"That's who he is," said the friend Tuesday morning. "I hear people say 'Cliff Lee's about every last dollar,' but they're wrong, because they don't know him. He decided that he's going to be rich no matter what, so why not play where he wants to play with the guys he wants to live with 10 or 12 hours a day."
What Cliff Lee did was exercise the essential right of free agency, a right not easily earned when one considers how many millions of people are throwing baseballs this afternoon on fields in Orlando or Scottsdale or cages in Storrs, Conn., or Missoula, Mont. Obsessing about what he was offered by the Yankees and the Rangers and what the options could total in Philly are for the intramural tweeting world. What is important is that, in what is likely to be the end of a very successful career, Cliff Lee decided that he wants to play baseball with the teammates of his own choosing.
I get it. I did the Sunday night sideline thing, and the Phillies were my favorite team, and Lee was there before Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt came to town. I understand J-Roll's energy. Chase Utley is the rock of baseball integrity. Ryan Howard has it. Raul Ibanez is not only Eddie Vedder's favorite player, but he, Brad Lidge and Placido Polanco are three of the baseball community's favorites, as well.
We all get C.J. Wilson's 5 a.m. Tuesday tweet: "Carlos Ruiz has the easiest job in America for seven innings every night."
Yes, Lee, Halladay, Oswalt and Cole Hamels were all in the top seven in strikeout-to-walk ratio in their respective leagues last season. Yes, being a pitching mate of Halladay is what it was like to sit next to Greg Maddux, who Derek Lowe and Clayton Kershaw and many others will tell you taught them how to watch and then approach starts.
So this is what Lee wanted to do. Great. This isn't about the 50-Year War between players and owners that Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning and Andy Messersmith fought; they gave Lee this freedom. This isn't about saying he's the highest anything. "This is all about Cliff being Cliff," says his friend.
The man will turn 33 during the season, which is about a week after Labor Day in the human calendar. He should be really good, especially with those teammates to support him and deflect the pressures of unlimited expectations that the public perceives comes with the mercenary territory. He's always been a conditioning freak; when Cliff and his friend went to the gym to work out, Lee began his workouts by jumping up to the bar and doing 200 pull-ups.
He's always been what his friend calls "insanely competitive." One night they were fishing for small-mouth bass after a game in Double-A, and they each pulled in a bass. The friend told Cliff he had him, that his fish was bigger than Lee's. Cliff argued. They measured, and, sure enough, the friend's bass was a half-inch longer.
Lee stood up in the boat, jumped up and down on the fish to flatten and spread him out, measured again and won by a half-inch. "Winning really matters to Cliff," says the friend. You bet your bass.
This is not a guy who really cares about having the fanciest Rolls in the players lot, or a house that will outdo the Tyson Chicken family or the Waltons of Wal-Mart or even the Clinton Library. His dream car is a pickup truck with a trailer hitch for his bass boat, his days spent with his son off where the cameras can't find him.
Because of that, he can seem aloof. He can be distrustful of media, spotlight shy. He wants to throw strikes, pitch for a winning team, be around players with whom he relates and catch the biggest bass. Simple.
We don't know the Phillies are going to win it all in 2011, but we do know they are going to be really good, and that Ruben Amaro, Pat Gillick and Charlie Manuel have provided the city with the greatest run in the history of the franchise.
Bill James and John Dewan project that Lee, Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels will be 63-37. They project Halladay for 245 innings and 190 strikeouts to 38 walks, Lee 216 innings and 169-49, Oswalt 221 and 176-51, Hamels 218 and 209-58.
Lee's strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10.3 (185 strikeouts, 18 walks) in 2010 was the best of the modern era, behind Bret Saberhagen's 11.0 (143 strikeouts, 13 walks) in 1994. Controlling the strike zone is a mark of greatness, as behind Saberhagen and Lee are the monumental 2002 and 2000 seasons of two future Hall of Famers, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez; Schilling was 316-33 for the 2002 D-backs, Pedro 284-32 for the 2000 Red Sox.
The estimable MLB Network historian Elliott Kalb prepared some notes comparing this rotation, with its three Cy Young Awards, to some other greats of the past 50 years. The 1993 Braves rotation of Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and the then-dynamic Steve Avery won eight Cy Youngs. The 1980 Orioles with Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone and 20-game winner Scott McGregor had three Cy Young winners. The 1966 Dodgers had three Hall of Famers in Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton. The best was probably the 1954 Indians with Hall of Famers Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Bob Feller, who went 13-3 at the age of 35, plus Mike Garcia, for a team that was 108-46 and so good that Herb Score -- the best left-hander Ted Williams ever faced -- had to sit in the Minors and go 22-5.
What all of those rotations had in common was that none of them won the World Series.
But Lee didn't sign with the Phillies to guarantee a ring or to be the highest-paid dude in Arkansas. He signed there because it is his right under the collective bargaining agreement to decide where and with whom he chooses to play, which tells you what you need to know about Cliff Lee, and about the Philadelphia Phillies.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.