- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- In early November, as Major League Baseball's free-agent filing period was getting under way, agent Darek Braunecker gave his most accomplished client the freedom to dream. Braunecker invited pitcher Cliff Lee and his wife, Kristen, to his office in Little Rock, Ark., with a specific set of instructions: Take a piece of paper, and list the five teams you want to play for the most. Rank them in order from 1 to 5.
No. 1 on the Lees' wish list: a return engagement with the Philadelphia Phillies.
"I knew it," Braunecker said Wednesday. "I knew that's where their heart was from the moment they got traded last year. There's never been any question about it."
It took about six weeks, some breathless media coverage and more than a few harrowing moments. But Cliff Lee's professional fantasy eventually turned into a news flash, which morphed into a media event Wednesday when the Phillies announced the pitcher's new five-year, guaranteed $120 million contract. Lee, who appeared to have gotten a haircut for the occasion, sat beside general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. on the podium, modeled his new No. 33 Phillies jersey for the cameras, and rhapsodized about the possibility of pitching in a rotation alongside Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
"I never wanted to leave in the first place," Lee said. "To get an opportunity to come back and be part of this team and this pitching rotation is going to be something that's historic, I believe."
Lee, whose biggest strength on the mound is his impeccable control, seemed a little shell-shocked by the recent turn of events. In this respect, he had lots of company.
As every sports fan who wasn't consumed by the end of Brett Favre's consecutive-games streak knows by now, Lee chose the Phillies' offer over substantial bids from the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers late Monday night. Lee's deal includes $107.5 million in salary, a $12.5 million buyout and a $27.5 million vesting option that kicks in if he pitches 200 innings in 2015 or a combined 400 innings during the 2014-2015 seasons.
But the decimal points and sound bites don't necessarily reflect the emotional investment or twists and turns in a process that stretched back a year.
Like baseball heaven
The roots of Cliff Lee's personal Philadelphia story go back to July 29, 2009, when he came over from Cleveland with Ben Francisco in a trade for prospects Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson, Jason Donald and Jason Knapp. The deal perpetuated an annual midsummer tradition for the Phillies, who had bolstered their rotation with stretch-drive acquisitions of Jamie Moyer, Kyle Lohse and Joe Blanton in recent years.
Philadelphia seemed like baseball nirvana to Lee, who had never pitched in the postseason in eight seasons with Cleveland. In 2007, when the Indians fell a game short of the World Series, Lee was an October nonentity. He had gone 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA for the Indians during the regular season, earned a demotion to Triple-A Buffalo, and was left off the postseason roster.
I don't know what the fans do to create that much more volume and excitement in the stadium, but it's definitely something extra [in Philadelphia]. They're passionate fans. They understand what's going on. They don't need a teleprompter to tell them to get up and cheer.
”-- Cliff Lee
Professionally speaking, Philadelphia provided everything Lee had ever wanted. He enjoyed playing for manager Charlie Manuel and fit seamlessly into the Phillies' clubhouse dynamic. He also warmed to the National League style of play, and reveled in the opportunity to swing the bat and run the bases. Beyond that, the sellout crowds at Citizens Bank Park each night clearly brought out the best in him.
"I don't know what the fans do to create that much more volume and excitement in the stadium, but it's definitely something extra here," Lee said. "They're passionate fans. They understand what's going on. They don't need a teleprompter to tell them to get up and cheer."
Cliff and Kristen Lee, down-home Arkansas folks, also connected with Philadelphia in a way that no one could have foreseen. They rented a place in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood and immersed themselves in the city life and local culture. Kristen Lee took their children -- son Jaxon, now 9, and daughter Maci, 7 -- to local museums and on ice cream runs to Franklin Square. Jaxon and Maci found friends their age in the Citizens Bank Park family room, and they had a blast riding the train to New York for a World Series game.
"We did pretty much everything," Kristen said. "I would have never dreamed when we got traded here from the Indians that we would say, 'Ooh, Philadelphia, I can't wait to get there.' But it's a city like I've never been in before. We haven't had that exact feeling anywhere else."
When Lee helped pitch the Phillies to the 2009 World Series, where they lost to the Yankees in six games, the emotional bond grew stronger. It also made the news that much more devastating when the Phillies traded him away two months later.
