Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Coming Home

Brian Cashman: You're fired!

Cliff Lee is coming back to the Phillies. Seriously!! I know it's not really "home" at all, but it sure feels that way for the Philly fans, who never for one second wanted to see Lee leave after the 2009 season. And apparently, Cliff Lee never really wanted to leave either, or maybe he just didn't realize it yet. The word is that Lee is signing a 5-year, $120 million contract with the Phils, who have surprised everyone by besting the Yankees and the Rangers who were believed to be the only players in a two-team race for Lee's services. There is so much to be said about this and I'm sure I'll have plenty more -- over the next half a decade in fact now -- but my initial thought is more or less like all the other long-suffering Phillies fans out there:


I mean, the most amazing part of all this isn't even about Cliff Lee specifically, to me anyways. I've written a little about this before, but the most incredible aspect to all of this is that over the past five or six years, Philadelphia has actually become a place where free agents in baseball actually want to go play. All growing up in Philly, the total opposite was true. I'm not sure I can remember a single big signing that any of the major sports franchises in Philadelphia made. Well, I guess there was Moses Malone in the early '80s. But really, that's about it. It was always New York, or LA, or Chicago, or somewhere else. If anything, Philly was known for making young players into big stars and then being the place where they left from to go chase the big money that the Philly teams either couldn't or wouldn't pay them, typically in one of those cities mentioned above. It was horribly frustrating as a kid, believe me, watching these guys turn into your heroes, the guys you wanted to be like, and then eventually always knowing they were going to leave for the big money grab. Having to watch them usually just travel 90 miles up Route 95 to the Big Apple made it even worse, but in general, you always knew around the corner that these guys were on their way out, and it was simply never a question of the team coughing up the big bucks to keep them, or to sign some other big name player to take their place. Philadelphia simply never used to be that place that anybody ever went "to take their talents", to use LeBron's phraseology. It just never happened, and the Phillies were perhaps the biggest example of all of this phenomenon. What big-name pitcher or hitter ever signed with the Phillies in the '80s or '90s? Why would you? They didn't pony up the big cash, and even though the city has easily the greatest, purest sports fans on the earth bar none, the team was also the losingest franchise in all of sports, and the Phils had more last-place finishes during my childhood than any other team. They were the Pirates before the Pirates were the Pirates, believe me. Nobody great ever wanted to play baseball here, and with good reason.

But all that has changed now, a combination of new ownership, brilliant general managers, an incredible farm system, the best new ballpark in all of baseball, and a whole lot of success that big names actually want to be a part of. Just think about the last few years. When Brad Lidge was on the market after being run out of Houston following the infamous Albert Pujols post-season home run, out of nowhere the Phillies were there to scoop him up, and a year later the guy was putting the cap on a perfect season by striking out the Rays' Scott Eyre to bring the city its first World Series in 28 years. That year as well, the Phils went out and signed then 28-year-old Jayson Werth, who contributed greatly both at bat and in the field to the past few years' success in the city. When Cliff Lee was being shopped by the hapless Indians the following summer, you had your usual rumors out of New York and Boston offering ridiculous money, but then out of nowhere comes the Phillies to pick the guy up, and boom, fast forward three months and there is Cliff Lee completely befuddling the perennial all-star Yankees lineup twice in front of the world in the World Series, the first back-to-back pennants in the Phillies' gillion-year history as a franchise.

