CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) – Cliff Lee walked up to the table set up for a group news conference and picked up the placard bearing his name to make sure he was sitting in the right seat.
“I guess I’m in the middle,” Lee said. As usual, his location was right on.
On a staff of aces and team of stars, Lee has been the center of attention since the Philadelphia Phillies opened spring training. From the minute he arrived, he has been followed by cameras and surrounded by microphones. When the five members of the starting rotation talked as a group to reporters upon arriving in camp, most of the questions were directed at Lee.
Roy Halladay is the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have World Series rings. Roy Oswalt has more 20-win seasons and All-Star game appearances than Lee.
Yet everyone is talking about Lee because he’s the new guy and perhaps the one who can help the Phillies win another World Series.
Left fielder Raul Ibanez spent his offseason in Philadelphia instead of returning to his home in Miami. Wherever he went around town, people asked him about one guy.
“Cliff Lee. Right when we got Cliff Lee, they were so excited,” Ibanez said. “Everybody who came up to me was so gracious and so excited about getting Cliff and how they were working on getting their season tickets already. It’s a lot of fun. The fans are phenomenal. What can you say? They’re the best. It was November or December and I was running into people and they were so fired up like spring training was around the corner. And it was still football season. It’s great to be a part of.”
The Phillies stunned the baseball world when they lured Lee away from the Texas Rangers and out of the grasp of the New York Yankees with a $120 million, five-year contract. The left-hander took about $30 million less from the Phillies, spurning the bright lights of the Big Apple for the Liberty Bell and those famous cheesesteaks.
“I like Philly cheesesteaks, but that had nothing to do with me coming back to Philadelphia,” Lee said.
Of course not. Clearly, money wasn’t his top priority, either. Lee got a taste of the World Series with the Phillies in ’09 and the Rangers last year. But he didn’t win a title and he chose Philadelphia because he wants to get over that hump and celebrate a championship parade.
“I could have gotten more money in other places. That really wasn’t what it was all about for me,” Lee said. “It was really three pretty good options to be honest with you. I just honestly stepped back and looked at each team and evaluated. I felt like this is the team that’s going to give me the best chance to win a ring, and hopefully multiple rings. That was what the decision was based on.
“Obviously, the fans had a lot to do with it. They sell out every game. A lot of the stadiums were packed. There was a lot of hype every game. It’s a great feeling playing in that park, and I wanted to come back and do some more of it.”
Lee first joined the Phillies in July 2009 in a trade with Cleveland. He had a sensational postseason, going 4-0 and earning two wins in the World Series. But the Yankees beat Philadelphia in six games.
Lee never wanted to leave, but the team feared it wouldn’t be able to afford him when his contract was up after the season. So, he was dealt to Seattle on the same day Halladay was acquired from Toronto. The Phillies then tried to reacquire Lee last July, but ended up getting Oswalt from Houston instead.
Now they’re all here. Lee, Halladay, Oswalt. Don’t forget Hamels and Blanton. The Phillies have assembled a rotation that could eventually go down as one of the all-time best.
All they care about it is winning the World Series.
“A big part of it for me is not having the best pitching staff in history, but having the best chance to get to the postseason and the best chance to win a World Series,” Halladay said. “To be on a team that has that chance is what every player wants. This is definitely a great group. But I think the ultimate is if it gives you the best chance to get to the postseason and win a World Series.”
Being part of a rotation that has four legitimate aces can make some guys even more competitive. Oswalt and Hamels often talked about trying to outdo each other last year. Halladay always sets a high standard for himself. Lee, however, doesn’t need the extra motivation.
“To be honest with you, I could care less what the guy ahead of me did,” Lee said. “I want to go out there and do the best I can regardless. I hope that we have shutouts every single day. No doubt about it. Obviously, the better they pitch, the better our team does. That’s great.
“But whether the guy that pitched ahead of me the day before threw a complete game shutout or gave up five in the first inning, I’m still going to go out there and do the same thing. I want to get deep in the game, put up as many zeros as I can and give the team a chance to win. That’s it for me.”
Lee was the AL Cy Young Award winner in 2008 when he was 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA for the Indians. He hasn’t come close to matching those numbers since, but has established himself as one of the game’s best postseason pitchers.
He was 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in his first eight playoff starts before losing Games 1 and 5 of the World Series to the San Francisco Giants last year.
Now he enters a season knowing he’s going to finish it with the same team. Lee doesn’t have to worry about trade rumors or wonder where he’ll end up going in July.
“I was glad to get those opportunities to bounce around and play with different organizations, get to play in back-to-back World Series with two different teams,” Lee said. “It was a fun ride, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to be a little more stable about that process and get to experience some more World Series with this team, hopefully multiple times. I definitely want that ring. That’s what it’s all about.”
For Lee, that’s the real center of attention.
(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)