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LeBron’s decision underscores why Cliff Lee returning was so special

LeBron James’ decision not to come to Philadelphia reminds you how special Cliff Lee’s decision was. (Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons)

There was a point Sunday morning where a magical feeling started to come over the Philadelphia sports scene. Free-agent LeBron James’ representatives were set to meet with Philadelphia 76ers brass. There seemed to be a growing sentiment that not only did the Sixers feel they had a good chance to lure the four-time MVP, but also trade for Kawhi Leonard. Those two would pair with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, giving the Sixers perhaps the best chance to stop the Golden State Warriors from winning their fourth NBA title in five years.

Success in Philadelphia sports is often fleeting. Just hours after LeBron’s team – minus LeBron – met with Sixers representatives, Klutch Sports, who represents James, put out a press release announcing that James had signed a four-year/$154 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.

In many ways, it’s hard to fault James for electing to go West for the final stop of his illustrious career. He’s spent nearly all of his life based out of Akron, with four years in Miami as a tease. If he prefers warm weather, Los Angeles obviously provides that, while Philadelphia doesn’t all year round (although it would be hard to tell that from the past two weeks). Los Angeles offers him an avenue into post-career opportunities that no other city in America – except maybe New York City – can. And in the end, he’s 33 years old, has three championships, has played in eight consecutive NBA Finals and is almost universally considered one of the five best players in the history of the sport. The opportunity to do what he wants, as Nike would tell us, is something that he’s earned, rather than having it given to him.

But, man, would it have been special if for the final chapter of his career LeBron had come to Philadelphia. The Sixers – with or without Leonard – would give LeBron a better chance to win championships, probably both in the short and long-term. Even more than the on-court implications, LeBron choosing Philadelphia over Los Angeles and every other NBA city would have given Philadelphia a sense of legitimacy that it often feels it isn’t given by the rest of the sports world.

That feeling existed on February 4, when the Eagles defeated Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to win their first Super Bowl title. But prior to that, I’m not sure I’ve seen Philadelphia collectively swell with pride as much as it did on Dec. 14, 2010, when Cliff Lee elected to return to the Philadelphia Phillies.

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This, of course, takes some context. Ruben Amaro Jr. initially acquired Lee (and Ben Francisco) from the Cleveland Indians on July 29, 2009 for Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson and Jason Knapp. Lee was 7-9 when the Phillies acquired him, but he had just a 3.14 ERA and was one year removed from winning the American League Cy Young Award with a 22-3 record and 2.54 ERA.

Lee pitched like the player who had won a Cy Young Award the previous season from the second he donned the red pinstripes. In 12 regular season starts for the Phillies in 2009, Lee went 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA and 2.83 FIP. The Phillies would win their third consecutive National League East title in 2009, setting up an all-time great postseason for Lee, who was 30 at the time.

The Phillies weren’t able to repeat as World Series champions in 2009, but Lee did everything in his power to allow them to.

In Game 1 of the 2009 NLDS, Lee allowed just six hits over nine frames as he tossed a complete game. He returned to pitch 7.1 innings of three-run ball in Game 4 of the series, which proved to be the clinching game of the series. Lee only pitched once in the NLCS, but was remarkable in Game 3 of the series, allowing just three hits in eight scoreless innings. The Phillies defeated the Dodgers 11-0 to take a 2-1 series lead. They would win the NLCS in five games for the second consecutive year.

The Phillies weren’t able to overcome the Yankees in the World Series, but Lee started both of the two games that they won in the series. While his Game 5 performance wasn’t memorable, his Game 1 performance is one of the most dominant World Series starts that we’ve ever seen. Squaring off with his former Indians teammate CC Sabathia, Lee fanned 10 Yankees in a complete game.

And then, in perhaps the most bittersweet trade in Philadelphia sports history, Lee was traded to the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 17, 2009. In a corresponding move, the Phillies landed Roy Halladay, the era’s absolute best pitcher. For as great as Lee was, the Phillies upgraded with Halladay, even if it wasn’t by a ton. But Lee had become a playoff hero in Philadelphia, one that was under contract for $9.5 million in 2010. The Phillies could have kept both, setting up a rotation with Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ. Instead, citing a need to replenish the farm system and assure that Lee didn’t walk in free-agency the following offseason – leaving the Phillies with nothing more than draft compensation – Amaro traded him to the Mariners.