After acquiring Halladay from Toronto and signing him to a three-year, $60 million extension with a vesting option for a fourth year, Amaro thought he needed to make a corresponding move to replenish the farm system. The Phillies also developed a strong sense early in the process that they were going to have difficulty signing Lee to a long-term deal. So they packed him off to Seattle for three minor leaguers last Dec. 16.
"I guess people continue to feel the reason why we traded him was because of a money issue. It was not," Amaro said Wednesday. But the Phillies GM also acknowledged the team didn't feel "comfortable" about its chances to keep Lee in the fold beyond the 2010 season.
No bridges burned
While Cliff and Kristen Lee were disappointed, Braunecker was more angered that Lee's tenure in Philadelphia had been short-circuited after a few preliminary talks about a long-term deal. Lee had enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon period in Philly, but he never got a chance to experience the marriage.
Yet Braunecker and his client were intent on not burning the Ben Franklin Bridge on their way out of town.
"We felt Cliff was getting a bad rap publicly -- that he wasn't signable, and that he was seeking CC Sabathia dollars," Braunecker said. "But we collectively made a decision that we weren't going to react from a premise of emotion of the moment. At the end of the day, we all agreed that it was the Phillies' prerogative to conduct business how they saw fit. We weren't going to react in a way that would prohibit Cliff and Kristen from coming back if the opportunity ever presented itself."
Agents routinely develop close relationships with their clients, but Lee and Braunecker have taken the concept to a different level. The two men go hunting together. Their wives play tennis together. Their daughters are in the same elementary school class. And the Lee and Braunecker families routinely spend time together on vacations and at holiday parties.
The relationship goes back to the late 1990s when Lee was playing American Legion ball in Benton, Ark., for a team coached by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Wes Gardner. Braunecker, a young agent out recruiting new clients, will never forget the sight of Lee sprinting from center field to left field for a bullpen session and thinking, "Wow, this kid is an athlete." He kept track of Lee's progress at junior college, called the family and made his sales pitch, and eventually negotiated Lee's $275,000 bonus as a fourth-round draft pick by Montreal in 2000.
As last summer dragged on and it became clear that the Lees hadn't gotten Philadelphia out of their system, Braunecker was sufficiently in tune with events to feel their pain. When Lee made the American League All-Star team, Kristen accompanied him to Anaheim, Calif., and she got all choked up when she kept bumping into people she had met in Philadelphia.
"It was very, very emotional," Kristen said. "The whole thing was kind of a roller coaster. I saw one of the [Phillies] owners and I just started crying. The whole entire time, we couldn't believe it got pulled out from under us."
The feeling, it turns out, was mutual. The Phillies hadn't gotten Cliff and Kristen Lee out of their system, either.
Barely an hour after Lee and the Rangers had lost to San Francisco in the World Series -- and Lee was fair game as a free agent -- Braunecker received an e-mail from Phillies assistant GM Scott Proefrock.
"Congratulations," it read. "Just so you know, the Phillies would have a sincere interest in bringing Cliff back."
There was a sense from the outset that while the Phillies were long shots because of their limited financial flexibility, they would keep hanging around until every last option was exhausted. Predictably, several other teams jumped into the fray with zeal. The Yankees and Rangers were aggressive from the outset, and the Nationals also expressed interest. Braunecker thought the Cubs might emerge as a factor, but it never happened. In the meantime, Proefrock stayed in touch via text messages and e-mails. It was more "maintenance" dialogue than hard-core negotiating.
Things finally began heating up on all fronts late last week after the winter meetings in Florida. The Rangers made their third pilgrimage to Little Rock and presented Braunecker and Lee with two contract offers -- a six-year, $120 million deal, or a six-year, $138 million version that was heavy on deferred money. Given the tax ramifications and complexity of the deferrals, Braunecker had to call in the accountants and sift through the information and make sure he was comparing apples to apples.
The Yankees, meanwhile, were sitting and waiting with their massive offer out there, and growing a little more pessimistic each day.
