ARLINGTON, Texas -- If not for a last-ditch effort by the Philadelphia Phillies, Cliff Lee might be heading to the mound in Philadelphia this weekend wearing a Texas Rangers uniform.
So how close did he really come to returning to the club that he helped take to its first World Series?
Pretty close. The Rangers stepped well out of their comfort zone in an effort to sign the front-line starter, but in the end Lee's own comfort zone was in Philadelphia.
As Lee prepares to face his old team on Saturday, here's a look back at the timeline of events once the offseason started based on the recollections of those involved in the negotiations and team meetings as well as published reports.
Meeting over lunch (Little Rock, Ark.)
During Lee's four-month stay in Texas, the Rangers were careful to let him focus on pitching and not get bogged down by the impending free-agency period. But they also made it clear to him that they wanted him on the club for the long term.
So shortly after the season ended, Rangers president (and now CEO) Nolan Ryan, managing general partner Chuck Greenberg, who has since left the organization, and general manager Jon Daniels flew to Little Rock, Ark., to meet with Lee, his wife Kristen and agent Darek Braunecker. This first offseason meeting took place at The Copper Grill and Grocery, a place known for a variety of menu choices including peach glazed pork tenderloin.
The two-hour lunch was a chance for the Rangers to sell themselves as a comfortable place that was close to home.
"They were aggressive in their interest of Cliff and he talked about how much he enjoyed playing there," Braunecker said. "They stressed that they weren't going to be able to spend the most money, but that the value might be just as good based on the fact that there was no state income tax."
That was a point Greenberg stressed in the meeting, wanting to be sure that Lee looked at how far a dollar could go in Texas as opposed to in New York and other places.
It was also at lunch that Lee first mentioned how much he liked playing in Philadelphia, comparing it to the time he had in Texas after he was traded along with reliever Mark Lowe for a group of minor leaguers headlined by switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak in early July.
At that time, Philadelphia had checked in with Braunecker to express interest. But the Phillies weren't pursuing Lee then as seriously as the Rangers and Yankees, who also made a pilgrimage to Little Rock.
One topic broached at that lunch encounter was the idea of getting creative with Lee's contract in terms of various benefits that could be added. Braunecker floated the idea of a lifetime contract, maybe even some sort of optional ownership in the club after Lee was finished playing.
"We thought since Cliff was from Arkansas and it was close to home that it could be a deal where he was committed beyond his playing years," Braunecker said. "They said they'd consider that and a number of factors."
The Rangers got the sense the Lee family was interested in Texas, but wanted to see what the market would bear and let the process play itself out.
"We left that meeting feeling like they had an interest in coming back," Ryan said. "We expressed to them that we had an interest in trying to work out a proposal to them that would be satisfactory."
Return to Little Rock
After weeks of discussion, the Rangers again flew a contingent out to Little Rock. This time it was Ryan and Daniels meeting with the Lees and Braunecker less than a week before the winter meetings.
The Rangers came ready to discuss parameters of a deal and made an offer of their own of five years at about $100 million. Both sides knew it was a starting point.
Lee told the Rangers he was appreciative of the offer and knew it was more than the club wanted to do when the offseason began. Braunecker already had a five-year offer on the table from another team -- it's unclear who that was -- and was confident he could get to six years. The market was heating up for Lee.
All along, Ryan worried the Yankees or someone else would swoop in and make an offer that no one could touch.
"We realized when we made the trade there was a chance that we wouldn't be able to re-sign him," Ryan said. "I hoped we would, but I knew if New York or Boston or some other ballclub got into it that the price was going to be past what we could do."
Ryan stressed how he enjoyed playing near home during his career.
"He talked about how much it meant to him to be in Houston and then Texas," Braunecker said. "He said it was important to consider that comfort no matter where Cliff went."
Both sides agreed that they'd speak again at the winter meetings. Braunecker told the Rangers he would keep them informed of any updates and that they remained extremely high on Lee's list.
The winter meetings (Orlando, Fla.)
