NEW YORK - At some point, it seems, Cliff Lee figured it wasn't about the money anymore.
Baseball’s hottest free agent could have had $150 million and a spot on the biggest stage in the game with its most successful team — the New York Yankees, winners of 27 World Series.
Instead, the star pitcher got up from the table and left $30 million behind.
He picked the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of just two titles in more than a century — and a team that brusquely traded him to Seattle after he led it into the World Series in 2009.
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The Phillies will give him $120 million guaranteed over the next five seasons, according to several people familiar with the deal.
Why does a guy leave all that money behind?
Apparently, because he had all he needed — something that agents and others in the financial end of baseball say happens more than you might expect.
Plus, Lee and his family liked Philadelphia, and his wife had complained that New York fans were rude and spat at the Rangers’ wives during the American League Championship Series this fall when Lee was pitching for Texas, his other big suitor this offseason.
“Players seem to like living here,” Phillies chairman Bill Giles said. “There’s nice housing – and not as expensive as some other places if you want to buy or rent. The schools are good. I think our front office and manager and coaches have a good reputation around baseball right now as being good people.”
Lee’s move was the buzz of baseball Tuesday. He is expected to take a physical and seal the deal today in Philadelphia.
“That’s the most I’ve ever seen a player walk away from,” former Mets general manager Omar Minaya said. “It’s unprecedented.”
The Yankees are used to flexing their financial muscle to land free agents of their choosing. Baseball’s top four salaries this year belong to players in pinstripes: Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, whose combined $100.5 million exceeded the entire payrolls of all but eight major league teams.
Perhaps the last time a premier free agent turned down this much money relative to his salary was in December 1992, when Greg Maddux stayed with the Atlanta Braves for $28 million over five years. He declined a $34 million offer from the Yankees that agent Scott Boras said could have escalated to about $38 million.
“The four primary factors are winning, family, the geographical and economics,” Boras said Tuesday. “Maybe 30 percent of the players are where the focus is primarily economic. The vast majority want to meld those four factors. Only about 20, 25 percent of players take the biggest deal. They often take the secondary offer.”
The Yankees were ready to offer $150 million to Lee, with $148 million guaranteed over seven years plus $2 million on hand for general manager Brian Cashman to close the agreement. But New York’s money wasn’t enough.
“He really liked Philadelphia. ... The word on the street was that (the trade to Seattle) stunned him, that he really liked that environment,” Cashman said. “And I think that the fact he’s going to Philadelphia proves how much he really enjoyed Philly.”