After that season, new Phillies GM Ruben Amaro approached Lee about resigning him, and got the word from Lee's agent that Lee was definitely looking for a long-term megadeal a la CC Sabathia's $168 million beast of a deal with the Yanks that past offseason. Amaro let the Lee camp know he was looking more for a 4- or 5-year deal, and when the Lee camp balked, Amaro sadly traded away Lee to the Seattle Mariners for prospects, taking those savings instead and signing AL pitching powerhouse Roy Halladay, who happily came to the team after making it very well known for weeks that Philly was where he really wanted to play more than anywhere else. Yes, more than the Yankees, more than the Red Sox, both of whom were, again, offering up more guaranteed money in terms of more years on the deal. But, amazingly to Phillies fans, Halladay wanted to come to Philadelphia, and was willing to accept a 5-year extension at a hefty $20 million a year, an amount that fit into the Phillies' burgeoning budget after having sold out every game for four year straight in their new stadium. I mean, can you imagine? A huge star like Roy Halladay, and he actually wanted to play in Philly, even to the point of accepting less guaranteed dough than he could have gotten elsewhere? Have you ever??? It was just unheard of to us old-school Philadelphians, believe me. Add in a trade for outfielder Raul Ibanez as a new power bat in the Phils' scary lineup, and Phillies fans around the world were just in awe.

Enter the 2010 season, with Halladay on his way to another brilliant season that would lead eventually to the second perfect game in major league postseason history. And as the trading deadline approached, it looked like the Phils' rotation was still one man short of total dominance. So as last year's trading deadline approached, when longtime Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt was announced by the team to be on the market, once again it was the Yankees and the Red Sox at the forefront of the rumors, with some Angels and Cubs sprinkled in for good measure as per usual, but then wake up one morning and the word is that it was once again Ruben Amaro and the Phillies who had made the huge coup, nabbing Oswalt from under the Yanks' and Sox's noses, and somehow getting the Astros to agree to pay close to half of Oswalt's salary on the remaining two years of his contract. Again, Oswalt was publicly thrilled to be coming to a team like the Phillies (can you imagine??), and his performance here last year showed it, as he was perhaps the best pitcher on the team in the second half of the season, nearly unhittable in most of his starts and winning over the city's fans quickly and completely.

When the Cliff Lee saga really heated up at the end of 2010 with his Texas Rangers making the World Series and losing out to the incredible pitching staff assembled by the San Francisco Giants, who had bested the Phillies and our amazing pitching staff fair and square for the NL pennant, everyone knew this would be all about the Yankees. Yes, the Angels were rumored, the Red Sox had made an early offer in the process, and of course the incumbent Rangers were doing all that they could without deliberately mimicking their mistake from the A-Rod contract that that team had finally just gotten completely out from under. But the Phils weren't really even mentioned, and, I mean, how could they? With a payroll last season of just over $140 million, would the team really ever be willing to kick in that much more money for this guy? Of course not, and could you blame them, after all the huge signings of the past few seasons for this team that was historically a place nobody ever wanted to come, and a place that never wanted to pay anyone who was willing to play here? No way. So you didn't hear a single Phillies fan in the world bitching about us not taking part in the Lee sweepstakes, and ultimately, with what has happened so far in this offseason, with the Red Sox signing two big hitters and the Yankees being basically shut out of the big free agent market (no, Derek Jeter does not count) for what seems like the first time in ages, it was obvious that Lee would simply be able to name his price, to pick any number out of a hat, and the Yanks would have to agree to it, and agree to it they would. Word was that the Rangers had offered Lee a six-year deal somewhere around $120 million, and that the Yankees had recently upped their offer to add a seventh year, coming in at a total of approximately $154 million. No other offer was even close to that amount of guaranteed cash, the Rangers were not willing to go there, and on Monday afternoon word out of Yankees' GM Brian Cashman was that the Yankees were officially not going to up their offer any further, not something you usually hear from this Yankees management over the past several years. It was a bit of a bold move by Yanks' GM Brian Cashman, taking a tough stance on a guy that the team absolutely, positively had to have, at any and all costs, period.

