Cliff Lee's return simply stunning

Of all the crazy free-agent sagas in baseball history, where would we rank this one?

Of all the nutty, convoluted, out-of-the-wild-blue-yonder twists and turns in any free agent's plot line, who could top this one?

Apparently, a wise man once told Cliff Lee that what goes around, comes around -- because one very mixed up year later, he's come right back around to the very same Phillies team that traded him, didn't want him and broke his heart.

Wow. How'd THAT happen?

OK, suppose you had fallen asleep last December, had some major sleep-deprivation issues to make up for and then finally awakened this week to the news that Lee had just agreed to a five-year, $100-plus million deal with the Phillies.

If you'd had no idea what had gone down in between, you'd have said, "Yeah, sure. Well, of course he did."

But now think about these past 52 weeks. It was one year ago that the Phillies' brass arrived home from the winter meetings and concluded they couldn't sign Lee, so they traded him -- as far away as geographically possible, to the distant 206 area code.

And then, 362 days later, they arrived home from another winter meetings and turned right around and signed the same guy they couldn't sign?

Huh? How'd that happen?

But hang on here. The ironies keep on coming.

It was also one year ago that the Phillies first tried to trade Joe Blanton to carve out the payroll space to keep Lee around and determined that wasn't possible -- so they traded Lee instead.

And now, here we are, 52 weeks down the trail, and guess how the Phillies are about to find the dollars to fit that very same Cliff Lee into their 2011 payroll? How else? By trading away that very same Joe Blanton. Of course.

Just more proof that there has never been a greater invention, in the history of the planet, than the good old-fashioned mulligan.

It's a remarkable turn of events, all right -- one the Yankees definitely didn't see coming, one the Rangers definitely didn't see coming, one pretty much nobody else in baseball saw coming.

Which is why the phone rang in this reporter's household after midnight Monday night, and a highly ranked official on another National League team was asking, pretty much at the top of his lungs: "Did the Phillies just sign Cliff Lee?"

And when the answer was, "Well, he's coming to Philadelphia, if that's what you mean," the official on the other end of the line had this reaction, also pretty much at the top of his lungs:

"Holy [colorful adjective] [colorful noun]."

"I don't know how they do it," said the same guy, after catching his breath. "But between Pat [Gillick] and Ruben [Amaro Jr.], when they want something at a high level, they find a way to get it done."

Yeah, apparently. How they found a way to get THIS deal done, though, is the kind of tale major motion pictures are made of.

To get this deal done, the Phillies had to station themselves strategically just off to the side of Lee's massive stage so that no one ever noticed them -- but amazingly, they were always there.

And then, when crunch time arrived, they were still right there -- positioned, exactly how they'd planned it, so that if Lee REALLY wanted to come back to Philadelphia, and if he REALLY was having a tough time persuading himself to go pitch in Texas or New York, and if he REALLY was willing to leave enough money and years on the table, that they might be just the alternative he was looking for.

Well, voila. Apparently, he was looking for that alternative all along. Who knew?

But to head right back where he started from, Lee had to leave somewhere in the neighborhood of about $30 million on the table. Say those words to yourself slowly now so they sink in:

Thirty … million … dollars.

Who does that?

The Yankees were willing to guarantee Lee $154 million for seven years. And instead, he picked a five-year deal worth around $120 million? Astounding.

Does anyone out there remember anything like this -- a player who'd been portrayed as being obsessed with getting every possible dollar out there, who then decided he didn't really need, like, 30 million of those dollars after all? Unbelievable.

"That's amazing," said the same official quoted earlier. "This just proves that nobody [in the media, presumably] really knows anything. Everybody figured this guy was going to go where the dough was -- and they couldn't possibly have been more wrong."

Yeah, well, maybe if he'd decided to sign with the Pirates, for two years and $3.6 million, everybody could possibly have been more wrong. But we get the idea.

So where do these nutty theories come from, anyway? Uh, here's another one of those crazy ironies:

Didn't this one actually START with the Phillies?

After all, why'd they trade the guy last December, anyhow? They traded him because they were convinced he wanted to go test the market and hit the CC Sabathia super-lotto jackpot. That's exactly why. And they made sure just enough people knew that was why that it planted a few ideas in more than a few heads.

But then Lee started telling people that wasn't true -- and not many folks believed that. Then his former teammates in Philadelphia started confiding that THEY thought it wasn't true -- and not many folks believed that, either.

Apparently, it was true after all.

Whaddaya know?

Now we don't need to get too carried away here. Nobody needs to hang any Selfless Heroes of 2010 medals on this guy. He's still about to become the sixth starting pitcher in history to sign a $100 million contract. So it looks as though he'll still be able to afford that new toaster oven, if we've done our calculations correctly.

But just as his new teammate, Roy Halladay, decided last December that he'd rather be in Philadelphia than be the richest pitcher who ever lived, now Clifton Phifer Lee has made virtually the exact same decision.


Boy, he must have really loved those cheesesteaks.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.