The first team Braunecker met with in Orlando at the Swan and Dolphin Resort in Walt Disney World was the Rangers. He told them his plan for the next 72 hours and that he wanted to talk to teams, get some offers and see what happened.
Sunday night, hours before the winter meetings officially kicked off, the Washington Nationals agreed to a $126 million, seven-year deal with 31-year-old slugger Jayson Werth.
"All of a sudden, there's a seven-year market for a 30-something-year-old player," Braunecker said. "I wanted to gauge Cliff's market now, circle back to Texas and see what happened."
Things picked up quickly after Werth signed and then Carl Crawford signed with Boston, surprising many that it wasn't the Yankees or Angels, altering the market further. That shoved the Angels into the Lee sweepstakes and by Wednesday, Braunecker said he had two teams talking about seven-year deals.
He shared that news with the Rangers.
"They were shocked," Braunecker said.
That's when the Rangers asked Braunecker what it would take to sign Lee, something Ryan discussed with the media that week. Texas wanted Lee's camp to put some parameters together to see if they could stay in the sweepstakes.
After talking it over with Cliff and Kristen, Braunecker decided it wasn't how they wanted to go about the negotiations. He made that public, telling ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick the next day that his camp didn't want to participate in "the unconventional negotiating style."
The Rangers decided to make one last try.
Final flight and offer (Little Rock, Ark.)
As the winter meetings came to a close, the club asked if it could send another contingent to Little Rock to meet with Lee.
That trio did not include Ryan or Daniels. Ryan had previous commitments that he could not break and Daniels' family was on its way to Disney World for a rare vacation.
So Greenberg, assistant general manager Thad Levine, who handles many of the club's contracts and negotiations, and co-chairman of the board Ray Davis flew to Little Rock for another meeting in Braunecker's office.
They had a proposal ready and presented it to the Lees. It contained two options for the pitcher. He could take a six-year, $120 million deal or a six-year, $108 million deal with $30 million deferred over a 15-year period starting when he was 50. That was part of the "menu" of options that Greenberg mentioned on a conference call with reporters after the meeting was over. The deals could also include a seventh year, but it was not guaranteed and the details would have to be ironed out.
As the meeting closed, Davis spoke about the decision Lee faced.
"He talked about how he made some tough decisions in his life and some of them he regretted," Levine said. "He was great. He just said Cliff had to make the best decision he could for him and his family and be content with it and he shared some of his personal stories about that."
Braunecker called in his accountants to analyze the offers and collected information from other teams. They explored the possibility of Lee taking up residency in Texas to take advantage of the tax break, but Lee wanted to keep his home in Little Rock and wasn't going to move his kids out of school.
"I was starting to feel there must be something out there we were unaware of," Ryan said. "I wasn't sure if it was the Yankees sweetening the offer or something else in the picture I wasn't aware of."
Shortly after the Rangers' contingent left Arkansas, the Phillies jumped back in. A whirlwind weekend ensued with the Lees eventually stating their preference for Philadelphia if a deal could be hammered out. Braunecker wanted all the final offers on the table, so he called the Rangers back and asked if they'd guarantee the seventh year. Lee didn't say he'd go to Texas for sure if the club guaranteed that year, but it would have given him even more to think about.
The Rangers weren't willing to do that.
Despite a huge offer from the Yankees and interest from the Angels, in addition to the Rangers' offer, the Lees decided on Philadelphia. Braunecker got the final deal worked up with the Phillies and Lee called Daniels to tell him the news.
The Rangers then shifted to the rest of the offseason and prepared to defend their American League crown without Lee at the head of the rotation.
"You're disappointed that you weren't able to get it done because you know that you don't have an opportunity very often to acquire a pitcher of that caliber and what he could mean to an organization," Ryan said. "But also, the conservative side of you is somewhat relieved because you don't have that financial obligation hanging over your head for a very long period of time. There's no way of predicting what happens down the road."
One thing Ryan won't be doing is picturing Lee in a Rangers uniform and playing the "what if" game. He doesn't see the point in that.
"That thought has never crossed my mind, the 'if we would have had him' [idea]," Ryan said. "I moved on when they moved on."
Richard Durrett covers the Texas Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.