Surprise! Cliff Lee Heading Back to Philly

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REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The most pessimistic group of sports fans on the planet – those who cheer for Philadelphia sports teams – now have an unexpected reason to be delirious. In one of the most surprising off-season moves in recent baseball history, Texas Rangers ace Cliff Lee, one of the best pitchers in the game, took less money to sign with  . . .the Phillies?

Yes, it’s true. Last off-season, the Phillies traded Lee, who helped the team reach the 2009 World Series, to the Seattle Mariners, since they didn’t couldn’t afford both him and pitcher Roy Halladay, the former American League Cy Young winner who they had acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays. The deal worked out for Philadelphia: Halladay pitched a perfect game during the regular season, won his second Cy Young, and opened the playoffs with a no-hitter. Anchored by their excellent staff, the Phillies made the National League Championship series for the third straight season, though they lost to the red-hot San Francisco Giants. Philadelphia missed Lee – what team couldn’t use another dominant ace? But they were still one of the best teams in baseball without him.

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And now they have him back? Does a Phillies fan really have no good reason to be angry? Lee reportedly signed a five-year, $120 million contract with Philadelphia, leaving some $30 million on the table from the New York Yankees. Don’t think Phillies fans were the only ones applauding. Fans, and executives, from smaller market teams love seeing the Yankees get spurned. Lee is now a bit of a folk hero. It turns out that it’s not New York’s divine light to snap up the best free agent on the market every year.

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On paper, Philadelphia’s rotation of Lee, Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hammels could be one of the best in decades. And while the Yankees are desperate for a top-line starter this off-season, their highest-profile signing has been Derek Jeter, an aging shortstop probably not worth the $51 million they forked over to him. Philadelphia has always lived in New York’s shadow. But in baseball, Brotherly Love is beating the pants off the Big Apple.

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