By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
On a Sunday afternoon in July, Cliff Lee sits alone by his locker in the Texas Rangers' clubhouse. A handful of his teammates have gathered a few feet to his left around the lockers of Ian Kinsler and Michael Young, joking and chatting, but Lee, dressed in a gray Rangers T-shirt and blue workout shorts, doesn't join in. The night before, the newest Texas pitcher's locker was across the room near the entrance to the showers. Today, he's situated in the row of star players next to Nelson Cruz, Kinsler and Young.
"I just found myself over here," Lee says about his locker as Kinsler sings along with Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," but Lee just as well could be talking about his new team.
Rumors swirled for weeks last summer that Lee would be traded by the Seattle Mariners, who had started the season with a woeful 19-31 record. Lee's contract was expiring at the end of the season, and the Mariners were ready to deal—most likely to the New York Yankees. The trade would have allowed Lee to join last year's World Series champions and reunited him with CC Sabathia, his teammate for parts of seven seasons in Cleveland.
With the Indians, Sabathia and Lee won back-to-back American League Cy Young Awards in 2007 and 2008, and the two southpaws and their wives became close friends. So when the sports grapevine reported that the defending champs had snagged Lee in exchange for a group of minor leaguers, he called his buddy to confirm. Lee says Yankees' management had been asking Sabathia questions about him, and Sabathia told him the trade was "close to happening."
"With all the rumors and the news, yeah, it looked like it was going to happen, but it didn't," Lee says. "I'm here, so you never know what's going to happen until something's finalized."
Finding himself in a new city is old hat for Lee. The Rangers marked his fourth team in a year, and although Arlington isn't where he expected to end up, Lee appears relieved to be settled.
"I'm hoping this is the last time I have to go through this ordeal," he says the day after his first start in a Rangers' uniform against the Baltimore Orioles.
His 9-year-old son Jaxon, who survived a leukemia diagnosis as a 4-month-old when he was given only a 30 percent chance to survive, and 7-year-old daughter Maci already love it in Texas, Lee says. Arlington is "a new vacation spot" for them, and it's "closer to home in Arkansas" than any of his previous stops. But he can't say whether he'll stay in Texas for the long term.
"I'm here. I'm going to try to help this team win," he says. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."
That bridge, for both Lee and the Rangers, is here. The team stepped onto it after Lee surrendered a three-run homer to Edgar Renteria in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the World Series. The loss ended the Rangers' season and renewed the battle between Texas and New York for the services of 32-year-old free agent Lee, who, despite two losses in the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, added to an impressive postseason résumé with dominant performances against the Tampa Bay Rays and Yankees.
Today, four months after Rangers Baseball Express LLC outbid Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Houston businessman Jim Crane to acquire the team for $593 million in a contentious late-night bankruptcy auction, the team has a rejuvenated fan base and a wad of cash from its first World Series appearance.
The big question for fans in the offseason is: How hungry are the new owners to finally bring home a World Series championship? It took the team 39 years just to reach its first series. How long until the next one?
The answer, of course, hinges a lot on money.
Aided by the fat wallets of its investors made up of mostly local oil men—notably Ray Davis of Dallas and Bob Simpson of Fort Worth—postseason profits and a new 20-year television contract with Fox Sports Southwest that begins in 2015 and has been estimated to be worth somewhere between $1.6 billion and $3 billion, RBE has a real shot to again wrest Lee from the hands of the hated Yankees. (They're hated chiefly because the team is willing to pay whatever it costs to win. Plus, they're from, you know, New York.)
Lee's contract is only part of a pricey puzzle facing RBE. The group also must fill the gaping hole at designated hitter and possibly sign AL Most Valuable Player Josh Hamilton and starter C.J. Wilson to long-term contract extensions. RBE must also deal with the expiring contracts for team president Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels, whose artful trades landed Lee, Hamilton, AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz and All-Star Elvis Andrus. (Daniels also hired Ron Washington, runner up in the AL Manager of Year voting, who received a two-year contract extension shortly after the season.)
All the pieces are in place to keep the Rangers in contention in 2011 and beyond, but exactly how RBE plans to utilize its resources is a mystery as Major League Baseball heads into its winter meetings Monday through December 9 at Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando, Florida, where general managers huddle with agents, players and fellow GMs aiming to improve their teams.