Cliff Lee's return to Philadelphia in December of 2010 was a magical moment in Phillies history for a variety of reasons. The first reason was that Lee joined Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, creating the greatest rotation in team history, dubbed "The Four Aces." Secondly, the narrative put forward was that Lee chose to sign with the Phillies for less money, as opposed to signing with the New York Yankees.
While many Phillies fans rejoiced at the idea of a superstar taking less money to join the Phillies, rather than the Yankees, one of Lee's former teammates says that's not exactly what happened.
Cole Hamels spoke to Randy Miller of NJ Advance Media, and corrected the record on Lee's December 2010 free-agent decision:
Q: Cliff Lee chose the Phillies over the Yankees when he was a free agent after the 2010 season. (Lee brought up his wife being harassed at Yankee Stadium in his signing presser with the Phillies). How do you feel about New York?
Hamels “Actually, that’s not really the truth. I think it was between the Phillies and Texas truthfully. I don’t think the Yankees really had that sort of opportunity (to sign Lee in 2010). Knowing Cliff, it was Phillies and Texas. For me, it’s to play baseball. This is where I wanted to be. I’m fortunate enough to be here, and we made pretty good runs in ‘15 and ‘16. Last year was kind of tough. This year we’re working through some things. But for me, it’s just to go out there and play. This is the team I enjoy the most to be a part of. But I think you just have to look at it and it is what it is. I don’t really necessarily make the decisions or point the direction of what we’re trying to do or what ownership and management is trying to do. I’m just one piece that’s trying to help win ballgames. It’s a matter of being here and doing what I can until there’s a different situation or the time has come. So I don’t really get to affect it as much as I think people think.”
Lee signed with the Phillies, the "mystery team," for five years and $120 million on December 15, 2010. This came nearly a year after the team surprisingly traded Lee - who had a magical playoff run for the 2009 National League champion Phillies - to the Seattle Mariners. The Lee deal was a corresponding trade to Ruben Amaro Jr.'s acquisition of Halladay from the Toronto Blue Jays, just five months after Amaro acquired Lee from the Cleveland Indians.
Despite pitching at a Hall of Fame level at his peak, Lee was something of a mercenary. He won the American League Cy Young with the Indians in 2008, helped pitch the Phillies to the World Series in 2009 and then was traded to the Mariners prior to the 2010 season. Despite what may have been the best season of his career in 2010 - he posted a career-high 7.0 fWAR - the struggling Mariners traded Lee to the Texas Rangers prior to the 2010 non-waiver trade deadline. The Yankees nearly acquired Lee before the Rangers could, but instead Lee helped pitch the Rangers to the World Series in 2010, knocking the Yankees out in the American League Championship Series.
At the conclusion of the 2010 season, Lee became a free-agent. Though he had appeared in the World Series in consecutive years, Lee was still chasing a World Series ring. The Rangers and Yankees, two World Series contenders with deep pockets, publicly competed for Lee for much of his free-agent stint. 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.
In the end, Lee, despite a pretty magical run with the Rangers and a lucrative offer from the Yankees, took a shorter deal from the Phillies. He rejoined Hamels, along with Halladay and Oswalt, who had been acquired since his first stint in Philadelphia.
"I never wanted to leave this place in the first place," Lee said 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. Can't wait to get to Spring Training and get this thing going."
Lee chose one team where he had a magical playoff run over another. The third team was the Yankees, who Lee continuously eluded and then dominated in the postseason. Is it possible that a sense of familiarity - along with tremendous rosters and deep pockets - led Lee to ultimately choose between the Phillies and Rangers? Sure. Some feel there was more to it, though.
USA Today's Bob Nightengale published a piece prior to Lee's decision alleging that during the 2010 American League Championship Series, Lee's wife was mistreated by Yankees fans. Lee's wife, Kristen, was quoted in the story, saying that Yankees fans "did not do good things in her heart." Nightengale wrote (didn't quote) that Kristen dealt with being cursed at, having beer thrown at her and being spit on from fans sitting above her.
However, at his reintroduction press conference, Lee balked at the notion that any reported mistreatment of his wife worked against the Yankees in his free-agent decision.
"Let me clarify that whole thing right quick," Lee said, interjecting during a reporter's question. "That was way overblown. No one came up to my wife and spit on her, nobody poured anything on her. You go to any stadium and the opposing team's [fans] stand up and start cheering, especially in the postseason, fans are gonna say something to them, they are going to do stuff like that. That's part of it. That story was way overblown, it was false and it had to do with the whole thing."
Still, whether there were exaggerated details in the story about Lee's wife, she was still quoted as not being particularly fond of how she was treated in New York during the 2010 playoffs. Lee may have been less concerned about that than his wife, but it's fair to think she had input on his decision and may have helped push Lee towards deciding between Philadelphia and Texas, two places he and his family had been received extremely well.
Ultimately, if his decision did come down to the Phillies and Rangers, as Hamels says it did, he may have just enjoyed his time in Philadelphia slightly more than in Texas. There was also speculation that Lee's family liked the idea of being within close proximity to CHOP (Children's Hospital of Philadelphia) because his son Jaxon was in remission from Leukemia. That and the positive experience he had in Philadelphia created a sense of comfort in Philadelphia, which according to Hamels, led to Lee returning to the Phillies over re-signing with the Rangers.