The Best Laid Plans

When the news broke late last night that the Phillies had signed Cliff Lee, my initial reaction was disbelief, then anger. The Yankees need starting pitching (particularly left-handed), they wanted Lee, so by George they deserved to get him. But in the light of day, my considered take is that they of course deserved nothing. They got beaten by the Phillies fair and square. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro not only pulled off the biggest free agent signing of the year — he somehow did it without anyone knowing the Phillies were even interested in Lee until after they’d finished the deal.

Most MLB team owners are curiously timid. They’re content merely to own a team, and to get lucky, perhaps once a decade or so, and have a good season. They wish to succeed on the cheap, to get $200 million of success out of a $90 million lineup. The sort of men who buy fast cars but drive them slow.

I wrote about this a year ago, after the Yankees won the World Series:

Yankees fans don’t feel guilty about the Yankees payroll. It’s not like the team is run at a loss. It’s a business, and their business is winning baseball games. Winning leads to profits from ticket sales, TV, and merchandise; profits are used to sign all-star-caliber talent; and the talent leads to winning.

And I quoted this from a piece by my friend and fellow Yankee fan Khoi Vinh:

It’s pretty safe to say that a good number of those who hate the Yankees because of their payroll are unabashed capitalists, too; they’d be very unlikely to begrudge the fact that the highest valued, best performing organization in any given market also led that market. That’s not just capitalism, it’s the way capitalism is practiced in America.

It’s a virtuous circle, when played well: winning generates money, money pays for talent, talent leads to winning. Where Yankee fans grew spoiled is that for a long time, there were no other teams with a taste for this level of dedication to excellence. The Red Sox, perhaps. But this move, out-bidding the competition1 to add Cliff Lee to a pitching staff that was, already, arguably the best in baseball? It’s the sort of brash move that heretofore would have only been made by the Yankees.

There’s now a second team in baseball that doesn’t just hope to win it all, but expects to.

  1. Don’t fall for the line that Lee took less money to go to the Phillies. He may well have wanted to go back to Philly all along, but the Phillies offered more money than the Yankees or Rangers. ↩︎