Spring arrives with Lee, Phillies together again

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; D04

IN CLEARWATER, FLA. Suddenly the curtain parted, and they were up on the stage together - baseball's John, Paul, George and Ringo. All that was missing were the screaming, bobby-soxed teenagers in the audience. Onstage, the lads preened and laughed and bantered back and forth, seemingly bemused by the attention - though they were careful not to make the claim the Philadelphia Phillies are bigger than Jesus.

It has come to this with the four-time defending NL East-champion Phillies now - a rock-star news conference Monday afternoon, at the opening day of spring training, to show off their four-ace starting rotation of newcomer/returnee Cliff Lee, reigning Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, veteran Roy Oswalt and tenured lefty Cole Hamels.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Baseball Beatles.

Well, the Phillies also insisted on putting fifth starter Joe Blanton on stage with the others - one supposes that would make him Billy Preston in our Beatles analogy - but that was done presumably to avoid hurting Blanton's feelings, as opposed to placing him in proper company among four accomplished hurlers who, combined, own three Cy Youngs, 13 all-star appearances, six 20-win seasons and four postseason-series MVP awards.

If it was all a bit much - spring training meet-and-greets are best done at locker stalls or under palm trees - at least the Phillies themselves acknowledged as much. Asked whether he think this is one of the greatest starting rotations in history, Lee practically threw up a stop sign before saying, "I think we haven't thrown a single pitch yet. So it's kind of early to say we're one of the best rotations in the history of the game."

Most of the assembled media, in fact, would have been fine with this being a Cliff Lee solo show. It was his signing to a five-year, $120 million contract in mid-December - almost precisely one year after the Phillies traded him to Seattle - that elevated the Phillies' trio of aces to a quartet, raised expectations in Philadelphia to epic levels and engendered comparisons to the mid-1990s Atlanta Braves rotations as the best in recent memory.

Onstage, Lee, who can parry a question as deftly as he can spin a curveball, sat in the middle of the quintet. And he was masterful.

Some New York-based writers, apparently incredulous someone would spurn the Yankees, tried to bait him into admitting there was something nefarious about his dealings with the Phillies. "I could have gotten more money in other places," Lee said, meaning the Yankees. "That really wasn't what it was all about for me. It was really about what team gave me the best chance to win world championships. I think [Philadelphia] is it."

"So it was Phillies all the way then?" one New York-based reporter followed up.

"I mean, I guess, sure," Lee said, the way you would to a 4-year-old bothering you while you're trying to read. "Sure, yeah. Phillies all the way."

Meantime, Philly-area media members peppered him with questions about the fevered expectations up north about this team, and Lee was ready for those, too. "I know there is a lot of hype," Lee said. "Everyone expects [a World Series title]. But that's in October. It's February right now."

Even the inevitable goofball question failed to trip up Lee: Was it his fondness for cheese steaks, someone asked, that made him return to the Phillies?

"I like Philly cheese steaks," Lee said, leaning into his microphone to set up his punch line. "But that had nothing to do with me coming back to Philadelphia."

Silliness aside, there were plenty of forces that converged to bring Lee back to Philadelphia - beginning with the sudden availability of significant payroll dollars when right fielder Jayson Werth turned down the Phillies' offer (believed to be for three years, $48 million) and signed an industry-rocking seven-year, $126 million deal with the Washington Nationals.

There was a desire on the part of Lee to return to a franchise and a city he fell in love with during the 2009 pennant run. "There was obviously a point where I said [to my agent], 'Engage the Phillies. Let's make this happen,' " Lee said. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here."

And there was a concerted effort by the Phillies' management to keep open a window of opportunity that, on some levels, may have been slowly closing, with the core of the team's lineup - Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard - pushing past 30. And in Lee, the Phillies had a target that fit the profile they were looking for, the same one that attracted them to Halladay and Oswalt.

"Talent always plays," General Manager Ruben Amaro said. "But the philosophy of the organization [is], we want good people, championship-caliber people, and we believe these guys are all championship-caliber people, and that makes a difference. . . . They bring more to the table than just being able to pitch well. It makes committing these types of dollars a little more palatable."

And the dollars are immense. The Phillies will be paying their starting rotation $65 million this season, part of an overall payroll that will be in excess of $160 million and could surge past Boston's as the second highest in baseball.

But such cold nods to reality were scarce on Monday, a day the sun shone warmly, the first thwacks of ball-meeting-glove rose over the back fields, and baseball's Beatles began slowly tuning their instruments.

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