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Empire State

View from US: what's another year as Cliff Lee returns to Philadelphia

John Riordan in New York reflects on the Yankees’ latest set-back as Cliff Lee snubs a move to the Bronx.

THERE’S AN INHERENT health warning attached to praising a sports star who has lumped for a pay deal worth a potential $120m over five years instead of what could have been the largest baseball contract of all time.

So with that out of the way: Cliff Lee is a shining light in professional sport.

The much sought-after pitcher had been a dead cert to don the New York Yankees’ pinstripes next season but, in a dramatic turn of events late on Monday, he turned his nose up at a potential $148m over six years ($132m of it guaranteed) and opted to return to the baseball club that got rid of him just 12 months ago, the Philadelphia Phillies.

In a world where Carlos Tevez can’t see the trees for the club director he loathes, it’s interesting that Lee can find it in his heart to return to an organisation who discarded him a year ago on Thursday.

He found out about that trade to the Seattle Mariners on ESPN’s SportsCenter and was forced to reject rumours that he was demanding too much money at Phillie. But it was just business and everyone moved on: there needed to be some leverage for incoming star pitcher Roy Halladay. Nothing personal.

While Halladay lived up to the hype in his new home, Lee found himself moving on to the Texas Rangers in the summer, closer to his Arkansas home.

Lee, who had threatened to derail the Yankees’ 2009 World Series bid while at Phillie, once again rattled New York’s cage with his pitching, pushing Texas to an American League Championship victory over the Bronx Bombers.

There was only one way of restoring the Yankees world order: go out and get Lee.

Despite his wife being spat at by Yankees fans (they didn’t know who she was but still…) and even though he is strongly rooted in a rural lifestyle (favourite hobby: deerhunting), it was thought that the eye-watering money on the table would prove too much of an allure.

That is until the Phillies stepped up to the plate, their clever bunt single ensuring a dramatic walk-off.

The Yankees will never get used to rejection but losing out on a pitcher of Lee’s talent will send tremors of delight around the American League East where the Boston Red Sox have managed to snap up both of their marquee targets: Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford – the latter also spurned the Yankees’ advances.

In the midst of all this, basketball is on the upswing in New York. The Knicks have gone over the heads of a generation and a half of kids in the five boroughs but all of a sudden, they have a star player on their books (Amare Stoudemire) and another one on the way next season (Brooklyn-born Carmelo Anthony).

While their current win streak should end tonight against the Boston Celtics, the mere prospect of this fixture meaning anything again has the city buzzing about the NBA after a long period cowering in the shadows of Midtown side alleys.

This isn’t a changing of the guard by any stretch. But with the Jets imploding and the Giants incomplete, it’s as close to a questioning of the New York hierarchy as there has been in years.

John Riordan is a former Irish Examiner sport journalist, now working freelance in New York.

You can read his previous columns for thescore here.