of a "mystery team" entering the Lee sweepstakes. Who was this team? Did they really have a shot at the left-hander? Unlikely, everyone said. Lee's getting his payday in New York or Texas, that's for sure.

Yet here we are, at 12:43 in the morning on Tuesday, December 14th, and the unthinkable has occurred. If you thought the Roy Halladay negotiations were generous, well, say "welcome back" to burgeoning humanitarian Clifton Phifer Lee.

The rumors say five years, $100 million; either way, it might be the most absurd turn of events in recent baseball history. Everyone said Lee loved playing in Philadelphia, but no one could put a price tag on that kind of speculation. Well, now we can; $38 million. That's how much Lee turned down, how much he valued happiness in Philadelphia over pitching somewhere else.

It will be tough to fall asleep after all this, but it might help to imagine Cliff Lee's powerful left arm gently rocking me to unconsciousness. The prodigal son, the man Philadelphians dreamed about reacquiring someday, is once again a member of Phillies. As Clark Griswold once said, "Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where's the Tylenol?"

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