Lee would have arguably the best season of his career in 2009. Between the Mariners and the Texas Rangers – who acquired him at the 2009 trade deadline in hopes of making a playoff run – Lee went 12-9 with an astronomically low 0.76 BB/9, a 2.58 FIP and a career-high 7.0 fWAR. While Halladay won the National League Cy Young Award in 2010 and tossed a no-hitter in Game 1 of the NLDS, the Phillies were eliminated by the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. Lee was the star of the postseason for the second consecutive season, as he posted a 0.75 ERA in three starts between the ALDS and ALCS, as the Rangers eliminated the Tampa Bay Rays and the Yankees en route to their first American League pennant in franchise history.

The Rangers were unsuccessful in the World Series, as Lee ran out of gas. Just as he had to Halladay, Tim Lincecum outpitched Lee and helped the San Francisco Giants to win their first title since, well, they weren’t the San Francisco Giants.

2010 Cliff Lee wasn’t the equivalent of 2018 LeBron James. Few people in the history of organized sports have been as valuable as LeBron. But when Lee reached free-agency at the height of his powers, going into his age-32 season, he was about as valuable of a free-agent as you’ll see in baseball.

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Conventional wisdom suggested Lee would sign with one of two teams: the Rangers or the New York Yankees. His fit on the Rangers, who he had pitched to their first World Series berth, was obvious. But the idea of pairing him up with Sabathia, who he had been rotation mates with in Cleveland, in New York was pretty enticing. He would go to the sport’s most decorated franchise, one that was just two seasons removed from winning the World Series. The Yankees actually had a trade in place to acquire him just prior to the 2010 non-waiver trade deadline. The deal ultimately fell through and Lee instead was traded to the Rangers, where he was dominant against the Yankees in the postseason for the second consecutive season.

Both the Rangers and Yankees made spirited attempts to sign Lee to a free-agent contract.

ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported at the time that the Yankees offered Lee a six-year/$132 million deal, with a $16 million player option for the 2017 season. The Rangers, hoping to retain Lee, offered a six-year/$138 million deal that featured a $23 million vesting option for the seventh year, per Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports.

But Lee didn’t accept either offer. He accepted an offer that paid him handsomely, but not for as long as either the Rangers or Yankees were willing to pay him handsomely. Lee ultimately signed a five-year/$120 million deal with a mystery team: the Phillies.

“I never wanted to leave this place in the first place,” Lee told reporters at his reintroduction press conference. “To get an opportunity to come back and be a part of this team and this pitching rotation is gonna be something that’s historic, I believe.”

Lee delivered that quote just minutes before he called a report that alleged Yankees fans had, among other things, spit on his wife during the 2010 ALCS, “false and overblown.” For what it’s worth, Lee’s wife, Kristen, was quoted in that story as saying Yankees fans “did not do good things in her heart.” In his reintroduction press conference, Lee chalked opposing fans being hostile (at the very least) to his wife as what happens in the postseason when you cheer for the away team.

Cole Hamels told Randy Miller of NJ Advance Media in May that he thinks Lee ultimately made his decision between Texas and Philadelphia, not Philadelphia and New York. But the narrative pushed at the time was that Lee, the most coveted free-agent, loved Philadelphia so much that he elected to turn down more years and total money in New York to return to Philadelphia. Heck, SportsRadio 94 WIP‘s Joe DeCamera literally took a Phillies flag to Time’s Square and taunted Yankees fans the day that Lee made his decision to return to Philadelphia.

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I remember the Philadelphia sports scene the day after Allen Iverson dropped 48 points in Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals. I remember the Philadelphia sports scene the day after the Phillies won the 2008 World Series. I remember the Philadelphia sports scene the day after Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS. But prior to the Eagles winning Super Bowl LII in February, I’ve never seen Philadelphia as proud as when Lee elected to return to Philadelphia.

At best, Lee had shunned “The Evil Empire” to return to a team that had traded him less than a year earlier. At worst, Lee shunned the Rangers, who he had just appeared in a World Series with. (In reality, both teams made him significant offers, but he enjoyed his brief time with the Phillies so much that he was willing to forgive Amaro for having traded him and take less overall money to return to Philadelphia.)

As you probably know by now, special things don’t always happen in Philadelphia sports. Objectively, the Sixers have a better roster than the Lakers. LeBron chose to go to Los Angeles instead. And that’s fine. But it underscores what was so special about Lee taking his talents back to Philadelphia – he, at his peak, viewed the Philadelphia as the most desirable city to play in and thought the Phillies gave him a better chance to win a World Series title than the Rangers or Yankees. This came despite any ill will that was almost certainly created when the team suddenly traded him the prior offseason. Philadelphia was that enticing to Lee and his family.

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