Virtually no one could understand why Philadelphia dealt Lee to Seattle for three mediocre prospects a year ago at the same time the club was acquiring Roy Halladay from Toronto. Then the Mariners sent him to the Rangers in July even though the Yankees tried to make a deal for him then.
Fans were angered and bewildered. Philadelphia could have had Halladay and Lee in the same rotation for all of 2010. But because Lee was to become a free agent after the season and the team was concerned about his contract demands, he was sent packing.
Management also said it was imperative to restock the farm system.
That became a hard sell to a fan base that has produced 123 consecutive sellouts at Citizens Bank Park. And for a team that came up short in the 2010 National League Championship Series.
Letting Lee go was obviously a regrettable mistake. The questioning reached the point where general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. refused to talk about it.
But to Amaro's credit he has wiped away the ugly blemish of an otherwise brilliant track record. In about 18 months, he has made a deal for Lee, traded for Halladay, traded for Oswalt and now gotten Lee back.
While the baseball world was waiting to learn whether the 32-year-old Lee, the No. 1 free-agent pitcher on the market this offseason, would choose either the Yankees or Rangers, the Phillies came in through the back door and when nobody was looking nabbed the coveted pitcher, who was as shocked as the fans were when he was traded to Seattle.
Philadelphia tried to trade for Lee in July, but failed and instead got Roy Oswalt from Houston.
Manager Charlie Manuel told me at breakfast one morning during last week's Winter Meetings that his team had interest in Lee, but all the buzz was that it was between the Yankees and the Rangers.
Like most of the other reporters, I felt the Yankees and their reported $160 million offer over seven years would prevail. And, if not that, Lee would stay with the Rangers for less because it was close to his Arkansas home.
"I'm as excited as I can be," Manuel told me early Tuesday morning. "I told you he probably didn't want to go to New York. All along, he told me he wanted to come back to Philadelphia. It's absolutely fantastic. The rotation is just awesome now."
When Lee chose the Phillies, he left somewhere between $20 million and $40 million on the table over what he could've earned if he had accepted a guaranteed seven-year deal.
MLB.com's Todd Zolecki reported that the contract is for five years, is worth in the range of $120 million and includes a vesting option that could make the deal a six-year pact.
In this era of money-driven decisions, what Lee has done is refreshing -- a message to agents and players whose decisions are based solely on dollars.
This is a bright day for other teams. The Yankees are the richest team in the Major Leagues and almost always get what they want by merely opening the checkbook. Lee told them his comfort zone was more important than dollars, even though $120 million is an unbelievable amount of money.
Despite being disappointed by Lee's decision, Rangers GM Jon Daniels said it best Monday night: "People rag on players for following that last dollar. Cliff didn't do that. I have a lot of respect for him."
As the clock approached midnight ET on Monday and the phone began to ring non-stop with rumblings of Lee's choice, it brought back memories of December 1978.
The Phillies went all out for Pete Rose, the No. 1 free agent that offseason. Just when it appeared Philadelphia, Pete's personal choice, was out if it, some creative financial maneuvering by then-vice president Bill Giles made it work. Rose helped Philadelphia win the 1980 World Series.
Now, the Phils have what may be the greatest four-pitcher rotation in Major League history.
They have Halladay, a two-time Cy Young Award winner; Lee, a Cy Young winner; Cole Hamels, MVP of the 2008 World Series; and Oswalt, 2005 NLCS MVP. The foursome has 13 All-Star Game appearances between them.
One night before a Rangers-Orioles game in Baltimore, I visited with Lee and mentioned how much the fans in Philadelphia missed him. Without hesitation, he told me he enjoyed the experience there and missed the teammates he had become so close to after he arrived in 2009.
"It's a wonderful atmosphere there," he said.
In just two months he led the Phillies to their second consecutive World Series appearance. He was 4-0 in the postseason, including two victories over the Yankees in the World Series -- the Phils' only two victories as they lost in six games.
With the San Francisco Giants winning this year's World Series with awesome starting pitching, and Atlanta and Florida improving in the NL East, Philadelphia needed to better itself for 2011.
My thought all along was that seldom does a team have such a superb core of players -- Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, et al -- in their primes. It may be decades before the franchise is again in such a position.
The Phillies have won four consecutive NL East titles, but after winning the World Series in 2008, they came up short the next year and didn't get past the NLCS in 2010.
When Lee left, I kept talking about seizing the moment, reasoning that years from now, they might wish they had done everything in their power to win now. They may never have a better opportunity.
They owed that to the fans who have filled Citizens Bank Park seats for 123 consecutive games and turned Philadelphia from a football town to a frenzied baseball town.
Obviously, Amaro and team president Dave Montgomery realize this and have put their often-conservative approach behind.
And Cliff Lee wants to be a part of it.
What was it W. C. Fields said?
"On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
Obviously, Cliff Lee feels the same way.