And suddenly, this morning. I woke up and immediately in the car heard the news on one of the local sports radio stations. Baseball fans around the country were dismayed, and New Yorkers were appalled -- both Yankees and Mets fans, believe me. Cliff Lee was coming back to the Philadelphia Phillies! And the most amazing part of it? He had signed for just five years, one less than the Rangers' offer and two years less than the rumored offer from the Yankees. The guy actually left $34 million of guaranteed money on the table in New York to come instead back to Philadelphia, to pitch in the best stadium in the country and in front of the best fans in the world. Brian Cashman's last-minute hard-line ploy had failed, and failed in a big, huge way, and Lee had turned him down in favor of less money from a big rival in a nearby city who had had some big success against his team already over the past couple of seasons.

And make no mistake guys -- the reception this guy will get in Philadelphia, the good will he will experience here, will be totally unparalleled by anything Lee could have ever even have hoped to experience in New York. Believe me, I have lived in this city for a long time now, I've had Yankees season tickets, I've been to the Mets' dump stadium several times, and I can tell you without hesitation, New York fans are spoiled, and they're not even close to real sports fans in other cities that have to try a whole lot harder and wait a whole lot longer for success. In particular in the Bronx, these fans of course like to win, but a guy like Lee would never be loved even for one second -- not even if he were to pitch the final out of a no-hitter in Game 7 of the World Series -- like he will be adored for every moment he will be in Philadelphia. Especially after Lee's performance back in 2009, to be returning to the city of brotherly shove will make these Phillies fans absolutely apoplectic for the guy, period. We love him in Philly, every one of us Phillies fans love the guy and could not believe we had to let him go. And Phils' GM Ruben Amaro has come through again in a huge way, using the Nationals' recent signing away of Jayson Werth, freeing up $14 million a year from our payroll just like that, to help afford the new $24 mil a year for five years for Cliff Lee, while at the same time getting basically exactly the deal he would have offered Lee back in 2009 to stay here to begin with, but which back then Lee had rejected in the hopes of signing an even larger deal. One which, if he had wanted to, he still could have signed with Brian Cashman and the Yankees, like, yesterday. Literally.

The bottom line? Cliff Lee wants to play in Philadelphia, far more than he wants to be in New York. 34 million times more to be exact. With Lee, the Yankees would probably have as good a chance as anyone of bringing Lee the first World Series title of his career, and even re-signing with the Texas Rangers seems a similar outcome -- how do you argue that after his Rangers just made the World Series with him this past season? And yet Lee opted to take millions and millions of dollars less in guaranteed money -- albeit a mil or two more per season than his other offers, as is obviously going to be the case in a shorter deal -- to return "home" to Philadelphia, to the greatest ballpark in the game today, and to without a doubt the most ferociously devoted, caring fans anywhere on earth. The Phillies ownership knows it. All of us fans know it. And, apparently, Cliff Lee knows it too. How Brian Cashman justifies his total strikeout in this offseason is way beyond me, but he is definitely gonna have a lot of 'splainin to do to somebody in that organization, and suffice it to say these are not happy times in the Cashman household in Darien, Connecticut.

Roy Halladay. Cliff Lee. Roy Oswalt. Cole Hamels. It just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

Move over Yankees, and move over Red Sox. There's a new team at the free agent party in major league baseball these days. And they're coming for you in a big way in 2011.

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Blogger l.e.s.ter said...

Euphoria! Cliff Lee out of the American League!

Maybe now Yankee fans will think twice before spitting on players' wives.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Bayne_S said...

Not going to lie seeing Cliff Lee spurn the pinstripes made me smile

12:18 AM  
Blogger Shrike said...

Lee earned an additional 66MM by turning down Philly's offer a year ago.

Also, what Bayne said.


12:30 AM  
Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

I might need to have another baby.

12:43 AM  
Blogger corron10 said...

Too bad your in NY to hear all that cryin.. instead of being in Philly listening to the rejoicing chants of Dynasty!

4:10 AM  
Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

In a fun way, I bet I am enjoying the Yankee crying as much as you are the Philly rejoicing.

And don't even get me started on the Mets fans. Talk about a bunch of guys who are even bigger losers than their team! It's so awesome.

7:33 AM  

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