By Joan Dowlin
Everyone in the sports world was shocked early Tuesday by the announcement that pitcher Cliff Lee, the most sought after free agent pitcher this off-season, is going back to the Philadelphia Phillies. That is everyone except for those that have played for the Phils for the last four or five years.
The Phillies players love it here. They love it because of the ballpark, the manager and coaching staff, the Philadelphia city and community and the die hard, passionate Phillies fans.
Lee turned down more money and a chance to play for the 2009 world champion New York Yankees, whom some have called "America's team" as well as the ballclub he took to the 2010 World Series, the Texas Rangers.
According to Ruben Amaro Jr., General Manager of the Phillies in a 610 WIP-AM radio interview: "Cliff Lee's here because he wanted to be in Philly." He's returned because he has experienced first hand the Philadelphia experience for four months in 2009 and he and his family became hooked.
Even after Lee was shocked about being traded to Seattle after beating the Yankees twice in the 2009 World Series, he forgave the Phillies management and came back. Amaro took a lot of heat from Philly fans at the time of the deal. Acquiring pitching ace Roy Halladay and extending Halladay's contract through 2013 may have taken some of the sting away, but many never forgot it. Now after bringing Lee back through 2015, Amaro is the talk of the town and the man of the hour.
Let's take a closer look at Lee's historic decision. He didn't come for the money or length of contract, because he could have gotten more from both the Rangers and the Yankees. He didn't come just because he wanted to be with a contender. The Yanks in 2009 and Rangers in 2010 went further in the postseason than the Phillies did those years. He didn't come because he was in love with the Phillies' brass after they traded him without warning in 2009. So what were the reasons Lee chose the Phils?
Scott Boras, perhaps the top player agent in baseball, says "The four primary factors (for signing) are winning, family, the geographical, and economics... only 20, 25 percent of players take the biggest deal. They often take the secondary offer."
Boras left out one factor: the fan base. At Lee's press conference when speaking of the ballpark atmosphere he confided that "it feels different everywhere else. [Here, y]ou can feel the volume. Every game has got an elevated feel to it compared to everywhere else. 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." He called the fans here intense, informed, exciting and passionate. Lee ought to know, being the first Cy Young Award winner to have 4 different home ballparks over the 2 seasons following his award. Fellow Phils pitcher Cole Hamels, who has only known major league baseball as a Phillie, also appreciates his professional life here -- saying, "it is special being on the mound in front of the Phillies fans."
It was not that long ago that Philadelphia sports fans were considered the rudest in the country. Sure Eagles fans have booed Santa Claus and thrown snowballs on the field, while Phillies fans have run around the outfield, only to be tased or tripped by Atlanta Braves players. But times have changed. We are enthusiastic fans, and when things don't go our way we may get a little rowdy, but that is the nature of sports.
Now things are going our way and the Phillies and their phanatics are enjoying a six-year romance that began with the building of their new home, Citizens Bank Park, in 2004. It is a marvelous venue, a throwback to the old-fashioned baseball parks of decades past with its natural grass and an intimate feel. It is almost as if someone said: "If you build it, they will come." They did, thanks in large part to the vision of Phillies chairman Bill Giles, the maturing of prospects into all-stars and MVP's, and the hiring of Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick and his successor Amaro as well as current manager Charlie Manuel, all of which created the perfect storm for Phillies Phever to blossom.
Ironically, at the time it was built, Citizens Bank Park was considered a hitter's ballpark, being a haven for home runs with its close dimensions (which were even pushed back in left field going into the park's second season). Braves' pitcher Tom Glavine is quoted as then saying: "The Phils will have to slug their way into a World Series." They did do that - twice - but the truth is that now they have one of the most potent pitching rotations in all of baseball, put together in large part to overcome the challenge of pitching in a hitters' park.
That is another reason Cliff Lee came back to Philly. The best want to play with the best. Cliff Lee loved the club atmosphere and support the players have for one another as well as the strong, steady leadership of Charlie Manuel and his staff.
It makes me wonder how Jayson Werth, Phillies former right fielder who just signed a 7 year, $126 million contract with the Washington Nationals, will feel next year. Sure he got more money than the Phils were going to offer him, but what will it be like to play for a last place team with a stadium full of empty seats after being a part of the Phillies magic these last few years? He didn't seem to be smiling when he donned the Nats jersey when being introduced on the same day that Cliff Lee was beaming at his Philadelphia press conference.
Werth's departure was a cloud with a silver lining for the Phillies; if Werth hadn't left the Phillies would not have had the money to offer to Lee. Everything happens for a reason, they say.
Success breeds success. Even with an economic recession, the Phillies organization had a team-record 123 consecutive home sellouts over the last 3 seasons. The day the Lee deal was announced, 40,000 tickets were sold for next year. These ticket sales create the revenue that allows management to sign great players. These great players bring post seasons and world championships to Philadelphia, which creates more revenue through merchandising and higher advertising fees.
Having lived in the Philadelphia suburbs most of my life, I can testify that this region is a great place to live and work. I believe that is what Cliff Lee discovered the first time he was a Phillie. At his recent press conference, Lee stated that his family likes it here and that it is an interesting and historic city. According to Phil Sheridan of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Lee's wife, Kristen has said: "It's just a good fit for our family...It's a fun city. If you want to go out and have fun for a few hours, you can do that. The cultural experiences for our kids. I just think it's easy to live here...when we got traded from Philly[, t]here were some tears over that for me."
I know what she means. I always look forward to several weeks a year of pet sitting for friends in Center City. Walking the dogs around town, there is a palpable energy in the air. You don't need a car because you can walk anywhere and it's fun to explore all the great restaurants and cultural events happening all the time.
Caroline Bean of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation informed me that:
The success of the Phillies (and any of our pro sports teams) is a major confidence booster for the Philadelphia region. Our residents and fans are major ambassadors for Philadelphia, and we love when they are excited about where they live. They spread the excitement to potential visitors. Additionally, the positive attention and goodwill the Phillies' success brings to Philadelphia is immeasurable. We just couldn't pay for that type of good publicity.
Philadelphians have a great deal of civic pride, which is demonstrated with such cultural and sport icons as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (with the Rocky statue outside and the treasures inside), the Avenue of the Arts, the Opera Company of Philadelphia (recently gone viral on YouTube with over 6 million views of singing the Hallelujah Chorus at Macy's), the Philadelphia Zoo (nation's first), the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Army-Navy game, the Penn Relays, the Philadelphia Marathon, the Dad Vail Regatta, the International Cycling Championship, the 2000 Republican National Convention, the 2001 and 2002 Summer X Games, the return of the Philadelphia Soul (Arena Football League's reigning champions from 2008), the Eagles (with re-emerging superstar Michael Vick at quarterback), the Flyers (who made it to the Stanley Cup finals last year), and the youth-infused 76ers all joining the Phillies in celebrating this region's treasures.
Yes, it's a good time to be a Philadelphia sports' fan and the area is rejoicing this holiday season by welcoming back a favorite son. For Cliff Lee and his family, the feeling is mutual.
(originally posted at PhillyPhanatics.com)