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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

In the end, Lee chooses (Brotherly) love over money

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In a winter of free-agent shockers, Philadelphia now takes the cake. Or the cheesesteak. Whatever. There will be a lot of both, surely, in celebrating the return of ace Cliff Lee to a Phillies rotation some say he never should have left.

Jayson Werth to the Nationals for $126 million?

Carl Crawford veering east instead of west, spurning the Angels to sign with the Red Sox for $142 million?

Pish posh. Tepid potboilers, both, compared with the wild intrigue and stunning plot twist the Lee talks took since the Winter Meetings ended last Thursday.

Last anyone saw of the Rangers, they were sprinting out of the lobby at the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort, making one more mad dash toward Lee's home in Arkansas to present him with a "menu of multiple offers." It was their third trip to Arkansas. Only Bill Clinton keeps going back more.

The Yankees? They had prepared for Lee like they usually do: They had more blank checks printed, with plenty of room in their register.

Through the weekend, Texas and New York staged a Winter Wonderland Replay of the AL Championship Series, with Team Steinbrenner pulling out all of the financial stops, determined that the outcome in December for Lee would be different than the October result that sent Lee and the Rangers to their first World Series.

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But 24 hours turned into 48 over the weekend, and then into 72, and as the Phillies staged a stealth move that absolutely nobody outside of Lee's inner circle knew about until late Monday -- brilliantly played, Phillies -- one thing became increasingly clear: If Lee really wanted to sign with the Yankees or the Rangers ... then why was all of this time beginning to pass?

The answer came emphatically toward midnight ET on Monday: Lee's love for playing in Philadelphia was genuine. His three months there in 2009 were bliss, and even though they sent him packing, there were no hard feelings.

This is a guy who left millions in guaranteed money on the table to sign a five-year deal with the Phillies worth $120 million, with a vesting option for a sixth year that could make the package worth somewhere close to $147 million.

This is a guy who turned down Yankees money -- $150 million over seven years -- which is something no free agent does, ever. In today's Yankees-centric baseball world, odds are greater that you'll see a pack of starving dogs running past the butcher shop, ignoring an open door and an offer of free bones and leftovers, before you'll see a free agent thumbing his nose at their zillions.

The Rangers, according to longtime beat man T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com, offered $138 million over six years with an option for a seventh season.

I mean, really.

Lee left how many bones on the table?

This dude either ate some bad beef jerky while spending too much time alone up in his hunting blind ... or Cliff Lee just became the sanest and most admirable man in the game.

The Phillies' new top four (2010 stats)
Pitcher W-L ERA K/BB
Roy Halladay 21-10 2.44 219/30
Cliff Lee 12-9 3.39 185/18
Roy Oswalt 13-13 2.76 193/55
Cole Hamels 12-11 3.06 211/61

Imagine a guy following his heart instead of following the money.

Imagine a guy actually sitting back and thinking, "Ya know, that $150 million is awfully tempting, but I think my family and I can make it on this here $120 million." Oh, the humanity!

Good for Lee, and good for his agent, Darek Braunecker.

For the Phillies, maybe this is a case of general manager Ruben Amaro correcting what even he came to admit was a mistake in dealing Lee to Seattle a year ago on the same day he acquired ace Roy Halladay.

Not that Amaro thought acquiring Halladay was a mistake. He didn't, and it wasn't. Halladay easily won the NL Cy Young award, he fired a perfect game in Florida in May and he opened the playoffs by no-hitting Cincinnati.

But there were those at the time who wondered, "Why not both?" Why not keep Lee for the final season of his contract even after acquiring Halladay?

When the Phillies acquired Roy Oswalt from Houston last July, it seemed to fill a void they could not fill even while exchanging Lee for Halladay.

Cliff Lee enjoyed his previous tenure with the Phillies, and their fans certainly will welcome him back. (US Presswire)  
Cliff Lee enjoyed his previous tenure with the Phillies, and their fans certainly will welcome him back. (US Presswire)  
Now, with Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Cole Hamels fronting their staff heading into 2011, Philadelphia might have a rotation for the ages. This could be better than Atlanta's Maddux-Smoltz-Glavine staff of the 1990s. Could be better than the Pettitte-Wells-Cone staff that led the 1998 Yankees to 114 victories, plus 11 more in the postseason.

After winning the World Series in 2008 and returning to the Fall Classic in 2009, a Phillies team with Halladay and Lee certainly will be favored to play in its third World Series in four seasons in 2011.

Now, Ryan Howard might whiff in every at-bat once they get there but, you know, Lee's presence can do only so much.

No, whatever happens down the line, this is the coup of the winter right here. Cliff Lee back to Philadelphia. Texas and the Yankees back to the drawing board. Who could have seen this one coming?

It's stunning, and yet it's so perfect that the Phillies will not even have to fit Lee for a uniform.

Surely, there are a couple left from '09, when Lee went 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA over 12 starts after the Phillies acquired him from Cleveland ... and when he went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts for them.

Maybe those Yankees fans who harassed Kristen Lee, Cliff's wife, in Yankee Stadium during the playoffs made a terrible strategic blunder.

Sometimes, in the end, what goes around, comes around. Quite literally, in Philadelphia.

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