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Lee deal marks MLB success story

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It would be a stretch to call him the anti-LeBron.

Cliff Lee still will receive the highest average annual value ever for a pitcher on a multi-year deal -- $24 million.

It would be a stretch to say baseball is saved.

The Phillies' signing of Lee, combined with the Red Sox's recent spending, means only that more clubs are acting like the Yankees.

Still, there is a lot to like here, an awful lot.

And it starts with Lee.

His true reasons for spurning both the Yankees and Rangers might never be known. But Lee made his decision for the right reasons. He went to the place he and his wife Kristin wanted most.

Some of Lee's previous teams -- including the Phillies -- strongly implied he was a mercenary, ready to chase every last dollar. His agent, Darek Braunecker, was portrayed as his puppeteer, guiding him toward the largest vault.

Well, no.

Lee's five-year, $120 million contract with the Phillies was $28 million less than the Yankees offered, though the average annual value was higher, sources said.

The deal also was $18 million less than the better of the Rangers' two offers, though the higher Rangers' proposal included significant deferrals.

So, why Philly?

The answers are fairly simple, according to a close friend of Lee's:

- He loved the National League. He loved to hit. He loved being a baseball player, not just a pitcher.

- He enjoyed the team and city during his brief stay with the Phillies in 2009.

- He wanted to be in the same rotation as Roy Halladay and was "devastated" the Phils traded him after '09 rather than put the two of them together.

Ten years ago, before the opening of Citizens Bank Park, the arrival of former general manager Pat Gillick and the franchise's spectacular renaissance, few players viewed Philadelphia as an end-all, be-all destination.

But Halladay and Roy Oswalt waived no-trade clauses to join the Phillies. Lee made an even greater "sacrifice," if you want to call it that, endearing himself to the city's notoriously hard-bitten fans even more.

The flip side, of course, is Lee also rejected the Sons of Steinbrenner and all of their money, making himself the new patron saint of Yankee haters everywhere.

His signing with the Yankees for an outrageous sum would have unleashed yet another torrent of "baseball is dying" analyses, the theory being that the Yankees buy all the best players (not true) and win every year (also not true).

Some will say it's good for the game that the Yankees failed to get Lee. Well, it's not bad for the game that the Yankees are such a hot-button topic year after year, the Miami Heat times 50.

Truth be told, the seven-year signing of Lee actually might have hurt the Yankees long term, saddling them with another older player on a suffocating contract. The Rangers might have caught the same type of break.

Short term, the Yankees will respond with a flurry of activity, signing free agents, offering prospects in trades, lusting after every big name, whether available or not. An overreaction is quite possible -- and that, too, could compromise the team.

But the truly fascinating development is this: The Yankees no longer are the only team with terrific spending power.

The Phillies' 2011 payroll figures to be at least $165 million. The Red Sox, once they complete the Adrian Gonzalez contract, will have added two players for more than $300 million in a single offseason.

Which brings us to the question of competitive balance, and the immediate future of a sport that has only one year left on its collective-bargaining agreement between players and owners.

Both sides should know better than to even entertain the thought of a strike or lockout, particularly when the NFL, NBA and NHL all face work stoppages within the next two years.

The real battle, though, might be not between players and owners but between owners and owners. Low-revenue teams such as the Pirates, A's, Indians and Rays seem to be at more of a financial disadvantage every year, and the latest round of contracts offer further proof.

It's a problem and always will be a problem given the sport's economic setup. Baseball, unlike the other major professional sports, lacks a salary cap. It also is more reliant on local revenue than national, the direct opposite of the NFL.

No matter.

The Phillies' turnaround actually should serve as an inspiration for other clubs.

It's unrealistic to think all 30 teams will one day operate like the Phillies (and the Yankees and Red Sox, for that matter).

But the fact is, more should.

The Cubs, under new ownership, stand a chance. The Dodgers will, too, if they ever get an owner worthy of their brand. Ditto for the Angels if they ever stop negotiating with free agents as if other teams don't exist.

And that's not all.

The Rangers, with new ownership and a new local TV contract, are poised to become a financial superpower. The Nationals, playing in the lucrative DC market, are capable of transforming into one, too.

The Twins, once a low-revenue dreg, used the opening of a spectacular new ballpark to maximum financial advantage.

The Astros are in the process of getting sold. The Marlins will open a new park in 2011. A number of other franchises -- the Mets, Cardinals, Giants, Blue Jays, Mariners and Orioles -- are capable of bigger and better.

If the Phillies can do it, then most teams can.

Get to work.

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