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Cliff Lee was smart to take best deal, not the most money


Cliff Lee is not a hero. Let's not overdo this, OK? In fact, I can think of a couple of perfectly apt ways to describe what Lee just did when he turned down more money from the Yankees and Rangers to sign with the Phillies. Lee is free to borrow these lines if he'd like.

"Cliff Lee had to do what was best for Cliff Lee."

"I had to take care of my family."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? This is what free agents say when they go for the biggest contract they can find. But it is especially true in Lee's case. He did what was best for himself. He was just smarter about it than most guys are.

The Phillies offered Lee the best deal -- just not the most money, and please don't confuse the two. He took the sure thing. He knows he loves Philadelphia. He loves the organization, the fans, the atmosphere. And the Phillies have the best chance of any team in baseball to win the World Series in the next three years, because they are as good as anybody and play in the weaker league.

Nothing is guaranteed in life, but Lee is more likely to be happy in Philadelphia than he would have been in New York or even Texas. This was not heroic or even that bold. It was a perfectly rational decision, and it's amazing it doesn't happen more often.

I'm going to channel my inner Barenaked Ladies here and ... wait, that doesn't sound right. I'm going to paraphrase a Barenaked Ladies song.

If I had $120 million, and I was getting that money to play baseball, I would want ...

1. To play a in a city I like.

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2. A chance to win.

3. A full no-trade clause.

4. An endless supply of dark chocolate-covered raisins, just because that sounds awesome.

Really, I think all that stuff (except the chocolate-covered raisins, of course) would be more important to me than making another $30 million. Yes, I know: This is easy for me to say. I'm not in Lee's position. No big-league team will pay me to throw my vaunted double-curve -- it curves once as it falls to the ground and again as it bounces back up.

The financial difference between the Yankees' offer and the Phillies' offer will have zero impact on Lee's life, his kids' lives or his grandchildren's lives. First of all, you'd be amazed at how quickly $1 million disappears in New York City -- I left that much as a dinner tip last week, and it was a to-go order. And more importantly, we're talking about eight-figure deals.

It's funny: Thirty years ago, when free agency started to take hold in sports, athletes' salaries pulled away from the salaries of average everyday working people. Second basemen would make $300,000. Pretty soon stars were making $1 million a year and everybody in the majors was into six figures. There was a stretch there when fans felt like they were losing their connection with athletes because salaries were "spiraling out of control."

Now the money is so big that it doesn't seem real. One hundred million? One-twenty? One-fifty? It's all Monopoly money to us. And just like in Monopoly, we accept that the goal is to win -- get the biggest contract you can.

But this is real money and there are real people involved, and they have real-people issues. Schools, working environment, weather, quality of life -- the usual stuff. Smart athletes should realize there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to huge contracts.

If there is a hero in this saga -- and there isn't -- it is Darek Braunecker, Lee's agent. Athletes pay agents a percentage of their salary, so Braunecker left some money on the table when Lee went with the Phillies. Too many agents in Braunecker's position steer their clients toward the biggest possible contract, because that is what's best for the agent. The agent makes the most money that way and can use the deal to lure new clients. Agents prey on athletes' egos -- in sports, money is a symbol of respect, and athletes are suckers for it. That's why a lot of good guys take the most money they can get, regardless of circumstances, and end up hating themselves for it.

Braunecker did right by his client. He got the best offers he could and laid them out for Lee. Then Cliff Lee did what was best for Cliff Lee. Applaud him for turning down the Yankees' money if you want. I'm more impressed that he knows who he is and knows what he wants.