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Once demoted, Cliff Lee became an ace

Texas Rangers starting pitcher Cliff Lee delivers to

Texas Rangers starting pitcher Cliff Lee delivers to the New York Yankees in the first inning of a regular season game. (Aug. 11, 2010) Credit: AP

When the Cleveland Indians demoted Cliff Lee midway through the 2007 season, the struggling lefthander could have reacted any number of negative ways. Surely he wouldn't have been the first major-leaguer banished to the minors to, say, complain, protest, mope, moan or - heck - even give up.

Instead, Lee chose a different path. He moved on.

In what is clearly defined as the turning point of his blossoming career, Lee responded to the tough-love treatment by the Indians by looking only forward, not behind. "I didn't want to be that bitter guy in Buffalo," Lee has said.

It took Lee only one year to transform himself from a Triple-A has-been to Cy Young award winner, going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA in 2008. He's been one of baseball's most dominant starters ever since, and on Monday night, he turned down big-money offers from the Yankees and Rangers, choosing instead to return to the Philadelphia Phillies for five years and a reported $100 million.

"The way he handled being sent down, I think that's what led to what's happening now," said Mark Balisterri, Lee's high school coach who has remained friendly with him. "A lot of guys would have put blame places and maybe burn some bridges, but he had a good attitude about it.

"He knew he had to do some work and he did that. His work ethic in the off-season, I think it changed from that point. Not that he didn't work hard before, but you could just tell he was into it more."

Ultimately Lee places the blame for his woeful 2007 season (5-8, 6.29 ERA) on an abdominal injury suffered early in the year that he never recovered from. So he made it his goal in the weight room that next winter to strengthen his core muscles to make his body more durable.

Over the last three seasons Lee is 48-25 with a 2.98 ERA and 1.12 WHIP, numbers that are so impressive that it's even more stunning that he's played for four teams in that span. Having been traded from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Seattle and finally to Texas, it's understandable that he relished the chance this off-season to finally choose his employer.

Described by friends as easy-going and unassuming, Lee spends his off-seasons with his wife and two kids in Benton, Ark., a small town of about 30,000 that has been his home all his life.

"I could move pretty much anywhere," Lee told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2008. "But my family's there and my wife's family's there. It's what I know. I don't think I'll ever leave. It's my home."

Shane Pigue, who owns the gym in Benton where Lee works out during the off-season, said he blends in with everyone else to the point where you'd never be able to pick him out.

Sometimes, for fun, Pigue will point out Lee to one of his employees and explain that he's a major-league pitcher who makes millions of dollars. Inevitably, Pigue said, they think he's joking.

"Now if someone told them that he's a professional hunter, they would believe that," Pigue said, "because that's what he's all about."

If hunting is Lee's passion, then hometown pride is a close second. Balisterri said Lee works out with the high school baseball team every January, buys the players cleats before every season and even bankrolled the players' championship rings after they won the state title in 2009.

Being around Lee gives the Benton youngsters a look into what Balisterri describes as the ideal mindset for an athlete. And based on Lee's past three seasons, it's hard to argue.

"He's got one of those care-free attitudes," Balisterri said. "Not that he doesn't care, but he knows sometimes he's going to be good enough and sometimes he's not. He doesn't let the 'nots' stay in his head.

"That's how he keeps his confidence."

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