Last Friday night, the Phillies jumped in with both feet. Braunecker was driving his car when Amaro called with the Phillies' first offer. Braunecker jotted the details on the back of a CD cover and presented it to Cliff and Kristen Lee at dinner that evening. There was enough common ground for talks to continue through the weekend. But by Sunday afternoon, the gap between the two sides seemed too big to overcome. Braunecker had concluded that the deal was "dead in the water," and Proefrock was similarly fatalistic.
"I sent Darek an e-mail on Sunday around 3 or 4 in the afternoon," Proefrock said. "It was basically, 'Sorry this didn't work out and we couldn't bridge the gap.' I told him, 'I appreciate your professionalism and your efforts to do what's best for your client.'"
Later in the day, Proefrock received a text message from Braunecker. "Is this eating at you as much as it's eating at me?" it read. The dialogue was rekindled, and the deal went from dormant to breathing. Proefrock got on the phone and talked to Amaro and Phillies senior adviser Pat Gillick, who had flown to Arizona for a personal visit with Phillies outfielders Ben Francisco and John Mayberry. Amaro encouraged Proefrock to keep the momentum going.
[Yankees GM Brian Cashman] did everything exactly the way he was supposed to do it. At the end of the day, Cliff and Kristen just wanted to be in Philadelphia. More than any other place. To the point that they left some money on the table to do it.
”-- Darek Braunecker, Lee's agent
Ultimately, three people willed the deal to fruition from the Phillies' end. Amaro, who's never lost the swagger or cockiness he possessed in his playing days, kept looking for ways to open doors that appeared to be closed. Proefrock, the Phillies' detail man, was the unsung hero, doggedly working through obstacles and finding ways to keep the lines of communication open. And in the end, Phillies president and CEO David Montgomery found a creative way to bump the guaranteed portion of Lee's deal from $115 million to $120 million and push the boulder to the top of the hill.
When the decision finally came down, Lee personally called Texas general manager Jon Daniels to break the news, and Braunecker did the same with Yankees GM Brian Cashman. In hindsight, Braunecker said there is nothing the Rangers or Yankees could have done differently -- or better -- that would have affected Lee's decision.
"I've heard some New York media say that Brian Cashman got outworked," Braunecker said. "That's bull. Nobody outworks Brian Cashman. He did everything exactly the way he was supposed to do it. At the end of the day, Cliff and Kristen just wanted to be in Philadelphia. More than any other place. To the point that they left some money on the table to do it."
Lee left a huge pile of money on the table by Blue-Collar Joe standards, but not so much by Major League Baseball standards. If his 2016 option with the Phillies vests, he'll make $135 million over six years with the Phillies. The Yankees, in contrast, were offering $148 million over seven. Lee's $24 million AAV -- or average annual value -- surpasses Sabathia's $23 million per year with New York as the highest ever for a pitcher. Contrary to the perception in some quarters, the players' association has absolutely no reason to nitpick Lee's decision.
That's not the only misconception that came out of Lee's negotiations. While Cashman personally apologized to the Lees after a USA Today story revealed that an unidentified Yankees fan had spit into the Texas fan section where Kristen Lee was sitting during the American League Championship Series, the incident was never a factor in negotiations. Cliff Lee grew animated during Wednesday's news conference when he said media coverage of the incident was "overblown."
It may sound sappy, but cynical, hard-core Philadelphia tapped an emotional vein in the Lees. As Amaro points out, the Phillies wouldn't be able to make this kind of investment without 123 straight sellouts at Citizens Bank Park. But there was something more that sealed a long-term union between an Arkansas country boy and a city that's routinely mocked for Santa Claus snowball-throwing incidents and fans who vomit on their neighbors in the box seats.
The Lees returned to Philadelphia because the city's passion for baseball was too powerful to resist. The plotline reads like a chamber of commerce brochure.
"You know what a sports organization is? It's a conduit between fans and players," Montgomery said. "If you can create an environment where fans love players and players love fans, you're doing it pretty well."
For all Cliff Lee's heartfelt sentiments to the media, the story ultimately evoked a classic line from Andre Dawson's 2010 Hall of Fame speech. The Phillies wanted Cliff Lee enough to refuse to take no for an answer, and he finally said yes.
Philadelphia loved him. And he loved Philadelphia back.