Commentary

This one hurts more than LeBron did

On day Favre's streak ends, Lee breaks Yankees' run of free-agent success

Updated: December 15, 2010, 7:46 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

In the naked city, Cliff Lee hurts more than LeBron James hurt, and here is the simple reason:

The New York Knicks never truly believed James would sign with them; they just couldn't admit it for public consumption.

The New York Yankees? They were so sure of opening the 2011 season with CC Sabathia in Game 1 and CC's dear friend, Cliff Lee, in Game 2, they figured the one hurdle to clear in contract talks would be whether to guarantee Lee a monument or a plaque.

But out of left field Monday night, the City of Brotherly Love broke up the near-certain pinstriped brotherhood of Sabathia and Lee. Philadelphia pulled another Rocky Balboa and threw one of the most improbable punches in the history of the great American sport known as free agency.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThe Yankees believed Cliff Lee was theirs -- which is why his decision to take his talents elsewhere hurts the Bronx Bombers so much.

The Yankees never saw it coming, and if it makes them feel any better, the Texas Rangers never saw it coming, either. The Phillies reacquired Lee and threw him into a rotation that now has its own Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle.

Doc Halladay. Cliff Lee. Roy Oswalt. Cole Hamels.

If the Yankees can't find any comfort in the Rangers' misery, maybe this will help:

Lee's addition to the Philly rotation won't exactly help the Mets sell season tickets.

The Yankees offered the 32-year-old Lee $148 million over seven years, including a $16 million option, another reason they're hurting a lot more than the Knicks were hurting over LeBron.

The NBA salary cap prevented the Knicks from offering James tens of millions more than the Miami Heat or any other suitors trying to pry him out of Cleveland. The Knicks had to offer the same deal, not a penny more, and then hope against hope that the lure of Broadway and Madison Avenue would close the deal.

The Yankees faced no such restrictions. They were free to blow their opponents out of the deep end of the free-agent pool the way they did with Sabathia, who didn't want to play in New York right up until the minute Brian Cashman offered him $161 million to, you know, play in New York.

Cashman didn't want to give Sabathia $161 million or the seven years, but couldn't afford to lose the ace. His primary concern was securing the player, at almost any cost, and after he succeeded, Cashman compared his recruiting skills to John Calipari's.

In his home visit with Sabathia, Cashman told Sabathia that he would own New York, that he would end up as the grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day parade, and that his agreeable personality and neighborly smile would help ease tensions between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Cashman's victory in persuading Sabathia to sign the letter of intent surely made him confident that he would land Lee, at least at the start of the negotiations. In fact, when Cashman was talking trade with Seattle in July, he was confident enough that Lee would ultimately be a Yankee that he declined to add either Eduardo Nunez or Ivan Nova to a package already centered around Jesus Montero.

Of course, Seattle sent Lee to Texas, and Lee's Rangers defeated the Yankees in the ALCS. And everything was still sort of A-OK. Cashman hadn't surrendered Montero, Nunez or Nova, and now he could simply grab Hal Steinbrenner's checkbook and make the buy.

The GM was only following the same philosophy that led to Sabathia. Cashman declined to give up prospects and a bus-load of money for Johan Santana, waited a year for a cash-only acquisition of CC, and christened the new Yankee Stadium with his one for the thumb.

So when Cashman didn't increase his offer for Lee in July, citing his newfound distaste for surrendering talent and extending a nine-figure commitment in a single acquisition, I agreed with his strategy.

Funny, but I have the sudden urge to disagree with him now.

Lee shocked the world by taking less money to pitch in Philadelphia, and to leave the Yankeeography for a player to be named later. Cashman, Steinbrenner, Joe Girardi -- they have to be flat-out devastated.

Of the four players who moved this winter and landed deals in excess of $100 million, two ended up with the Red Sox, and one jilted the Yankees like they haven't been jilted since Marilyn Monroe divorced Joe D.

Girardi's rotation looks like it was hit by a nor'easter. The Yanks were hoping A.J. Burnett would be required to throw only celebratory pies next season; now he'll actually be needed to throw fastballs and curves. Andy Pettitte? Now Cashman will offer to build him his very own retirement community if he agrees to give it one more go.

People are scrambling all over the Bronx. On the same night Brett Favre surrendered his epic streak of consecutive starts, the Yankees lost their epic streak of free-agent triumphs.

They won the Jeter deal, re-signing him on their terms, but then lost the pitcher who was supposed to help the captain get his first ring for his second hand.

The Yankees thought Cliff Lee was theirs, even if some of their fans had been rude to his wife. So this one hurts. It hurts to the bone.

It hurts more than LeBron hurt.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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